The complicated feminism of Tootsie

the complicated feminism of tootsie

Artwork by Chloe Leeson

Tootsie is a 1982 hit comedy starring Dustin Hoffman who plays Michael, an out of work actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a job on a soap opera. Tootsie attempts to establish itself as a feminist film, where Hoffman’s character is exposed to the sexist injustices that he has been blind to as a man. “Don’t you find being a woman in the 80s complicated?” Jessica Lange’s character asks him. Michael discovers that being a woman in general is indeed complicated, as is the film’s feminist message. Tootsie does what it sets out to- makes some sort of statement on feminism- but that does not mean it is without its shortcomings. Looming above the film is the idea of Dustin Hoffman as the “white knight.” A straight white man is positioned as the saviour of women’s rights. He is able to challenge sexism in the workplace and funnel the feminist message of the film. Only through a man can it be taken seriously. When a woman speaks out or realizes these daily injustices, she is labelled bitter, sensitive, or angry and man-hating.

We first see Michael’s decision to pose as a woman as he walks down the street in full Dorothy attire. He arrives at the audition and right away begins to challenge the men around him. During his audition, he blasts his director: “Yes, I think I know what y’all really want. You want some gross caricature of a woman. To prove some idiotic point, like, like power makes women masculine, or masculine women are ugly. Well shame on the woman who lets you do that.” Michael, as Dorothy, immediately points out sexism and also manages to impress the team and land the job. But the fact is that the only person that does- or even thinks to- call out the director is really a man. This perpetuates the fact that it needed to take another man to call out and open the dialogue of what sexism is, and also that the women around him did not know any better. The dialogue which the film’s title is derived is another instance where Michael calls out sexism:


Michael/Dorothy: Ron, my name is Dorothy. It’s not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll.

Ron: Oh Christ.

Michael/Dorothy: No, just Dorothy. Now Alan’s always Alan, Tom is always Tom, and John’s always John. I have a name too; it’s Dorothy. Capital D, O, R, O, T, H, Y. Dorothy.

Michael/Dorothy: Ron, my name is Dorothy. It’s not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll.

Ron: Oh Christ.


Michael/Dorothy ends up transforming the hospital set. Michael takes control of his character’s narrative, refusing to kiss the sexist pig (on and off screen) lead doctor. Instead, he turns the dialogue on its head by hitting the doctor and demanding to be taken seriously. Michael/Dorothy changes the text of the soap opera, which usually has sexist codes. Julie, who used to play what she deemed “the hospital slut” is now telling off the doctor and threatening to file charges with the AMA. Audiences respond well to this, becoming fans of Dorothy and loving the new season. By removing the sexist material and replacing a “caricature” female character with a dynamic one, Tootsie establishes the need and welcoming of these kind of narratives. “You are the first woman character who is her own person, who can assert her own personality without robbing someone of theirs. You’re a breakthrough lady for us.” Rita tells Dorothy. (This would obviously be more profound if it was an actual woman though…)

Michael’s lesson learnt after dipping into the female experience is that he became a better man, “I was a better man with you as a woman then I ever was with a woman as a man.” You wish that there was a more explicit admission or dialogue that expressed what he had seen and felt in that experience, or regrets he has about his past treatment of women. He strings Sandy along while pursuing Jessica Lange’s character, yet never expresses remorse about that. This ending message is too self-serving and does not address any attempts to help change the system or culture around him. Another complicated message from Tootsie is that it can be hard for a man to notice or understand women’s experiences, that men will not listen to us or believe us until they can literally step in our shoes and see things from our eyes. As if it is so hard to believe that they need to experience it to believe it. They should be able to take what we say at face value. But we often find our concerns as women falling to deaf ears, as if we are lying about the veracity of our experiences.

Ultimately, Tootsie is a play on show business that has undercurrents of feminist themes. Michael is looking at his transformation into Dorothy as the ultimate exercise in acting, to convince everyone that he can fully assimilate into this character, and along the way he learns something about the female experience. Tootsie examines feminist issues but also manages to put actual women in the shadows. One bright spot I must point out is that the film does not steep to make light of the near rape scene, where Michael says, without any hint of irony or humour, “rape is no laughing matter.” Despite some oversights, you can still enjoy what Tootsie offers.

By Caroline Madden


CAROLINECaroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at

3 replies »

  1. I think everything you wrote was on point, although in light of the accusations against Hoffman that surfaced because of the Me Too movement’s explosion onto the scene, I think you should update with a critique of the party scene when it’s the character Michael’s birthday. It made my skin crawl 😝


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