Michael Dorsey is a male failure who becomes a female success.  Playing Dorothy is an ego trip.

          This success comes primarily, the film suggests, from the masculine power disguised and veiled by the feminine costume. Physical gestures of masculinity provide Tootsie’s comic motif of female impersonation.  Dorothy Michaels drops her voice to call a cab, lifts heavy suitcases, and shoves a hefty competitor out of the way.  Dorothy’s “feminist” speeches too are less a response to the oppression of women than an instinctive situational male reaction to being treated like a woman.  The implication is that women must be taught by men to win their rights.

          In this respect, Tootsie’s cross-dressing is a way of promoting the notion of masculine power while masking it.  In psychoanalytic theory, the male transvestite is not a powerless man; according to psychiatrist Robert Stoller, in Sex and Gender, he is a “phallic woman,” who can tell himself that “he is, or with practice will become, a better woman than a biological female if he chooses to do so.”…Dorothy’s effectiveness is the literal equivalent of speaking softly and carrying a big stick….Tootsie does, in fact, have a message for women, although not the one the filmmakers intended.  It says that feminist ideas are much less threatening when they come from a man.

Elaine Showalter, “Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year,” Raritan 3 (1983-84)



The appearance of this anthology may disturb some readers who worry that “gender studies” could be a pallid assimilation of feminist criticism into the mainstream (or male stream) of English studies, a return to the old priorities and binary oppositions that will reinstate familiar male canons while crowding hard-won courses on women writers out of the curriculum.  Others fear that talking about gender is a way for both male and female critics  to avoid the political commitment of feminism.  Still others raise the troubling possibility that gender will be isolated from issues of class and race.  These are serious questions that must continue to concern us. But gender theory can be a significant and radical expansion of our work; the turn to gender, as June Howard points out, “need not be depoliticizing.  Its consequences depend on what we choose to do, on the kind of theory and the kind of critical community we build.”


Elaine Showalter, “The Rise of Gender,” in Speaking of Gender, ed. Showalter (Routledge, 1999)