Show us your Shanghai Tootsie Shot
It's rush hour on Nanjing Road. Take a second, and you'll spot her. She's bang in the middle of a crowd. In this bustling city, everybody is heading somewhere, and she is heading somewhere too. We keep her in focus while she walks, making those around her mere accessories. We have our star. She's one in a million, and she has our attention.
The Tootsie Shot. You know it well. You know it because you've seen it a thousand times in movies from "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Devil Wears Prada" to "Crocodile Dundee" and "The Wolf of Wall Street." Sometimes the Tootsie is an opening scene. At others, it pops up in a short transitional moment, often mid-montage. Just 30 seconds of someone walking down a busy street. So, why is it memorable? Why is this fleeting image so stickily?
A visual cliché, the Tootsie Shot represents one thing: opportunity. And what I've learned from watching far too many movies is not to ignore it. The Tootsie might be common. The Tootsie might be brief. But what it is and how it's used matters.
"Tootsie" is a 1982 comedy directed by Sydney Pollack. It stars Dustin Hoffman, who plays a struggling actor called Michael. Michael can't get a job, so he disguises himself as a woman, calls himself Dorothy and eventually gets cast on a soap opera. The first time we see Dorothy is in "the shot," and where our shot got its name.
When someone says they are "doing a Tootsie," they mean three things. First, they're using a long lens – also known as a telephoto lens – to shoot something far away while picking an actor out from a crowd. That's the second thing. You need a crowd because density is key. The third ingredient is fun. The Tootsie is often comedic and upbeat, presenting a character embarking on a professional adventure or personal journey. But while straightforward and rehashed, the Tootsie Shot has played alongside bigger social changes that direct how we think about life. It's become shorthand for success and making it against all odds.
We all want to stand out from the crowd and be successful. But what does that really mean? In Hollywood, being a winner looks like one thing. That's why we recognize the Tootsie. A protagonist has a dream and works hard to achieve it. Usually alongside a fertile social life with impossibly good-looking friends and a loft house apartment. Effortless. But dangerous too, because there's a real correlation between a culture that tells people they can have anything and the existence of low self-esteem. We hear a lot about work-life balance. It's nonsense. You can't have it all. You can't.
So, any version of success must admit what it's missing. The problem is that our ideas of success are not our own. Advertising, movies and other people create them. We shouldn't give up on goals. But we should ensure they are our own. Because it's bad enough not to get what you want out of life, it's worse to have an idea of what you want, achieve it, and then find out it isn't what you wanted at all.
Shanghai is a thumping metropolis filled with opportunities. Between the go-getters and yoga bods, it's easy to feel unworthy. But success isn't one thing, and life isn't a movie. People are robbed of their happy endings all the time. The silly notion of a meritocratic society – in which our position in life is not accidental but merited and deserved – makes failure even more crushing. We can't let that scary truth spoil our story. For me, success is being your columnist. For you, it might be raising a family, launching a startup, or feeding the cats in Fuxing Park. The key is to find whatever makes you tick and do your best to get there.
It's said we are all stars in our own movies. We are also extras in everyone else's. There's a mystery in the people surrounding us, and we should approach one another inquisitively. We never know the role the person next to us may play in our life's story, nor do we know how we might change theirs.
Here is home to the masses, but the masses are people with individual ambitions and fears. It's a new year, a new zodiac and a new opportunity to write a new narrative. Now's the time to Tootsie. Shanghai is reblossoming, and she's ready for her sequel. The city needs a little work, but don't we all. To Tootsie is to tell yourself you're the star of your own show. You are strong enough to carry your story and deserving of your own success.
So, should you spot me in a crowd with my head held high, know I'm mid-montage, telling myself I'm worthy of a Tootsie Shot. And to me, you're worthy of one too.