Kerri Battles the AFI’s Top 100 — #69: Tootsie

I’ve been looking forward to this week’s Battle for a while now. And, after last week’s torturous fight with Kubrick, I was excited to watch something lighthearted and fun. I also wasn’t sure how this movie escaped my viewing until now. If you know me at all, you’d think watching Dustin Hoffman in drag would be right up my alley. You’d be right, too. I loved the shit out of this flick, but it still threw me a massive, universe-skewing curveball that I wasn’t expecting at all.

No, it wasn’t the Andy Warhol cameo.

Tootsie follows the life of Michael Dorsey, an out of work character actor who takes odd jobs and coaches other actors to pay the bills. His roommate, Bill Murray, is writing a play that includes parts for Michael and their mutual overly emotional friend, Sandy (Teri Garr), but none of them have the cash to produce it. Michael accompanies Sandy to an audition for a role on a soap as moral support. When Sandy is turned away without being able to read for having the “wrong look,” Michael steps in to fight for her. In the process, he discovers that a part that was promised to him has been handed to someone else. He rushes to his agent’s office to find out why and discovers no one in New York or Hollywood will hire him. Despite his obvious talent, everyone seems to find him too difficult and demanding. To prove them all wrong, Michael dresses in impeccable drag and auditions for Sandy’s soap role as Dorothy Michaels. He immediately lands the part of the new, no nonsense  administrator on the hospital-themed drama and goes to tell his agent the good news — as Dorothy. He swears to Agent that he’ll only keep up the act long enough to earn enough money to produce Bill Murray’s play and no one will ever be the wiser. Unfortunately, Dorothy Michaels and the ball-busting, staunchly feminist role she ad-libs into existence are a hit with women everywhere. The soap extends Dorothy’s contract, allowing Michael more time to get to know his co-star, Julie (Jessica “The Langeypoo Herself” Lange). As Dorothy and Julie become friends, Michael starts to fall for Julie while Julie’s father starts to fall for Dorothy. After a holiday weekend together at Julie’s father’s farm, he proposes to Dorothy. In the midst of all this confusion, the soap’s leading man, Commandant Lassard himself, can’t stop getting handsy with Dorothy both on screen and off. It all becomes too much for Michael. In order to finally break free of the iconic role he’s trapped himself in, Michael ad libs yet another scene on the soap where he reveals that he is, in fact, his character’s brother simply dressing in drag to fulfill the dreams she couldn’t because of her untimely death. Shock and awe ensue and, after a few days to get used to the idea, Julie realizes she loves Michael and they live happily ever after — as long as he lets her borrow that great yellow outfit of his.

Ugh, GOD. How do you NOT love her?

If you missed last week’s rant on the raging misogyny that is A Clockwork Orange, let me catch you up just a bit: I’m a feminist and I’m not afraid to say it. My mother spent most of my youth trying to impress two very important ideals upon me. The first was that being a girl didn’t mean I couldn’t be anything I wanted, including President. The second was impeccable ladylike behavior. Unfortunately for my mother, that second lesson never quite stuck because I was too intrigued by the first. Much to her chagrin, my mother raised a vocal and independent daughter who has never given a good god damn about gender stereotypes. I’m that woman who doesn’t wear make up and can’t make beachy waves in my hair with a flat iron because I don’t even own a blow dryer. I’m that woman who “emasculates” her dates by trying to pay for her own drinks or meal. I’m that woman who, when told by strangers to “just smile,” immediately replies with a resounding, “DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO FUCKING DO.” Basically, I’ve spent my life trying to be the woman who isn’t going to take anyone’s condescending shit simply because the rules of proper, ladylike behavior say I should. So imagine my surprise when, over 30 years after Tootsie was initially released, I discovered that Dorothy Michaels is the film embodiment of everything I’ve ever wanted to be as a woman. And Dorothy Michaels isn’t even a woman at all.

The above clip isn’t the moment I realized Dorothy Michaels was exactly the kind of woman I’d always tried to be. The vast majority of the movie leading up to the above clip did all that for me. But this clip was the one that made me punch the air and scream, “YEAH!” It was also the moment when I stopped and realized that I hadn’t spent the entire movie rooting for the female underdog who proves she can do it on her own. I was rooting for a guy in drag who all but stole a coveted role from under his female friend — a friend he began sleeping with just to cover up his betrayal. I was rooting for a guy who was such an arrogant prick that no one wanted to put up with his attitude in order to work with his talent. I wasn’t cheering for a woman fighting against the patriarchy and their demeaning pet names that reduce women to nothing more than “the fairer sex.” I was cheering for a guy who put up with that sort of treatment just to stay in character and it only took a matter of months before he broke. I was cheering for a guy who would have had the ability to walk away from being a woman — and all the bullshit that inherently comes with it — at any time if it weren’t for that pesky plot device of a contract extension. An hour and a half prior, I had declared in my Tootsie viewing notes, “HOLY SHIT. TOOTSIE IS THE WOMAN I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO BE.” Now I was wondering if having a straight man in drag for all the wrong reasons as my feminist spirit animal was something I should be okay with. Did that make me no better than any of these assholes?

It turns out, no, it didn’t. If Dustin Hoffman is going to cry on camera because the realization that he’s an ugly woman led to the epiphany that women should be considered for more than just their value as potential arm candy, then I’m okay with Dorothy Michaels being my feminist spirit animal. If Dustin Hoffman, while choking back tears, can say, “This was never a comedy for me,” then I suppose I can come out and say that Bill Murray is the only thing that made me laugh. Tootsie, while having some really great comedic moments (see above re: Bill Murray), works even better as a character study on gender politics, the nonsense of gender roles, and the value of equality within relationships. I also have to applaud Jessica Lange and Teri Garr for providing glowing representations of alternative definitions for “strong female characters”. Plus, for real — Dustin Hoffman’s performance is flawless, both as Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels. I have to hand it to the AFI on this one. I may never have gotten around to watching this one if it wasn’t on the list. Now I think I’ll have to add it to my own personal Top 10. — KSmith