Tootsie is a film about love and desire. Audiences are prone to forgetting this amid the controversies that have arisen around its gender-crossing conceit. Back in 1982, the film emerged as one of the decade’s prestige comedies: it was a commercial and critical darling, and was nominated for ten Academy Awards. But when Tootsie was adapted into a musical in 2018, its creaky gender politics collapsed under Broadway’s bright lights. As Christian Lewis noted in his review of the show for Out magazine, “The musical relies on the terribly dated ‘man in a dress’ comedic trope, which is deeply rooted in transmisogyny.” Yet, despite being in Lewis’s words “hella problematic,” Tootsie is still appreciated by queer Gen-X-ers like myself, whose coming of age in the eighties was influenced by it and a wave of other films that explored sexual politics in the workplace (like 1980’s 9 to 5 and Private Benjamin) and gender-crossing as a means to professional and educational access (like 1982’s Victor/Victoria and 1983’s Yentl).
Among these movies, Tootsie stands out because it’s the only one that centers a cis-heterosexual white man as its hero(ine). Dustin Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, a struggling New York actor whose narcissism and reputation for being difficult to work with have rendered him unemployable. In order to catch a break, he tries to shed his “underappreciated” artistic temperament—i.e., his toxic masculinity. With high-necked blouses, dense layers of makeup, and some ill-advised leg and torso depilation using a cheap disposable razor, he transforms himself into Dorothy Michaels. Becoming Dorothy is Michael’s last chance to score enough cash to produce Return to Love Canal, an “important play” written by his roommate, Jeff (Bill Murray), that he also plans to direct and star in. To fund his artistic endeavors, Michael, as Dorothy, lands a role in the crass world of daytime soaps, the most effeminized and disrespected of TV genres.
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