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?