5 Lessons "Tootsie" Taught the World

Dustin Hoffman's "Tootsie" made a brief but poignant comeback this week. A 3-minute interview segment from 1998 with the actor discussing his role in the movie somehow just went viral. In it, he discusses an epiphany he had while preparing to play Dorothy Michaels in the 1982 film about why he felt compelled to make the movie.

“I think I’m an interesting woman when I look at myself onscreen," he said he explained to his wife, "and I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character.” He added, “There’s too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.” And he concluded, while fighting back tears, that the film “was never a comedy for me.”

It was never a comedy for me, either. Not even the first time I saw it, in the theater, as a choked-up adolescent. Between the feminist soap-star narrative, the awkward love story between Dorothy/Michael and Jessica Lange’s wounded-butterfly character Julie, and the uncomfortable bits of homophobia that peppered the entire film, it always felt like more of a thoughtful, empowering tearjerker.

Even before Hoffman’s “brainwashed” video hit the big-time this week, “Tootsie” was a movie packed with lessons:

Gender is a social construct. Long before this sort of concept regularly seeped into the mainstream thanks to transgender pioneers from Chaz Bono to Coy Mathis, “Tootsie” was its subtle preacher. How else could one explain straight Julie feeling so confused for being drawn to the matronly Dorothy? Or Julie’s homophobic dad, played by Charles Durning, also falling for Dorothy? Hoffman’s character of Michael came away better for learning this by the end of the film, when he tells Julie, in a way that’s clear to everyone, "I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man."
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People see what they want to see.
Michael passed as Dorothy for so long partly because the people around Dorothy needed her. Her coworkers needed a hero, Julie needed a caretaker, her director needed a star. Eventually, she was even seen as beautiful, despite jabs about her homeliness, because everyone craved that, too.

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It’s useful to walk in someone else’s wig.
Sure, it’s a cliché. But in “Tootsie” we got a powerful reminder. “If this is the story of a guy who becomes a better man for having been a woman, then we have to pick ways that he’s a bad man that are ways he would be exposed to knowledge in by being a woman,” explained the film’s director (and costar) Sydney Pollack in an undated interview on the American Film Institute website. “Well what are those? Relating to a woman, relating to a child, relating to men in general.” By masquerading as a woman, Michael learns to improve them all.

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Drag queens are brilliant.
Seriously, now: Talk about gaining a new (or renewed) appreciation for the age-old artistry. Between the makeup, wig, fake teeth, heels, voice, mannerisms, beard, eyebrows, Adam’s apple, nails and breasts, Michael certainly got it. And by the end of the film, I’m thinking maybe even Middle America dads got it, too (even if it was subconscious).

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Feminists Rock.
Even now, more than 30 years after “Tootsie,” an endless stream of fierce women (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy among them) are eager to distance themselves from the label. But deep inside, so many people—like the entire cast of Dorothy’s soap opera—love feminists, in spite of themselves.

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