Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Go, Tootsie, Go

I've been half-in and half-out of the blogosphere for a couple of weeks, so when my blogger buddy Tatiana tweeted this video of Dustin Hoffman talking about Tootsie to me, I didn't realize exactly how viral it had gone. It was only today when I looked at Facebook for the first time in days that I realized it had been shared at least a dozen times by my friends—and not just my usual circle of feministy-bloggy suspects but by high school friends, coworkers from random jobs years ago, etc.

On the off-chance that you've missed the video, here's the gist: Hoffman talks about the impetus for creating Tootsie, and how when he first saw himself on test footage made over like a woman, he was pleased, but then asked his makeup artists to make him not just a woman, but a beautiful woman:

I thought, I should be beautiful—if I was going to be a woman, I would want to be as beautiful as possible. And they said to me, That's as good as it gets. ... I went home and started crying, talking to my wife, and I said... "I think I'm an interesting woman when I look at myself onscreen, and I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to her, that character, because she doesn't fulfill physically demands that we're brought up to think that women have to have in order for us to ask them out." She says, "What are you saying?" [Hoffman tears up.] And I said, "There's too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed." And— [Hoffman catches his breath] That was never a comedy for me.

It's moving, it's unexpected, it reveals a glimpse of genuine emotion from a beloved entertainer. It's not hard to see why it caught on; my own knee-jerk reaction was to tweet it out. But when I started to look through my blog feed for the past few days and saw that I was on the tail end of many, many shares, I had to wonder exactly why it caught on so much.

Part of why we like this is that Hoffman articulates something about seeing himself as a woman that would take actual women a boatload of chutzpah to say: "I was shocked that I wasn't more attractive. ... Because I thought, I should be beautiful." Hoffman sees beauty as a part of the birthright of womanhood. And why wouldn't he? Why wouldn't we? We see him have the experience that for many women runs the course of a lifetime: recognition that beauty is not a meritocracy. It comes as something of a shock to those of us raised in America, the country that so loves its bootstraps myths and the notion that if you work hard enough at anything, you can achieve it. That neatly ignores entrenched systems like racism and classism—but hey, if we're talking beauty here, the realm of women, shouldn't that logically mean that the system is already gamed in our favor? But we know it's not: We can work as hard as we can at being beautiful and it can still elude us. Most of us can become attractive enough—including Hoffman, whose allure as Dorothy prompts a marriage proposal from Charles Durning's character. But that feeling that we should be beautiful—not out of some sense of womanly duty, or media pressure or any of that crap, but out of the fact of being a woman—well, that's hard to shed.

As the headline on Upworthy indicates, the video's popularity could well be because it's a man "Explaining Something That Every Woman Sadly Already Experienced." Yet when I look at exactly who is sharing it, it's nearly all women, and isn't the point here that women already understand the ways that our looks subtly open or close opportunities? The novelty factor comes into play, sure—it's one thing to muse about this amongst women, but for a man to have the opportunity to genuinely empathize with the emotions surrounding beauty is rare. (Men obviously deal with this too, but it's rare for any man to feel looks bias as a woman, much less toward oneself.)

Still, we don't need Hoffman to tell us this; we know it already, or at least that's the idea. But do we actually know? Part of the trouble with examining looksism is that we never quite know when we're being overlooked (or favored) because of our appearance, except in cases where it's explicit. In fact, it's sometimes easier to default to believing that a personal interaction hasn't gone smoothly because someone doesn't find us appealing; our bodies are convenient scapegoats for other stresses. What's intriguing about this video is that Hoffman, for the first time, has the experience of the split self: He is observing himself as both subject and object, as an actualized creature and as something to be gazed upon. When you're mired in your own split gaze from day one, the division between surveyor and surveyed isn't quite so sharp. What we learn here is not exactly an iteration of something we already know; all we really learn is that onceuponatime, Dustin Hoffman didn't like to talk to plain chicks, and that he learns about his own brainwashing. In truth, he doesn't learn a thing about women.

