Named one of the top 100 American Films by the American Film Institute, Tootsie was released in 1982, and became the year's blockbuster romantic comedy. The 1980s saw the opening of several films featuring cross-dressing, including Yentl, Victor/Victoria, and Torch Song Trilogy; and yet it was Tootsie that garnered the most critical attention and popular acclaim. The American cultural obsession with cross-dressing surfaces in newspaper stories, television talk shows, children's tales, and movies. Anthropologists, literary critics, and historians all have paid a great deal of attention to cross-dressing, producing studies of hermaphrodites, boy actors, and the politics of camp. Cross-dressing and the treatment of cross-dressing raises, in a relatively concise if somewhat confusing fashion, questions of the construction of gender and sexuality. If a man can dress up successfully as a woman, does that mean that gender itself is merely a performance, albeit a culturally dictated one? What does it mean to "become a woman?" That is, what are our culture's definitions of femininity, and, by implication, masculinity? Upon its release, Tootsie quickly became a focus for popular and critical debate of these questions. Both critics and popular audiences responded to the film's investigation of gender roles as well as its interrogation of what it means to be a woman and what it could mean to be a man.
In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an out-of-work New York actor who dresses as a woman, Dorothy Michaels, in order to land a role in a very successful soap opera, Southwest General. His character, named Emily Kimberley, becomes a fan favorite because of his/her improvised feminist protests on the set. Off stage, Hoffman falls in love with Jessica Lange, another actress in the series, who, thinking Hoffman is a woman, becomes his/her confidante. Finally, Dorothy unmasks, and the movie concludes with a stereotypically happy romantic ending and with Michael's understanding of the difficulties of being a woman. Becoming a woman for Michael means more, the movie implies, than simply shaving more often, wearing makeup, and donning pantyhose. In other words, while pretending to be Dorothy in order to make a living, Michael realizes that it's no easy game to live as a woman in our culture.
Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels are both familiar figures in Hollywood's long history of representations of male-female impersonators in movies such as Pat and Mike, Easy Living, Bringing up Baby, and Some Like It Hot. In fact, Hoffman modeled Dorothy Michaels's mannerisms on Jack Lemmon's Daphne in Some Like it Hot. Tootsie's appeal, however, lies in the way that it moves beyond the farcical transvestitism of its predecessors. Tootsie attempts to be social commentary, not just comedy. Dustin Hoffman's performance in the film does not resemble drag or camp, but rather presents itself as a serious comment about playing a woman in contemporary American culture (just as it is serious business for Michael Dorsey within the context of the movie).
Tootsie quickly became the ground from which to spring feminist critiques of women in mainstream film, including analyses of positive and negative images of women and feminism in film, as well as of the potential co-optation of feminism for enormous commercial profit. Many critics asserted that Tootsie's lesson is that women are simply better than men—Dorothy Michaels, they argue, is not only more successful than Michael Dorsey, but she is more sympathetic, feeling, and observant as well. (Indeed, Hoffman's oft-repeated claims in interviews that playing Dorothy made him a better man, less prone to anger and more sensitive to others' needs, seems to attest to this interpretation.) Since Dorothy Michaels is really a man, however, others have argued that the hidden message of the film is that men are actually better than women. After all, no matter whether one thinks that Tootsie destabilizes gender roles or reaffirms them, a man disguised as a woman seems to be better at being a woman than a real woman (as Teri Garr's character learns, when she discovers that Dustin Hoffman has won the role of Emily over her). Many critics read the film as arguing that only a man can be tough and honest enough to express women's rights. In fact, "Tootsie" has become slang among some literary and film critics for a man who claims his identity as a feminist even while maintaining a sexist understanding of women. The image of Dustin Hoffman in a long red sequined dress operates simultaneously, it seems, as both a feminist icon and a parody of feminism.
Although Tootsie is all about acting, in the end it is unclear whether or not the film implies that all gender roles are performances. Do the daily rituals of becoming a woman which Tootsie obsessively documents—tweezing eyebrows, applying mascara, shaving legs, applying nail polish, and fixing one's hair—mean the same thing for a man dressing as a woman as they do for a woman dressing up? There does not seem to be any question, for example, that Dorothy Michaels is "really" Michael Dorsey (that is, that his masculinity is a performance). In addition, the film does not investigate the ways in which femininity is a performance that the women in the movie perform as well (or not as well) as the men. "Genuine" gender roles are reasserted at the end of the movie, suggesting that cross-dressing or the understanding of gender as performance should take place only on stage, or for limited periods. In other words, one could read Tootsie as a slick (some would argue exploitative) poke at gender roles, whose conclusion leaves those roles finally intact (as a film that is, in the end, not good for women). And yet, such a reading might be too simplistic, for it denies what makes the film so popular in the first place—the basic ambiguity of cross-dressing itself.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York, Routledge, 1992.
Showalter, Elaine. "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year." Raritan. Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1983, 138-52.