“Tootsie” was the first mainstream feminist film that made any significant amount of money at the box-office, and, more importantly, the first film that really seemed to change the way that both men and women thought about sex roles. During the 1980s when the film was released, there were major discrepancies between men and women in the workplace and in society in general. This gap was largely due to the lack of awareness of the difference in roles between genders. Many people, after the feminist movements of the 1970s, considered the fight for gender equality to be over. Tootsie served as a reminder that there was still work to be done.
Several forms of gender inequality are addressed in this film. The issue of women changing their appearance and bodies for men is brought up several times. When Michael first begins to dress himself as a woman, he wonders how women afford food with all the beauty supplies they feel pressured to buy. When Julie casually kisses Dorothy goodbye, she notices Dorothy’s “little mustache” and suggests that she put some make up on it. Hoffman’s character, as a woman, also feels unable to wear the same clothes over again to work, but as a man, wears essentially the same outfit every day. The degree of the difference between male and female expectations in society is thrown into sharp relief in this film.
The film also touches on the issue of the discrepancy between career opportunities for men and women. When Michael wins the part of Dorothy Michaels over his girlfriend Sandy, he decides not to tell her. He also experiences several instances of sexual assault and degradation on the set of the soap opera. His boss, who is male, repeatedly calls the female workers around him pet names like “tootsie” while calling the men their appropriate names. The soap opera plot itself also mirrors this trend. The male hospital workers kiss the female nurses whenever they feel like it and Dorothy’s character is the only woman in history who has rejected the advances of a male doctor in the show. By not allowing herself to be taken advantage of, she encourages other women to stand up against sexual harassment.
The message of female empowerment that Tootsie conveys is furthered by the polarized personas of Dorothy’s fellow female characters. Tootsie’s women are either neurotically insecure, like Sandy, or vulnerable and dependent on a man like Julie. These over-done (although not entirely inaccurate portrayals of women’s societally imposed views of themselves) provided a strong contrast to Dorothy’s “progressive” ideas.
This film was so influential do to its sensationalist subject matter. The theaters went wild during the scene when the audience first sees Hoffman dressed as a woman. The image of a male actor dressed up as a woman was extremely shocking at the time. The infusion of humor, classic relationship issues, and star spangled cast allowed this film to reach many people and make its subject matter more palatable to the masses.