Choosing Beauty Over Sex, or Anything Else–Lessons From Tootsie

Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie

Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie

A lot of guys think women want to be beautiful so they can get sex. I’m sure many do. But some guys are surprised that — or don’t believe that — it’s often the reverse: many women have sex hoping to feel beautiful.

But then, men’s value often rests on how much sex they have, while women’s value often rests on their looks.

A woman may capture the Wimbledon title yet be slighted as not “a looker.” She may even become Prime Minister of Australia yet folks debate, “the size of her bottom… the cut of her hair.”

And as I’ve said before:

From the time they’re small, little girls are told they’re pretty – or notice when they’re not told that. They receive gifts of play makeup and vanity sets. They watch endless repeats of Disney princesses on DVD, buy beautiful princess dolls, and then graduate to Barbie or Bratz. All of whom have extensive wardrobes. It’s all about being pretty.

Meanwhile, girls and women are bombarded with media images of impossibly beautiful women who are photoshopped up the wazoo, modeling what they’re supposed to look like.

Who’s popular in middle school and high school? Pretty girls. By the time they’re in college young women are under relentless pressure to be hot, as if that’s the most important thing in the world.

dustinhoffmanWhen Dustin Hoffman took the role of Tootsie he got a shocking first-hand glimpse of all this.

In the film, Hoffman plays a difficult-to-work-with actor who no one will hire. So he poses as an actress to get a role. In an interview that’s gained a lot of attention, Hoffman says the experience helped him to see how men can unknowingly reinforce impossible beauty ideals.

His make-up artist had made him look like woman, he recalls, but:

I was shocked that I wasn’t more attractive… I said “Now you have me looking like a woman. Now make me beautiful.” I thought I should be beautiful. If I was going to be a woman, I would want to be as beautiful as possible. But they said, “This is as good as it gets.”

At that moment he had an epiphany that made him think twice about how he treated women. He told his wife,

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.

Women are taught from the time they are small that their value lies in their beauty — unfortunate since our shell is shallow and looks are fleeting.

But is it any surprise that beauty so often seems more important than sex – or anything else?

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 10, 2013, in body image, feminism, men, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. This is a very interesting post indeed. I thought Hoffman played the part of Tootsie extremely well, and I think his comments are very insightful. I naturally watched the whole interview.

    As a crossdresser, I want to look attractive as a woman. I am resigned to the fact that I cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. However, one can surely make a reasonable handbag! I really would like to walk down the streets of New York (or anywhere) and not have people turn their heads to look at me.

    It is more important to me to look attractive than to look like a real woman. The autogynephilia theory (which I accept) says that’s because I am attracted to the woman I see in the mirror. However, some crossdressers insist that they want to look attractive because they are prey to the same forces which drive women to want to look attractive. I guess there might be an element of this. But I do sometimes ask myself, not why men want to dress like women, but why _women_ want to dress like women.

    Another question I have no answer to is also suggested by Hoffman. Sometimes I dress and behave like a man. Sometimes I dress and behave like a woman. Is only one of me the “real” me? Is the other one some sort of act? And if so, which one is the act and which the real? And is that the same for other crossdressers?

    I have long believed that the two most attractive things about any woman are self-confidence and intelligence. Brainy is the new sexy! (Yeah… good luck with that!– as one of my female colleagues recently replied to this assertion). I flatter myself that I am evolved enough to recognise more in a woman than her breasts or bottom. And I flatter myself that I am attracted to aspects of some women which are not related to their physical appearance. I do find myself thinking “I wonder if she realises how gorgeous she is?” As a man, of course, I cannot simply pay women open compliments, as they may appear insincere or a clumsy attempt at a pickup. How does one pay a woman a compliment without appearing to want sex?


    • “I do sometimes ask myself, not why men want to dress like women, but why _women_ want to dress like women.”

      The answer is simple. People in any society tend to dress the way everyone else of their group does. You see this in fashion trends in addition to gendered styles. They internalize that “you’re supposed to dress like this.” It’s unconscious.

      “Is only one of me the “real” me?”

      People can have different facets to their personalities, so you could be exhibiting both types of facets. It depends on whether one feels fraudulent or if they both feel natural to you. On the one hand, you have been socialized as a male and so dressing as one could well feel natural to you. And then you’ve also got that cross-dressing thing going – however it occurred – and so that also feels natural.

      “How does one pay a woman a compliment without appearing to want sex?”

      If she is a woman you don’t know, who you’ve just see on the street, I don’t know if it’s possible. However, a lot of women dress sexy because they want to have men glance at them and appreciate them in that way. So you could do that. Of course, that would work best when you’re dressed as a man.

      For women you know, I suppose you could say something like, “You look lovely today.” That’s not a very sexual type of compliment.

      • Thanks Georgia.

        If women dress like women because they are imprinted by society to dress like women, why isn’t there more regression to the mean? In other words, why has it become about higher heels, shorter skirts, bigger boobs, whiter teeth, more bling? Why has women’s fashion not moved in a direction towards neutrality: comfort, practicality, manageability?

        I suppose I can answer my own question, in the sense that I think that sexual dimorphism isn’t just some arbitrary societal preference, but is hardwired into us by evolution. I suppose that favours the sexes becoming (and staying) further apart with time.

        But it does bring me back to the question (and I have posed it elsewhere): if men and women were truly free to wear whatever they wanted, would I still be a crossdresser? Would there be any point? Or is it not really about the clothes, but something deeper (the role, the emotional expression) of women which I am seeking? I believe this to be so, but I am so close to the subject that I have no reliable objectivity whatever to bring to bear.

