Tootsie (1982), directed by Sydney Pollack

I grew up in a home where my father had a great deal of respect for my mother. I never heard them argue although I am sure they had disagreements from time to time. My father appreciated the fact that my mother worked and helped out financially, but he always saw himself as the primary wage earner and never pushed my mother to enter the workplace. He not only loved her; he revered her. Furthermore, a hallmark of my home was the total absence of crude language. There was a certain sense of propriety that governed family behavior. All these things contributed towards my own attitude towards women as I grew up. I always took women seriously; and even when I was in ninth grade, I dated a girl thinking that she would be my wife one day. I never thought of women in a casual or demeaning way and didn’t fully realize that others did until many years later.

A cavalier attitude towards women is the subtext of Tootsie, a hilarious look at what happens when an out-of-work actor, Michael Dorsey played by Dustin Hoffman, assumes the role of a woman on a daytime soap opera. Callous towards women himself, Michael, for the first time in his life, observes how women are often treated in the workplace. The director calls him Tootsie instead of Dorothy and treats him as a cipher with no intellect, always presuming to know what’s best for her and the show. Moreover, the director treats other female cast members as familiar sex objects, not as independent people with brains and sensitivities. This discovery begins to affect Michael so much that his fictional counterpart, Dorothy Michaels, becomes a champion of women’s rights on the show. She is an assertive hospital administrator who will take no offense from any man. Dorothy veers from the script to be true to herself as a woman and the public idolizes her for it. She appears on magazine covers and becomes the talk of New York. In true comedic fashion, complications ensue when Dorothy’s contract is extended and when Dorothy/Michael falls in love with one of the actresses on the show.

Eventually, there is a day of reckoning and Michael’s hoax is revealed. In the last scene of the film, he confesses to Julie, his love, that he has become a better man by being a woman. Seeing things from the other side of the table has made him a more sensitive human being, better able to empathize and understand the perspective of a woman on love and life. This sensibility is hinted at in the Hebrew term for intimacy which is Yadah, to know. The Bible says that Adam knew Eve. He knew her intimately, say the Bible commentators, not only in a sexual sense but in an emotional sense. He understood her as a person and therefore the intimacy expressed a profound knowledge and understanding of the other. Sex was not exploitative but rather an expression of two souls comprehending one another in the deepest way possible.

Tootsie reaffirms the notion that for there to be true love, there must first be respect for the other. Romeo and Juliet are not the Jewish paradigms of love. Rather the paradigms are the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. In all of these matches, what counts is character, not appearances. Proverbs tells us that outward beauty is false; what really counts is inner beauty, beauty of character and beauty of soul. It is this that enables relationships to blossom and endure, and this finally is what enables love to take root in Tootsie.

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