About halfway through "Tootsie," when Dustin Hoffman stops to contemplate the woman he is portraying, he says, "I think Dorothy is smarter than I am."

It's an appropriate mid-line to this movie. "Tootsie" is not just another zany tale of a man dressed up as a woman. Dustin Hoffman, an unemployed and unemployable actor named Michael Dorsey, finds work in a soap opera as an actress named Dorothy Michaels.

But he does more than step into a woman's shoes; he slips into a woman's mind set and life. In the process he turns from something of a cad, even a pig, to someone who listens and cares.

Indeed, the central conceit of the movie is that Michael Dorsey is not only smarter when he is playing Dorothy Michaels, he is, well, nicer. More to the point, the conceit is that women are smarter, women are nicer.

I wasn't surprised to find this theme in such a wonderfully funny, even touching, movie. In some ways, I think it is the theme of the past year. We seem to have seesawed in some peculiar competition of the sexes from seeing men as superior, to seeing women as superior.

For months, we have been deluged with studies of gender gaps by political pollsters and social scientists suggesting that women are more moral, more caring. We used to ask, Why can't a woman be more like a man? Now we ask, Why can't a man be more like a woman?

"Tootsie," billed as the relationship movie of the year, is about a man who does become more like a woman. As such it works delightfully. But I think there is something else going on in the film and maybe in real life. If "Tootsie" pushes the idea that men are nicer in their personal lives when they are acting like women, it also sells another subliminal notion: women are more successful in public life when they are really men.

Dorothy Michaels lands a role in the TV soap opera, and becomes a heroine and a battler for women's rights. In fact, it is a man, finally, who is the strongest woman, the one feminist on the set.

He becomes the female role model, the female mentor, the one who sticks up for "her" rights. He cuts through sexual harassment, rewrites a script on wife abuse, confronts the male chauvinist director. He never once worries what he has done to provoke their behavior. He is never once called a bitch or a women's libber or "one of them."

I know, I know, this is just a movie, and lately there's been a modest trend among moviemakers to give a leading man a "woman's problem." In "Kramer vs. Kramer," Dustin Hoffman portrayed the single parent in a world that doesn't help us balance work and family. In "Author, Author," Al Pacino had eight kids and a Broadway deadline. In this movie, Hoffman is called "Tootsie" and pursued around the set.

It's as if the stories that center around women's issue--"Diary of a Mad Housewife," "An Unmarried Woman," "Nine to Five"-- become feminist tracts, labeled "preachy" when they star real live women. It's as if movie producers, and maybe audiences, are most able to accept these problems as "legitimate" if they happen to a man.

In real life, no one calls Dustin Hoffman or Alan Alda strident. In real life, women's issues acquire an enhanced legitimacy when they are portrayed by men, pressed by men, taken seriously by men.

On the screen, Michael Dorsey came away with something from his life as a woman: sensitivity, people smarts. But he also, and less consciously, had brought something to his life as Dorothy Michaels: an unambiguous instinct to fight against being put down, and kept down.

These are in some ways traditional values. If sensitivity has been a female strength, fighting for yourself has been a male strength. In a time when the differences between the sexes are being seen as competition--who is better, smarter, nicer--there was a trade-off worth noting.

At the very end of this movie, Jessica Lange says to Dustin Hoffman, "I miss Dorothy." He says, "So do I." What does she miss? Dorothy's strength? What does he miss? Dorothy's understanding? It's all these missing pieces that are floating in the gender gap.