Cross-Dress for Success

Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982.)

A clip from a 2012 interview with Dustin Hoffman has gone viral. As a potential antidote to the casual and furious misogyny unleashed during Wimbledon, where women were invisible or too ugly, one can see why.  In the video, Dustin Hoffman describes his experience preparing for the title role of Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) and the revelation it yielded.

Wanting to pass successfully as a woman (as opposed to a cross-dresser) Hoffman tested out makeup. However, his appearance did not satisfy, and sadly, neither did the answer of the makeup artists, when asked if they could make him prettier. Upon learning he could not be a beautiful woman, the actor experienced profound dismay and, at the same time, new resolve. Hoffman explained to his wife that he had to play this role:

“Because I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out…. There’s too many interesting women I have…not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.”

So far, I have seen only praise for Hoffman’s apparent openness about the burdens of the beauty standard and its pernicious ideologies and ramifications. But personally, I find his epiphany less than satisfying.

Drag prep scene (Tootsie)
Hoffman sans wig

I could start with Tootsie. I loved the movie, which offers excellent (if somewhat dated) commentary on the gender inequality But at the same time, one has to wonder about a film that suggests that 1) women have an easier time finding acting work than men and 2) that men make better women than women.

I could continue with how Hoffman positions himself as the true victim of the patriarchy here. This is not about women whose value is measured according to male desire; this is about all those interesting women he could have met, if only Hoffman hadn’t been so driven by his libido. He says little of the beauty standards themselves (which could stand unpicking.)

And then I could end with this question, which is more genuine inquiry than churlish rhetoric, I promise: Hoffman relates an experience from the 1980s in a 2012 interview. The experience convinced him that he should play this role and that people should see this woman. But what about all the other women? What did he do in those intervening years to make life easier for those women, and especially those actresses, who fall short in the measures of conventional beauty? Will he do so now, at least? (My internal jury is still out on whether Quartet stands as an example of this.)

Hoffman’s observation is an important one, to be sure, and he seems most earnest about his discovery, but this ‘new’ understanding has to be put to work to change things. It does little if its only purpose is to indulge the ego of another nice guy.


Screenshots courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

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