Remembering Tootsie: To be woman in a man’s world

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By Pradip Phanjoubam
In the midst of the debate on the plight of the feminine gender in a traditional and intensely patriarchal society like India in the wake of some recent very brutal aggressions against women, I am reminded of a great movie of the 1980s that those of us who have lived long enough, and particularly those of us whose fiery college days were in those turbulent years, would instantly recall — Tootsie. Dustin Hoffman, the lead actor in the movie was recently interviewed on one of the American TV channels and when it came to commenting on his role in this movie, he became emotional and broke down before the camera.

For those who have not seen the movie, Tootsie is an American movie of the comedy-drama genre which tells the story of a talented actor whose reputation of being difficult leaves him without a job with potential employers shying away from him. He is thus forced by his difficult circumstance to adopt a new identity as a middle aged woman to land an acting job. Soon enough, not only at his job environment but also in life after office, the expectations of the friends and associates he makes forces him to continue maintaining his female role. As comedy drama unfolds, expectedly many hilarious situations arise when male associates begin to show romantic interest in him and he too gets attracted to a female friend.

Not a surprise at all that the movie won 10 Oscars and has been adjudged in 2000 as the second funniest American film of all time, second only to the 1959 film Some Like it Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, by the American Film Institute. In 1998, the United States Library of Congress also deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The film had the world audience rolling in laughter. But its significance goes far beyond its ability to provoke slapstick humour which depends largely on farcical, incongruent and even outright stupid everyday situations. However, without even being sinister or clever at the expense of anybody or any institution, as most satirical dramas strive for, it exposed successfully and endearingly, situations illustrating quite lucidly how societies, even in the advanced so called liberated West, view and respond to the male and female.

Although it was nearly three decades ago that I saw the film, I still distinctly remember one scene. It was late evening and Tootsie late for an appointment rushes out of her apartment in great unease because of the high heeled shoes she was wearing when she spots a taxi passing by from a distance. She waves at the taxi to stop, daintily calling out ‘taxi’ in the best and sexiest female voice he could manage. The taxi ignores the voice and drives on without even bothering to look in the direction. Then partly out of desperation and partly instinct, Tootsie assumes her real male self and in a typically aggressive male voice of extreme annoyance, growls ‘TAXI’. The taxi screeches to a halt. The audience roars with laughter.

But the message beyond the laughter is, society sees and responds very differently to the male and female, even when it is only a voice. Because of ages of almost universal conditioning and internalising, nobody, not even the discriminated woman, sees these discriminatory responses as anything wrong, therefore these wrongs gets perpetuated without the hope of anything changing. Overt discriminations are easy to discern, and there would also be automatic resistance against them, but ones which have been reduced to commonsensical intuition through continued value reinforcement by society, are the ones that are hard to notice, much less remove, and therefore much more dangerous in the Gramscian sense.

These unseen discriminations are everywhere in any patriarchal society. Look at Manipur. In its 60-member State Legislative Assembly, currently there are only three women. This is a mere 5 percent of the total, whereas it should have been in the vicinity of 50 percent if this representation was proportional to demography. In the Parliament, it is even worse. Of the three Manipur seats, two Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha, there is not even one woman representative. Year after year, the scenario is very much the same. Yet nobody sees anything abnormal in this. In neighbouring Nagaland and Mizoram, the situation is even worse. There too, nothing about this imbalance is seen as abnormal. And all these societies, without exception, call themselves liberated.

Look again. Our streets, public places, rock shows, concerts, at any given time would be marked by a lopsided representation of males. Why and how has it become so? The truth is, gender discrimination is deeply embedded in tradition, and often these socially discriminatory terms which govern ordinary day to day life, have been projected as sacred identity markers and cultures. Men can do what they want, wear as they please, eve tease, are seen social drinking as a mark of class… Not women. They are forbidden to do so by the invisible pulls of the patriarchal order. The ideal woman is the one who worships her husband and remains indoors always looking after kitchen and kids. This ideal woman is an all-in-one household appliance… rice cooker, washing machine, vacuum cleaner… No question of males sharing these dreary but necessary routine responsibilities of household chores. To do so would be unbecoming in the eyes of the society. Even today, when gender activists talk of gender discrimination, they see only the grand, and sometimes the grandiose cases, but seldom the ordinary and everyday ones. The later however is more lamentable, for while the former shocks the society out of complacency, the later are seen as normal and therefore deserving no corrective responses from the society by and large.

Dustin Hoffman’s tears in the interview were shed for this social blindness. In taking on the role of Tootsie, he, a man, got to be a woman, therefore experienced what it is to be a woman in a man’s world. Being a man, he saw the injustice of it all, which even women may have not ordinarily noticed, having been conditioned from birth into believing all of this is the natural and normal predicament of their gender. The Tootsie situation is however not altogether new to human imagination before the movie. In fact, Tootsie may have borrowed considerably from a character in Greek mythology, the immortal oracle, the androgynous half man half woman Tiresias who knows what it is to be a woman as well as a man, therefore became the best judge of what each gender faces or experiences in any given life situation, including whether the female orgasm is greater than the male.

The fact of the matter, and one which calls for everybody’s attention is, gender discrimination is a reality of everyday life in Manipur and all other patriarchal societies and it should not take a savage Dingko assault on helpless girls to demonstrate this and provoke activists and all else into what they consider righteous action or righteous noise. To repeat a point already made in the hope it is underscored prominently, since the discrimination is deeply embedded in the patriarchal social structure and accepted culture, it does not always have to be the man who represents the oppressive patriarchy. The woman in the given circumstance can equally be living and upholding the oppressions associated patriarchy.

As an end note, let me share some feedbacks to some recent Bird’s Eye View, and my corrective measure thereafter. There have been complaints my articles are too long, and at first look the length intimidates, and indeed some readers have been candid enough to tell me they have therefore often not gone beyond reading the titles. Maybe I am influenced by my liking for long and winding feature articles in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New Yorker etc, now that all of these are so easily accessible on the world wide web. I also do not live in a fast city world anymore having voluntarily put myself in a situation of splendid isolation in a Shimla hillside hermitage for a year and a half now, therefore have more time and patience to read and write long articles. But I do acknowledge and appreciate the well meaning advices from readers of this column, and accordingly, from this issue onwards, decided to trim the words limit of my articles to nearly half of what I have become so accustomed to. I hope I do not end up losing more readers.

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