I'm not saying this as a dismissal of either Hoffman or of Adam Mordecai, the Upworthy writer who was key in making this go viral, but it's interesting that Mordecai coaches the video in terms of what women experience. I'm thrilled that both of these men are putting these sentiments out there, particularly since, by looking at Mordecai's Upworthy posts, this isn't a one-off nod to "women's issues" for him. But watching it as a woman who, like most women, has experienced a mix of dismissals and favors—overt and covert, recognized and silent—because of her looks, this video is more valuable as one perspective on the male gaze from men than as a comment on my lived experience.

And in fact, that's probably why it went viral—not because it's from a man, but because it's a clear, succinct, moving example of the ways that we're, to use Hoffman's word, "brainwashed." In many ways it's no different than anything that goes viral, even as I'd like it to herald some sort of progress in this arena. In fact, the video has what marketing expert Jonah Berger has identified as the six factors that make us want to share something: emotional resonance (he cries! we cry!), observability (it's a video, with someone familiar to us, and he cries!), usefulness (reinforces an aspect of our practical lived experience), storytelling (Hoffman, a master performer, is literally telling a story), triggers (our looks come into play every day), and social currency (believe me, everybody has something to say about looks and bias, so yes, it's popular).

I'm curious: Did you watch the video before reading this post? What was your reaction? Why do you think it caught on?


  1. I love your analysis of this - the "split self" aspect is particularly astute, because it describes how Dustin Hoffman was able to experience this dynamic from both positions. Yes, I know that he is articulating something that most women have been saying forever, but there's something about hearing a guy have that realization in a very direct way that was very interesting to me. It's a perspective that I don't think we hear very often. It's not that I think that him being a man (and therefore the default) makes his position more authoritative as much as it is the fact that he had that split-self experience that so few of us will ever really have.

    As far as sharing, I actually shared the Youtube video a whole four days ago (which is like an eternity online!) after seeing it on tumblr, and then I noticed that not only was it showing up over and over on my feed, but that followers of my blog were sharing it with me too. I found that almost as interesting as the video itself, because it told me that I was not the only one affected by his words.

  2. The "split self" observation is genius. I really loved the way Hoffman told the story, especially his ending line. I think he was experiencing something that a lot of us women have already worked through in childhood or adolescence. We'd like to be beautiful, we dreamed of growing up to be models or beauty queens, but what we've settled for is "beautiful enough," which is partially of our own construction.

    However, I don't think men are completely exempt from looks bias. Online dating has introduced me to plenty of men who walk around with a chip on their shoulder because nature was cruel enough to curse them with height deficiencies or male pattern baldness. On the height thing, I've known several men who've carried that insecurity into their old age ("I could have been an executive, but at my company, nobody under 5'10" ever made VP").

    I do believe Mordecai was on the ball in terms of coaching it in terms of womens' experience and I think this was a huge reason it went viral.

  3. Oh hurray!! I'm glad you enjoyed it!!

    I wanted to share it with you because it's about beauty, and that's your area of expertise! :]

    Part of me feels that this video is popular because it's a male celebrity talking about women and beauty. Whenever celebrities talk about something - like when Angelina Jolie talked about her preventative measures against breast cancer - it becomes news. (Even though millions of women every day have to make all sorts of decisions regarding breast health, the fact that Jolie said it suddenly made it more real).

    Additionally, whenever men talk about "women's issues", they get more media attention. Several months ago, a British company responded to a male complaint about period commercials being unrealistic since women are always depicted as being happy while on their periods, which isn't reflective of real life. The video went pretty viral, though I was pissed because HELLO! This is a pretty common observation about menstrual ads, and yet, when a man talks about it, suddenly it's worthy of a video response [from the company].

    In some ways, this video highlights the way men are chosen to talk about women and the things that plague many women, whereas women aren't usually granted the same space.

    And there seems to be a lot of activity around trying to convince men that women are humans too, so to see this video probably triggered some of that in people.

    I loathe this term, but it boils down to the male gaze. It's about giving props to men who look at women in ways that make women feel actualized or visible.

    People often feel that celebrities are disconnected from reality, and this video goes against that idea. Additionally, men are ROUTINELY given respect whenever they talk about sexism or what have you, no matter how shallow or profound his observations. This video falls in line with that.

    Great post! I loved your observations!

  4. Great analysis and Tatiana's comments as well. It reminds me of the recent video of Patrick Stewart talking about domestic violence. I definitely think the power of these videos is in the viewer's feeling of "hallelujah, a man sees this!" and also in the display of emotion by the man.

