9 Reasons Why Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, and Jessica Lange’s Tootsie Is an ‘80s Feminist Masterpiece

Tootsie has some things to say about pet names and victim blaming.
Publish date:
December 17, 2015
movies, feminism, 80s

The first time I was introduced to Tootsie, I was just weeks away from my first semester of college. I was at home, watching the American Film Institute special on its revised Top 100, because like most teenagers, I knew how to party. Tootsie had earned a spot and even though I had no idea what it was, I perked up, since it starred my favorite actor, Dustin Hoffman. (I had also just discovered The Graduate. It was a big year for me.)

The first few clips had me hooked. Kick-ass women? A fictional soap opera set? BILL MURRAY?! It was all catnip, but then they cut to Dustin, talking about unfair gender standards in what’s now an Internet-famous clip. I started tearing up and vowed to watch this movie immediately. I was pretty sure I’d like it. That was an underestimation.

Tootsie has since become one of my all-time favorites. I spent years just eagerly describing that Dustin Hoffman interview to so many people, that a friend of mine thought I had cut and uploaded it myself when it blew up two years back. And despite being a giant movie nerd, Tootsie is the only Criterion Collection DVD I own to this day.

Tootsie is a brilliant comedy, but I think the main reason I pester people to watch it is because it’s unapologetically feminist in a way that’s incredible by today’s standards, let alone 1982’s. How so, you ask? Let me tell you.

1. The protagonist is a jerk, and the movie treats him like one

The whole movie hinges on Michael Dorsey’s journey from arrogant actor who tunes women out at parties to a sensitive dude who actually cares what they have to say. The only reason he ends up in drag as Dorothy Michaels is because no one in town will hire him. He’s too difficult, but he knows about an open part at the soap opera Southwest General, because he helped his friend Sandy audition for it. (She didn’t get it.)

He disguises himself as a woman, auditions, and nails it. But then he has to keep the jig up even as he’s falling in love with his costar Julie and stringing poor Sandy along.

Doesn’t sound like the best guy, right? He isn’t, and the refreshing thing about Tootsie is it doesn’t treat Michael like some lovable asshole you just can’t fault. It makes a point to show Sandy, sitting alone and stood up, as Michael forgets their date to run lines with Julie. When he spins excuses to his roommate Jeff about how he’s juggling both women, Jeff replies only half-kidding, “I’m just worried you’re going to burn in hell for this.” Tootsie is constantly calling Michael out for treating women like crap, and he’s only allowed a (very vague) ending with Julie after he’s come clean with everyone and grown up.

2. It attacks stereotypes about “mannish” feminists

The first time we meet Dorothy, she’s all ready to audition for director Ron Carlisle. But before she even opens her mouth, he turns her away because he’s looking for a specific physical type and he thinks she’s “too genteel.” That’s when Dorothy spins around and delivers this magnificent kiss-off that I just have to copy verbatim, “I think I know what you all really want: some gross caricature of a woman. To prove some idiotic point, like power makes women masculine, or masculine women are ugly. Well, shame on the woman that lets you do that, on any women that lets you do that… Shame on you, you macho shithead.”

It’s obviously meant to be ironic coming from a man, but if you can watch that scene without cheering a little, you’re stronger than me.

3. The ladies of Southwest General actually like each other

Movies love to paint female coworkers as conniving ice queens ready to throw each other under the bus at any second. (See Working Girl, Soapdish, 13 Going on 30, etc.) But that doesn’t happen on this fake soap opera set. Instead, there’s a strong sense of female camaraderie.

Julie encourages Dorothy from the beginning at her audition, and Geena Davis’s April is always merrily delivering praise in their shared dressing room. Yes, April is also fooling around with Ron behind Julie’s back, which isn’t great. But even that doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of malice. April is just a little young and naive and Ron is just an enormous Lothario happy to take advantage of that.

4. Michael is exhausted with beauty standards after one day

“I don’t know how a woman can keep herself attractive without starving to death,” he sighs after his first shopping spree. Welcome to the world of requisite facial masks and eyeliner, Michael. It’s expensive as hell.

5. Julie is a single mom and it’s not a big deal

When Dorothy goes over to Julie’s apartment to rehearse, she discovers Julie has an infant daughter. Dorothy asks if she’s divorced, Julie says she’s never been married, and that’s literally the end of the conversation. Really. No agonizing backstory about Julie’s ex, and no lecture about how she shouldn’t be doing this alone.

Even later, the movie doesn’t bother to reveal anything about Julie’s baby daddy, because frankly, it doesn’t care.

6. It puts condescending pet names on blast

My best friend and I have this thing we do when the other is in the middle of an indignant rant. The listener will affect a really terrible Southern accent and say, “Dorothy! D-O-R-O-T-H-Y.” That’s essentially our shorthand for, “That’s right, you shouldn’t take that!” And it comes from this beautiful little tirade that lends Tootsie its name.

7. Sandy gets hers in the end

Sandy gets painted as a pitiful pushover, but when Michael finally lays everything out, she doesn’t crumple to the floor in tears. She yells at him. A lot. She also rejects his offer of friendship but refuses to back out of the play they’re doing together because she’s a professional. A professional who also comes back to claim her goddamn candy.

8. It doesn’t tolerate victim blaming

Tootsie spends every one of its 116 minutes gleefully bashing sexist bullshit, but it takes the most serious aim at rape culture. This happens first on the soap opera, when Julie’s character comes to Dorothy’s in tears, blaming herself for “encouraging” one of the doctors to sexually assault her. Dorothy sees these horrifying lines in the prompter…

...and not only refuses to say them, but says she’s ordering electric cattle prods for all the nurses to ward the man off.

It doesn’t stop there. Later, the actor who plays that same predatory doctor forces his way into Dorothy’s apartment and makes some unwanted advances. Jeff shows up and inadvertently saves the day, but when he tries to make a joke about it later, Dorothy (well, by now, Michael) snaps, “Don’t you start with me. Rape is not a laughing matter...I saw the look in his eyes, I was in big trouble. If you hadn’t have come in, I would’ve been on the news the next morning.”

That whole sequence is probably the best example of Tootsie smuggling important social commentary in with comedy. None of it comes off as preachy, and some of it is played up for laughs, but it’s not written as wacky hijinks completely detached from reality. Women know all too well that creeps will follow them home, and they won’t always be strangers -- like over 80% of sexual assault victims, Dorothy knows her attacker.

9. It made Dustin Hoffman realize what an ass he was being in real life

And this brings us all back to the beginning. If a movie can make its star revaluate how he views women, it’s obviously got some power. As Tootsie has just passed its 33rd birthday (December 1st, y’all), here’s to hoping it reaches more people. Even the ones with real big teeth.