Denaturalisation of masculinity in Die Hard
The 1970s saw a rise in a certain type of big-budget family movie – the blockbuster. These films aim at large audiences, often starring famous actors, with stories containing moral dichotomies with heroes and villains. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Rocky (John Avildsen, 1977) are early examples, and as for the action genre, Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) is one of the major ones. Centring around the tight lipped and physically compact character of John McClane, the film recounts the story of how he outsmarts both the LAPD and the FBI in his mission in saving a group of hostages, including his wife, from some organised criminals. Thereby the film expresses ideas of gender, race and class.
McClane’s hyper masculinity can be read as a response to the loosening up of stereotype gender roles, and as an expression of class identity. In her text “Dumb Movies for Dumb People: Masculinity, the Body, and the Voice in Contemporary Action Cinema”, Yvonne Tusker argues that this kind of almost super power masculinity should be understood as performative, with the male body as spectacle, as “a set of aestheticized images to be lovingly dwelt on”.
In the film, we learn that McClane’s wife Molly has a high post in a Japanese company (the company that is attacked), something McClane criticises in the beginning of the film, arguing that she has offered their family life for her own career. Molly McClane could be said to represent the modern career woman, occupying what was long seen as male environments. She is portrayed as a most competent businesswoman, and is in that aspect superior to her husband, who in one scene hits his himself on the head, saying “think, think, think!”, illustrating his character trait as a doer rather than a thinker. But what he fails in his role as a father and a male authority he compensates through his body. Tasker argues that the hyper masculinity found in McClane is an attempt to regain former glory, meaning that McClane is being expressive of a “denaturalization of masculinity”. “Within the narrative […] the position of the father, a position of authority, lacks credibility in various ways. This lack of credibility is part of a denaturalization of masculinity and its relation to power”. McClane reunites with his wife in the end, taking back what he said earlier about her deserting the family. His failure can be understood as a consequence of not adopting to modern gender roles.
The notion of McClane’s character as a doer rather than a thinker is central also to the class aspect of Die Hard. McClane’s persona embody a working class man, signalling hard physical work through his body. Furthermore, his class belonging is shown in the clothes he wears (jeans jacket) and in his interaction with other characters. While the main bad guy (Alan Rickman) symbolises European snobbism in his knowledge of expensive suits etc., McClane only connects with people of his own class: the driver, and the police man he talks to on the police radio. Interestingly, both these characters are black, suggesting that class solidarity trump race division.
Their portrayal is not completely unproblematic, however, seeing as they are both portrayed as rather clumsy, and partly function as comic relief in their clumsiness (especially the driver). This is a typical trait of blockbuster movies, where the characters are not supposed to be complex, especially not the minor ones. One should also not romanticise the movie’s position on race relations – yes, McClane connects with the two black guys rather than some of the white characters, but it also goes without saying that the main character in an 80s blockbuster action movie like Die Hard is a white, heterosexual male. And while it is important to discuss the implications of exaggerated masculinity, as does Tusker in her text, the male action hero is not someone who is simply a passive image (to use Mulvey’s theory framework), but an active part driving the story forward. To the masses John McClane is portrayed as someone to identify with, as well as an object of admiration.
Yvonne Tusker, ”Dumb Movies for Dumb People: Masculinity, the Body, and the Voice in Contemporary Action Cinema”, in Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj (Boston and New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011). Laura Mulvey, ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Critical Vision in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj, (Boston and New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011).