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  • Writer's pictureMelanie

Tootsie (1982) : how to bring men into conversations on gender

In Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982), Dustin Hoffman is Michael - an actor who needs money to put a play on. Having a bad reputation, nobody wants to work with him. He decides to disguise as himself as a woman to obtain a role on a soap for a few weeks. But Dorothy Michael is a lot more successful than planned.

The premise of Tootsie reminded me of Mrs Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993). Where Robin Williams did it to see his kids, here it can be seen as a man taking a job he should not have. He has enough privileges and wants more.

To my surprise, it was not that at all. Michael Dorsey was already championing women before he became Dorothy Michaels. He experienced firsthand sexism in the workplace when he became Dorothy. Because he was used to be treated with a white man privilege, he demanded to be treated as such as a woman.

He stood up for all women on the soap set. He asked to be called by his name 'Dorothy' like all the men and not 'honey' or 'sweetheart'. He rewrote his lines, refused the sexy, submissive female trope, stood up to the sleezy director and imposed Dorothy as a strong mature woman.

© Tootsie

It makes sense that someone who has not learnt to accept the way women are treated is more likely to speak up. He realised the gender bias at play. It is an interesting film to bring men to the conversation and make them see it from the women's point of view. Tootsie is quite ahead of its time for that.

When he helps his co-star Stacey with her baby or tries to make her see that the director she is dating is treating her wrong, he gives her his male point of view. As a woman, she thinks and has been taught that men are like that and this kind of guy is desirable. She learns to stand up for herself with the support of her friend Dorothy.

I didn’t find it as a saviour complex because nobody knew he was a man. It was like coming from a woman. I liked that because it didn’t feel like he was mansplaining all these women and he gave them valuable insights into men's actions. Of course, he tried to use the information he got from women as Dorothy to seduce them as Michael but it backfired teaching him a good lesson.

© Tootsie

I also think it is important to mention the take on masculinity and virility. Michael dresses as a woman. He is interested in the dresses he wears as Dorothy, the jewellery and his general appearance. His flat mate tells him several times he is crazy, weird, abnormal. But it never bothers Michael.

He cares about his character. It is interesting to see that it was done at the time but still today you have people who are outraged by Harry Styles posing on the cover of Vogue in a dress. As a disguise, it is accepted but in reality it is like mindsets are stuck in the 1950s.

The only thing that made me cringe is when Michael leaves the show, Stacey tells him that all the progress achieved by his presence as Dorothy has gone. As if not having this woman behaving as a man meant things could go back to what they were.

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