“Tootsie” was the first mainstream feminist film to make a lot of money at the box-office, and, more importantly, to change the way that both men and women thought about sex roles.
Initialy, Hoffman is a “typical male,” patronizing his unemployed and rejected girlfriend (Teri Garr) in a condescending way. But after he gets in touch with his female side, through playing Dorothy Michaels, he becomes a better man. As he puts it, “I was strong enough to be a woman, that best part of me.” His consciousness is raised and his sexual complacency is eradicated.
Michael Dorsey really becomes Dorothy Michaels in the film, and Dorothy Michaels nearly becomes a separate character. One of the most popular scenes in the film when it was released was when Hoffman first appears as Dorothy on crowded Fifth Avenue. The theaters went wild during this scene because the image of Dustin Hoffman dressed up as a woman was shocking at the time. In the film's climactic scene, a desperate Hoffman ends his charade on live television by revealing himself as a man. “I am not Emily Kimberley [Dorothy's character on the show],” he says, “But I am Edward Kimberley.” As his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) watches on television at home, he comments, “That is one nutty hospital.”
The film also touches on the issue of the respective career opportunities for men and women, which made viewers aware that despite the women's liberation movement of the 1970s things in 1982 were still not equal. When Michael wins the part of Dorothy Michaels over his girlfriend Sandy, an actress, he decides not to tell her. In one scene, Michael tells his agent “I do know what it's like to be a woman. I've been an unemployed actor for years, sitting by the phone with no power. Then when I do get a part, it's a man who has all the power.”
Exploring 1980s female roles, the film offered strong images of women, thus helping to create a self-conscious, mainstream awareness in the early 1980s about women's roles. Not all of the strong images of women in the film are positive, though. In fact, Dorothy Michaels (who is after all really a man) is the most progressive women's role in the film. Tootsie's women are either neurotically insecure (Garr) or vulnerable and dependent on a man (Lange). Garr cries out in one scene with Hoffman, “I know there's pain in every relationship and I'd like to have mine now. Otherwise, I'll wait by the phone and if you don't call, then I'll have to have pain and wait by the phone.” Some of Lange's best lines in the film are when she tells Dorothy, “There're a lot of men in the world, but I'm selective. I look around very carefully and when I find the guy I'm sure will give me the worst time, then I make my move.”
Dorothy, meanwhile, is a woman “of a certain age” who has experienced harassment in a man's world but won't stand for it. She encourages other women to stand up against sexual harassment. Some critics have said that Dorothy is a 1982 ladylike version of women's lib for a conservative Reagan America. Marsha McCreadie put it this way: “America needed an independent woman who was also a `lady' in the first half of the age of Reagan-cum-liberation, and this was one of the characters Tootsie provided.”.
Some critics have argued that Tootsie subtly changed attitudes towards the gay community, although it was not ostensibly about gay issues. However, the ramifications of Michael Dorsey's impersonation of a woman in the story suggests gay issues. For instance, in one scene Bill Murray asks Hoffman “It is just for the money isn't it It's not so you can try on these little outfits” Michael's relationship with his girlfriend Sandy becomes more and more complicated as he continues to hide his new job from her, and as Jessica Lange's widowed father (Charles Durning) falls in love with him, as Dorothy Michaels.
Garr, flustered after Hoffman gives her a box of candy actually from Lange's father, with a card thanking him for a “lovely night by the fire,” finally asks Hoffman “Are you gay” He answers “In what sense” In another scene the possibility of a “lesbian” relationship between Dorothy Michaels and the Jessica Lange character is raised. Lange resists when “Dorothy” almost kisses her and later tells Dorothy, “I love you, Dorothy, but I can't love you.” Some critics have doubted how progressive the film really is, though. Vito Russo, for instance, in The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies writes that “… Tootsie can successfully pretend to have something to say about sex roles.” By way of inference, though, Tootsie may have expanded tolerance of gays in the homophobic early 1980s through its gender switching.
“Tootsie” was part of a cycle of films that focused on gender switching, and encouraged this cycle to continue with its great financial success. This cycle included La Cage Aux Folles I and II, Victor/Victoria, The World According to Garp, Yentl, Switch, and All of Me. Tootsie was also part of the “sisterhood” cycle which began in 1977 with Julia and The Turning Point, and was the inspiration for more of these films to be made: Outrageous Fortune, Casual Sex, Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes and so on.
The film also provides commentary about television, on the corrupt behind-the-scenes world of daytime television. Tootsie thus set off another cycle of films which included Broadcast News, Switching Channels, He Said, She Said, the soap opera movie with Sally Fields, the soap opera movie with John Candy, and so on.
As in “The Graduate,” 15 years earlier, Hoffman was very important to Tootsie's success. The actor claims to have thought up the idea himself while one day walking through Manhattan with friend Murray Schisgal (who later became one of the screenplay-writers of Tootsie). Hoffman said to Schisgal: I've always wondered how many experiences we miss out on, being men. Is it a radically different experience going through life, depending on what sex you are Let's see if I could play a man forced to impersonate a woman, then experiencing life from the other point of view.
Hoffman wound up investing four years of his life into this idea. However, the time spent was well worth it, for Hoffman made 21 millions dollars off of the film just for himself. Acclaim for Hoffman's trying double role was unanimous, one critic typically stating that “Dorothy, as Hoffman portrays her, is one of the more interesting characters on screen in a good while.”