Don’t Call Him “Tootsie”: Gender and TOOTSIE

2 June 2013

Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is an unemployed actor with and elitist complex.  Desperate for a role, Michael disguises himself as a woman and auditions for Southwest General, a daytime drama.  To his surprise he gets the role under the pseudonym Dorothy Michaels. While pretending to be a woman, Dorothy meets Julie (Jessica Lange), a Southwest General costar, which complicates Michael’s lukewarm relationship with Sandy (Teri Garr), who knows nothing about her lover’s cross-dressing double life.  Dorothy spends more time with Julie and develops strong feels for her, even though Julie’s father, Les (Charles Durning), develops feelings for Dorothy.  (Yep, as complicated as a Shakespeare comedy in its mistaken identity motif.) Meanwhile, balancing his real life with his life as Dorothy grows increasingly complicated for Michael.  Eventually, Michael comes clean…on live television.   During a segment of Southwest General, Michael reveals himself to be a man, leaving the future potential of Michael and Julie’s relationship up in the air.

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Since its release in 1982, critics and fans of Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie have been debating whether or not the film affirms or protests gender roles, meaning the prescribed characteristics society places on each sex (i.e- men earn money but are not emotional, while women are highly emotional, nurturing maternal figures).  Some argue Tootsie perpetuates negative and oppressive stereotyping of genders: the men, namely Michael, are aggressive, bold, and sexually driven, while the women, namely Julie, are submissive, feminine, and beautiful.  And, this is true; these stereotypes are present in Tootsie.  Moreover, those who argue the film endorses the assignment of gendered roles also point to the film’s conclusion as further evidence.  Although Michael takes on the woman’s role for most of the film, and through that learns, first-handedly, of the plights that go along with the women’s gender role, he returns to Michael, his original, male role, in the end.  Thus, the film experiments in breaking gender roles, but rectifies its experimentation by returning the sexes to their assigned role as a resolution, perhaps suggesting the film approves these roles and promotes their continuation.

However, just because the film recuperates does not mean it does not boldly (and comedically) confront gender roles. In its comedic way, the entire film is an exploration into how classifying individuals by gender is absurd.  As Dorothy, Michael has the unique opportunity of seeing how a woman is treated, and he is less than impressed by this treatment.  In fact, during a taping of Southwest General, Dorothy tells the show’s director, Ron, who insists on calling Dorothy “tootsie,”, “Alan is always Alan, Tom is always Tom, and John is always John.  I have a name too.  It is Dorothy. Capital D-o-r-o-t-h-y.”  Comedically, the moment is rich with dramatic irony; the audience watches Michael (dressed as a woman) blast his boss for calling him “tootsie” because it is not his name, but insists that this person call him Dorothy, which the audience knows is also not his name.  Yet, amid all this ironic absurdity lies a clever point about gender roles; as a generalization, in the early 1980s (when Tootsie was made) and even true today, the “macho” men role players freely addressed women with pet names, which degrade and remove identity from the woman.  Connected to that, “passive” women role players allow the behavior.  Dorothy does not allow this behavior in Tootsie and finds a voice to confront it.  Evident from this scene, even in one of Tootsie’s wittiest moments the film does slyly confront an issue stemming from how each sex plays out the roles prescribed to them by gender.

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At a later point in the film, Michael, who becomes absolutely overwhelmed with playing both gender roles, confides to his manager, George (Sydney Pollack), “I went in the ladies room and almost pissed in the sink!  I’m in trouble man.”  Once again, a brilliant comedic moment, but also a well made point about negative effects of gender, and this time the point focuses on the link between gender roles and identity.  Put another way, Michael’s line highlights that people’s thoughts and actions are intrinsically linked to the role assigned to them by their gender classification.  Michael’s in trouble because the acquired norms of his male role are different from the norms of the female role he is acquiring, and his crisis arises when he nearly fails to perform the correct role.  He is in trouble because, in changing his gender, he has changed everything about himself and the way he interacts with the world around him; Michael’s real trouble is a full-blown existential crisis as a result of his gender bending.

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To the argument that Tootsie’s conclusion undercuts the film’s potential to challenge gender stereotyping, how should the film end?  What would Tootsie need to do differently in order to clearly confront the stigmas that perpetuate roles restricting and oppressing both men and women in today’s society?  The truth is, society does not know a world without gender roles.  Even if people sense their harm, or even blatantly see the damage done as a result of the expectations and principles gender roles force on men and women respectively, there is still no way out of gendering society.  To use a contemporary example, girls’ toy isles will always be pink and stocked with dollies, Barbies, and kitchen sets; boys’ toy isles will always be blue and stocked with trucks, actions figures, and play weapons.  According to the principles that society imparts at Target, girls must be feminine, maternally savvy, homemakers for the boys who must be tough workers.  Clearly, this is prescribing identity onto people from birth, which is a problem, and when looked at in this way it is easy to see, but what is still unknown is how to solve the problem.  And, sometimes problems simply continue not because people do not want to make a change, but because they are unsure what change to make.

And so, returning to Tootsie, what more could a 1982 gender-bending film do but address the reality that gender roles are problematic in society and highlight examples of when and where these problems arise.  If one asserts that Tootsie affirms gendering society then that person may be looking too narrowly at Tootsie’s conclusion and missing how much of the film challenges and exposes the roles forced onto people who are categorized by sex.  Tootsie ends the only way it can end, but the film’s ending does not negate the exploration in to gender roles the film experiments with throughout its plot.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 02/06/2013.

One Response to “Don’t Call Him “Tootsie”: Gender and TOOTSIE”

  1. Nice, thought-provoking post. Growing up, movies like Tootsie and Victor/Victoria were a source of exposure to issues that – as a kid – I may not have otherwise been exposed to until much later in life. I’d like to think they helped open my young mind to a spectrum of possibilities and opportunities. Thanks for sharing!

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