Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man? The Lessons of 'Tootsie'

Long before Tootsie, I think Rex Harrison said it better, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

In My Fair Lady, two men battle to remake a woman in their own image. Not to make her a man, of course, but to reassert their rightful control over femininity, for woman's own good.

In Tootsie, a failed (but brilliant) New York City actor becomes a woman in order to become a better man. At least, that's what he says at the end of the movie. Michael Dorsey (the Dustin Hoffman character) isn't exactly a reliable narrator, though.  After all, he's selfish and uncompromising with delusions of great sensitivity. He actually kind of reminds me of Brian Griffin on Family Guy. His excruciating standards seem to get in the way of him shutting up and working.

Indeed, Brian may have an analysis of the sexism of the culture he participates in, but when it comes down to it, Brian reproduces all the worst parts of that culture.

Anyway, back to Tootsie. Which I still love. But upon approaching it this time, I had to grapple with my expectations that this was a feminist film. Aderabe. Tootsie is a story of a man who goes slumming for his own benefit (he experiences his only commercial success in drag) and pretends to some transformative insight through his solidarity with women.  For example, shopping for lady's clothing, Michael complains to roommate Jeff (a terrific Bill Murray performance) "See this lingerie, you know what it cost? and this makeup? I don't know how a woman can keep herself attractive and not starve these days."

But Michael's entire story undermines solidarity as his dramatic through line. Michael/Dorothy's narrative is one in which, rather than listening to and being in solidarity with women, he becomes a woman in order to lead women to be better, which, in turn, means being more like him.

We see this even before Michael transforms himself into Dorothy. His friend (and soon to be lover, Sandy, played by the wonderful Teri Garr) is anxious about an upcoming audition for a soap opera. Sandy is sure she won't get it. Why not, what's the part? "They want a woman!" Sandy is so incompetent that she can't even play the role she was born for. Michael coaches Sandy for her audition, and Sandy, and the viewer, have to admit that Michael is a better woman than Sandy.

Sandy blows the audition (even with Michael's support) but the dramatic wheels start turning and Michael decides that he should audition for the role of Emily Kimberly, hospital administrator.

We already saw that Michael was a better woman than Sandy, now he gets to prove it to Dabney Coleman's character, the womanizing director of the soap opera. (By the way, Dabney Coleman was the awesome go-to shithead of a certain kind of 80s movie. Love that guy. You must see 9-to-5 if you haven't already.)

Coleman gives Dorothy/Michael a quick up and down and rejects her for the role: "You're a little bit too soft and genteel, you're not threatening enough."

Having escaped 39 years of socialization, Dorothy/Michael is not used to being assessed and dismissed like a damaged girdle at a Lower East Side lingerie shop. He responds like the man he is, not the woman he presents as: "Not threatening enough? How's this? You take your hands off me or I'll knee your balls right through the roof of your mouth. Is that enough of a threat? 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, on any woman that lets you do that. that mean you, dear.... shame on you, you macho shithead." All it's missing is a couple of exit snaps to make this one of the truly epic exits in a movie. You're already cheering for Dorothy against Dabney's vile 'macho shithead.' Yay, women getting theirs. Woo!

Except not.

The key to understanding Tootsie comes in the scene where Michael/Dorothy's soap opera character Emily Kimberly consoles a woman who's been beaten by her abusive husband. As usual, Michael/Dorothy goes off script where he feels appropriate: "Don't lie there cringing and telling me your husband beat you but you can't move out Mrs Valerie, why should you move out? It's your house, too. You know what I'd do if somebody did this to me? Why if they came around again, I'd pick up the biggest thing around I'd take it and I'd  [smashes large flower pot against wall] bash their brains right through the top of their skulls before I let them beat me up again."

Why'd she go off script? Michael/Dorothy complains that the advice in script, to move out into a shelter and get therapy is horseshit. But telling an abused woman, who may fear for her life, may be psychologically under the control of her abuser, may not have the financial resources to leave her abuser, yeah, that's not horseshit.

The kicker, though, is that the woman playing the abused wife looks up and says (of Michael/Dorothy's inappropriate script revisions) "I can't act with this." To which Michael/Dorothy replies "Oh shut up."

HAHA- Michael/Dorothy knows better than these dumb women, knows how to respond better to domestic abuse, knows how to write a better female character, knows how to be a  better woman. And if it involves silencing actual women, well, ya gotta break a few eggs to make a revolution, right?

We're meant to identify with Dorothy, to cheer her on as an emblem of 80s lady liberation. George the agent complains that his secretary is obsessed with her and creating problems. Julie (the angelic love interest played by Jessica Lange) tells Dorothy how much she's inspired and empowered her in the few weeks they know each other. Dorothy is called into the producer's office and told that though she's a pain in the ass, they're now getting 2,000 letters a week and picked up 3 share points, all because the women of America love Emily Kimberly. This is where the confusion comes in, at least for me, about whether Tootsie is a feminist movie. Just because a lot of women like someone doesn't mean that person is a feminist. Look, millions of women idolize Kim Kardashian. <shudder> Doesn't make her a feminist, or a role model. The question is, how does this person see their actions? What is their analysis? Where do they see themselves in terms of the power dynamic? With whom are they in solidarity?

At one point Michael pitches his agent on a special where he can sing and dance as Dorothy.  "I have plenty to say to women, I've been an unemployed actor for twenty years, George, I know what it's like to sit  by the phone, waiting for it to ring and when I finally get a job, I have no control, everyone else has the power and I got zip. If I could impart that experience to other women like me...."

Michael/Dorothy has mistaken his temporary, voluntary loss of privilege for actual disenfranchisement. He's chosen to play a woman and can walk away at any moment, an option most women don't have. His obliviousness to the power dynamic is what leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Which is fine, the movie is by men, about a man. And it's about a deeply flawed man, one whose own perfectionism and self-involvement prevents him from artistic actualization. But the filmmakers want it both ways- Michael's vision of a more perfect woman is never really challenged, even as it's acknowledged to be a story about a guy who's kind of a jerk as a man.

Oh, the 80s. At least they tried.  Seriously, have you seen 9-to-5?


  1. I'm beginning to wonder if "drag-solves-issues-for-deeply-flawed-man" is a trope: Mrs Doubtfire? Victor/Victoria in reverse?

  2. The ultimate 'eating the other' is imitating the other.

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  4. Read it twice. I totally agree with your opinion and i think it is a very sharp approach! This movie is too naive to be a feminism film and full of sexism thing. I saw "Tootsie" because of the Tina Fey's TV series "30 Rock". In the series, Tina Fey likes this movie a lot, which is an Irony!