        In terms of my own role, there are definitely times in my life where I enjoy being manly and behaving in a manly way. That doesn’t feel fraudulent to me. But there are times where I want to express vulnerability, tenderness and sensitivity, and I find that extremely difficult, either openly (because society expects men to behave in a certain way), or at home (because even my wife doesn’t like to see her man cry at a sad movie– or wearing a skirt, for that matter of it). And “manning up” sometimes seems like putting on a mask.

        I don’t think it’s socially appropriate to pay a complete stranger a compliment. On the other hand, at work I can pay compliments sometimes. It helps that I suppose I am in the “safe zone”: I have never hit on a female colleague; I don’t make sexist comments; I don’t objectify women, and I have never reciprocated when overtures have been made at me. Everyone knows I am married, and many of them have met my wife and kids. That means, I flatter myself to think, that when I do pay a colleague a compliment she recognises the sincerity in it.


      • “I flatter myself to think, that when I do pay a colleague a compliment she recognises the sincerity in it.”

        I suspect that she gets the sincerity of it.

        “why has it become about higher heels, shorter skirts, bigger boobs, whiter teeth, more bling? Why has women’s fashion not moved in a direction towards neutrality: comfort, practicality, manageability?”

        Well first, look around and most women do wear clothes that are comfortable and manageable, myself included. I never dress uncomfortably.

        That said, there is tremendous pressure to go the other way because women’s self-esteem is tightly tied to how attractive they think they are, and the high heels, etc. are what our society believes makes women look attractive.

        “if men and women were truly free to wear whatever they wanted, would I still be a crossdresser? Or is it not really about the clothes, but something deeper (the role, the emotional expression) of women which I am seeking?”

        Men cross-dress for different reasons. Some cross-dress because it turns them on. And that’s because women’s clothing – or sexy clothing – are symbols of sexiness in our society. Some cross-dress because they are trying to get in touch with their feminine side, and women’s clothing can put them in a sense of feeling womanly. (Actors sometimes talk about the same thing – when they put on a costume it helps them to get into the role). These men often talk about feeling trapped in the wrong body. And they seem to think that women’s clothing has some innate meaning to it, even though it doesn’t. Other men may be a mix of all of the above.

        People wear clothing that creates an identity. I think that you would wear whatever clothing matched whatever identity you were trying to express.

        “’manning up’ sometimes seems like putting on a mask.”

        You are not alone. As much as we socialize men to think that they should feel this way, it doesn’t seem to be authentic:

        The One Thing All Men Feel, But Never Admit

  2. Powerful info because it comes for a man and one many of us admire. Thanks, Georgia, for this peek into his thoughts. Connie

  3. This is a very different glimpse into the world of the typical woman. As someone with a female body, I’ve noticed that even complete strangers think I should care that they think I’m pretty…or that I should feel happy that they comment about my looks in a positive way. That men and women alike believe that I want to be noticed and flattered, when really I just want to be acknowledged for the work I do, how my male bodied employees and coworkers are.

    I’m glad that I don’t care about being anything more than clean and fit…if I had to worry about makeup, jewelry and hairstyles too, I’d go off my rocker. Though now that I think about it, this could explain why my mom and sisters act the way they do.

  4. Rohan 7 Things

    What Hoffman says is so, so true! I’ve become good friends with, and even attracted to women that I wouldn’t normally approach or notice walking by. In a party environment the tendency is always to be drawn to the most physically attractive person, and yet that is no barometer for how intelligent, creative, interesting or compatible the person might be.

    As we talked about before, the social pressure to “be seen” with someone “hot” is also huge, and has a determining factor on men’s choice of partners. There may be a woman who is more compatible sexually, emotionally and intellectually, but because she may be a little heavy or not conform to mainstream beauty standards in some other way, the man might ditch her in favor of someone “hotter”. This is especially the case in high school, college and so on.

    Men have not had to deal with this historically; women choose their partners far less on looks alone it seems. Is it just me or is this changing though? More and more I see men looking, or trying to look like, the ripped, hairless models on the covers of “men’s magazines” and adverts. Some might say it’s good that men are making the effort to look fab, but aren’t we now just reinforcing the kinds of destructive beauty standards women have always faced onto men as well?

    Great post, it’s a pity that such a small part of a person is given so much importance over everything else!


    • Unfortunately you’re right that men are feeling more pressure to look “perfect,” too. I wrote about it a bit in this post:

      David Beckham’s Sex Sells

      Making people think that they are imperfect helps to sell a lot of product, and while men’s bodies have historically been ignored advertisers are beginning to see that they can sell products through making men want to achieve so-called perfection, too.

      And yes, it’s true that today men and women are similar in caring about looks over most other things — at least in terms of initial attraction. That’s something new that has arisen since women can now earn their own money. In the past women were more concerned with things like whether a man would be a good provider. Whereas, looks were about the only thing a woman could offer a middle-class man in the past.

      And yet most women and men think that the opposite sex is much more particular than they actually are. Most women think that most men want really skinny women – a body type that is near impossible to get without starving — plus big boobs (nearly impossible to achieve naturally). And yet most men are very attracted to normally-built women. Most men think that most women want men with big muscles. But in surveys most women say they want pretty average-build guys. Though toned is good it’s hardly a necessity. Personally, I don’t care about muscled or toned. Healthy is good.

      That said, I think that too many of us can ignore people who are on the plain side. And we all miss out.

  5. Oh, this is so true. I am definitely what one would call an “interesting” woman.

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