In a scene in which the star of Dorothy’s soap, John van Horn (George Haynes), attempts to force himself on Dorothy, she dryly states that rape isn’t a laughing matter. The film plays this scene close to comedy, but Hoffman’s line leaves the audience in no doubt over what has really happened here, and is a stark reminder of the way that much of our media basely plays sexual harassment for laughs. Tootsie is a comedy that dares its audience not to laugh at Dorothy as a figure of fun, but to see her as a full person with a valid and important voice. Michael Dorsey is ostensibly the protagonist, but it is Dorothy who is truly the main character. Moreover, the film doesn’t punish Dorothy for attracting unwanted male attention.
It’s they, not she, who are held to account for their desires, and after the truth comes out are left with the choice to get over their masculine insecurities or be left behind. However, it does stick in the craw somewhat that after sleeping with his friend literally to avoid social embarrassment, and deceiving the woman with whom he is supposedly in love, Michael suffers virtually no consequences for his deceptive and exploitative behaviour. This, however, is a small blemish on a film that could so easily have been crass, po-faced or just unfunny. Instead, Tootsie is a remarkably well written, complex and rewarding film that continues to speak to society’s treatment of women and our attitudes to the nature of gender.