  5. I read it right before reading this - in preparation - I only noticed it today though....so maybe I too am behind on my social media! I thought it was surprising and touching and it made me feel good to know - as a woman - that he "got it". It might be something we already know but hearing it from his eloquent perspective gives it a newness and a tenderness that makes me feel like there is some hope for more people to be less looks bias. I would like to be less bias - towards myself and others.

    You bring up an interesting observation, that (majority wise) only women seem to be sharing and tweeting it and so what, cuz it's something we already know all too well. But I don't fault Dustin or Upworthy or whomever, I mean what more could they do to get the message "out there" and it's a valid message.

  6. Thank you for getting my brain thinking. I watched the video before I read your post and was also moved by it. Here's my take on why it went viral.

    1. A man is being vulnerable. Quite interesting.
    2. A famous man is being vulnerable. More interesting.
    3. A famous man is being vulnerable and admits to having been brainwashed into thinking he should only talk to classically beautiful women. Very darn interesting.

    I would say social currency, observability and emotional resonance are the strongest factors.

  7. I watched the video a few days ago and I thought it was fantastic. What struck me the most was how EASY and fast he was able to recognize the brainwashing. Ya don't need years of therapy to undo this junk. Not a lot of men would be in that position to be confronted head on with that idea of the 'split self' but frankly it's nice to be validated (as a woman) on something that we all know but no one else even acknowledges.

    It's interesting hearing him talk about the plain women he's met in the past and the implied judgment about their personalities. Like, the brainwashed men think that women who aren't "attractive enough" just aren't trying hard and therefore must be too lazy or careless or morally corrupt (!) to beautify themselves up for teh mens.
    Personal note: Tootsie was kinda an important movie to me growing up because she was NOT conventionally attractive and yet very proper and sweet and oddly over-feminine in a charming way but still men were throwing themselves at her (yes, I knew it was a comedy) and asking to marry her, etc. Kinda made me think that maybe *I* didn't have to be conventionally beautiful to be liked/desirable either. (I was 10 so go easy on me...) However, hearing that Hoffman cried about the way he looked hurt the feelings of 10 yr old me. I felt liberated because of the way that Tootsie looked but "Tootsie" felt ashamed of it. Guess that's exactly the reason he felt he had to make that movie.

  8. Supplant "money/wealth/power/status" for beauty and the same analysis applies to men. Anyone who says that men don't have societal standards (set by women) to adhere to is off their rocker. And just because they aren't visual doesn't mean they aren't unreasonable and/or superficial- how many women have passed over "good guys" because they don't make whatever pre-set standards they've been brainwashed by. The opposite holds *exactly* true.

  9. I've been travelling over the past week, so I missed this too. And wow, it's so good!

    Only a little related: I read a Slideshare deck once on how Upworthy gets things to go viral. I think 3 of the top 5 most viral things that they had ever done were about women's issues -- so they know women are really key as "network hubs." They also do a lot of headline testing to see what is most effective, etc.

  10. Thanks for this post, Autumn! I had several girlfriends tell me they *sobbed* after watching the video. SOBBED. Which makes me think the appeal of the video isn't that it's *about* women's experiences at all, but that it's a succinct and moving expression of one man's realization that conflating "chicks I wanna bang" and "chicks I wanna know" was at tremendous cost to him. I was also moved by the video, because there's a part of me that feels addressed by Hoffman's expression of loss, as a woman who perhaps has been similarly lost to other people.

    But the sadder part is the internalization of this gaze: I think the video is less about Hoffman's regretful choices and more about the psychosocial power of those choices--who gets to choose and who relies on being chosen. Whose to say the plain chick you ignored would want you?

  11. One of the things that struck me when I watched this video, was the tie-in for me to all sorts of people who don't fit the mold and are "passed over" for those that do. The woman not beautiful enough, the person with a disability not able enough, the brown skinned person not white enough, and on and on... It got to me because he GOT IT at a deep level.

    I think it touches so much of us because all of us probably have some feeling of not being good enough (in one way or another) and that's what he was speaking to, in addition to his admission of not getting to know those who weren't "good enough" in his eyes prior to this revelation.

  12. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A great read.

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