When I was in high school, while watching one of those American Film Institute specials about the best movies ever made, I remember seeing a segment on Tootsie, the brilliant comedy directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, and Bill Murray. After a variety of Hollywood A-listers extolled the virtues of the film, the montage cut to Hoffman, who recounted that, when donning his Tootsie costume and makeup, he broke down in tears when he realized that he was not an attractive woman. “Give me a break,” my mother, sitting next to me on the couch, muttered, rolling her eyes. “Next I’m sure he’s going to sob about Captain Hook’s lost childhood and how that inspired his portrayal in that movie about grown-up Peter Pan.”
I was quite surprised, then, when I noticed a similar interview with Hoffman going viral yesterday. I assumed that it was the same one from whatever AFI special I saw over a decade ago. The organization uploaded it onto YouTube in December, but it’s a story that Dustin Hoffman has been retelling for years.
At first I, like my mom did all those years ago, rolled my eyes. “This again?” I thought, both about the repeated story and the fact that it was popping up on sites across the Internet as if it were at all new. But then I noticed some of the commentary provided under the embedded video: most people seemed to be so thrilled that, finally, sexism was explained in a convenient three-minute package, and even more pleased that Hoffman had been big enough to admit that he had been “brainwashed” into believing that attractive women weren’t very smart. “There’s too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed,” he admits in the video.
And that’s all fine, I suppose. Good for Dustin Hoffman for growing up those 31 years ago and learning that looks shouldn’t necessarily determine a woman’s value! But it’s still a bit unnerving that this sentiment — which is pretty much the basis for every golden rule we have been treated to since kindergarten — is being lauded as groundbreaking. Putting aside the fact that this is a story Hoffman has been telling for years, isn’t there something a little uncomfortable in the notion that it takes being transformed into an unattractive woman to force a man to think, “Hey, I want to be taken seriously no matter how I look, too!” Because, you know, women have been saying that for, oh, a few hundred years.
Pardon me for not wanting to jump on the Dustin Hoffman Appreciation bandwagon all of a sudden; I tend not to get my hard-hitting analyses of gender inequality from the straight white dudes who have pretty much profited from the pervading culture that rewards good looks and, well, male genitalia. When men come to great conclusions about how sexism exists (usually too late and with great amounts of self-satisfaction), they’re granted hero status; when a woman does it, she’s bitter, sensitive, angry, man-hating, etc. This is why I wasn’t as fond of Patton Oswalt’s too-long essay chronicling his sudden realization that rape culture actually does exist. For years he defended rape humor and blasted the feminist critics for their irrelevance, but he received a glowing stamp of approval from plenty of (male and female) writers who thought it was very big of him to change his mind so publicly.
Let’s take a look at another Tootsie cast member’s thoughts about the film. Teri Garr’s A.V. Club interview from 2008 is a terrific, no-holds-barred chunk of commentary about the Hollywood system from a woman who went through it and, finally, didn’t give a shit about it anymore. “It was about a man doing a woman’s work, so they see it’s really not that easy,” she said of Tootsie. “Women are not taken seriously… They put a man in a dress, and he’s supposed to know what it feels like to be a woman. But of course he doesn’t. I think what Dustin [Hoffman] says is, ‘I realize now how important it is for a woman to be pretty. And I wasn’t pretty.’ God! That’s all you realized? Jesus Christ. Oh well. Don’t quote me. Actually, quote me.”
But I suppose that isn’t as cheerful and heartwarming as when a dude recognizes sexism for the first time. And then the soundbites about that realization are repeated over and over again. And, I guess, it’s a lot easier to hear a lesson from a much-beloved male entertainer than from a woman — either an actress or a novelist or a singer or a blogger. So enjoy, folks, your charming little lesson about sexism. Plenty of us realized this quite a while ago. I guess we should just be grateful that a famous actor has solved the whole thing for the rest of you.