Making fists with your toes: Towards a feminist analysis of Die Hard

Content note: This post contains spoilers for the film Die Hard, which you will have probably seen already since it came out in 1988. It discusses death and guns.

It gives me life when a certain sector of thin-skinned Nazis get sad about films I like. From Fury Road to Star Wars, their tears bring me joy. Since, like many other people, my favourite Christmas film is Die Hard, it is my intention to highlight how this film is in fact a celebration of femininity, and perhaps one could even call it feminist, for a rather Eighties value of feminism. Am I trolling? I don’t even know any more.

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Our hero John McClane is more of an Ellen Ripley than the Roy Rogers he insists that he is when talking to other men. There are some explicit parallels between Ripley and McClane: both deal with their terror by talking to themselves, and both have formative traumatic experiences in air ducts: arguably, both heroines are born within the air ducts. For the most part, the similarities are more subtle, though–John McClane, like Ellen Ripley, is a somewhat more feminine action hero. And, of course, the badass and the feminine are not mutually exclusive.

John begins the film estranged from his wife due to his stubborn insistence on having things his way. He is resentful, domineering, and basically a bit of a shitlord. Meanwhile, Holly Gennero/McClane, is a smart, successful, adaptable woman who has risen to a high point in her career with her negotiation skills. It is only in adversity that John learns just how valuable Holly’s skills are, and deploys them to great success and saving the day.

Yes. That’s right. Throughout Die Hard, feminine problem-solving tactics are shown to be demonstrably more successful than more masculine approaches. In cinema, and in society, masculine problem-solving is constructed as very direct and action-oriented, sometimes deploying physical aggression. In contrast, the feminine technique involves communication, negotiation, is less direct and typically non-violent.

From the moment a hostage situation begins while John is on the toilet, he embarks on his journey towards femininity. As John realises that something terrible is occurring, he makes a very smart choice: to run the fuck away, observe what is happening and seek help. He even tells himself that this was the right approach, and that to have gone for the (more manly) option of running in and intervening, he would have got himself and others killed. And he’s right.

John’s instinct to seek help from those in a position to help is a sound one. And yet, in an experience familiar to any woman, he is repeatedly not taken seriously. His first attempt with the fire alarm is ignored and his initial attempt to contact the police is completely dismissed. And yet he does not give up, he simply escalates to something which men tend to call “attention-seeking”, which is usually motivated by frustration at not being heard. It is only by acting out of frustration that he finally manages to communicate the seriousness of the situation. John’s own form of attention-seeking is dropping a body on a cop car, but hey, it fucking well works. Better than yelling or crying, so next time men aren’t listening and I’m getting irked, I’ll remember that trick.

Later on, John learns to communicate better, moving from brusque police telegraphing to conversing, rapport-building, and yet still, always, supplying vital, actionable information. Unfortunately, he is still not taken seriously. This is because most of the men in this film are absolute worthless pieces of toxically masculine shit.

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Let’s start with the “goodies”. We have a police force who stubbornly predictable and utterly unwilling to deviate from their standard script, believing themselves to know it all. We have the FBI, who are all of what the police are except even worse. The FBI guys whoop and cheer, comparing their helicopter ride to the campaign in Saigon, and we as the audience cannot help to whoop and cheer when they get blown to smithereens for not fucking listening to John McClane.

This stagnant, stubborn, insistent masculinity is also the downfall of many of the villains, most notably, Karl, the baddie with the long hair who has a hateboner for John because John killed his brother. Karl is obsessed with killing John himself, to the point that this allows John to escape and survive the film. Karl’s textbook masculine desire for revenge is what keeps John alive. It is detrimental to the goals of the baddies, and Karl is a massive liability.

There is also that dickhead Ellis, who embodies that gross Eighties business masculinity. Unlike Holly, who has been shown throughout the film to be a talented negotiator, Ellis is shit at his job. Yet, like many men, Ellis is convinced he’s a lot better suited for the job than the woman who is manifestly good at it. He absolutely blows the deal, to the point of getting himself killed. Ellis, too, is a massive liability.

Hans Gruber, Eddie and Theo are by far the most useful of the bad guys. Eddie successfully manipulates and deceives law enforcement, delaying intervention. Theo is a gifted multitasker, cracking locks, playing lookout and making sure everyone has the information they need, coordinating the escape. We never see Theo acting through direct violence, and yet almost every action Theo takes is completely successful, right up until the end, when he is taken out by Argyle. Even then, arguably Theo has done better than any of the other baddies as he is only knocked out, not gruesomely killed, and the guy is probably capable of negotiating a plea bargain. Hans Gruber himself is also not afraid to deploy his “feminine wiles”: he attempts to (metaphorically) seduce John by pretending to be a hostage, and deploys a feminine style of management. It is clear that he has listened to and processed Theo’s assessment of what is necessary to open the vault, and he has factored this into his plan. Perhaps if the team of bad guys had comprised of more baddies like Hans, Eddie and Theo and fewer like Karl, they would have pulled off the heist.

Is the title Die Hard a warning? Does it mean that hardness could get you killed, while softness leads to success and survival? That interpretation certainly makes more sense, since none of the characters are particularly “die-hard” about any of their beliefs. The “terrorists” are charlatans, and even John has a pretty hard time explaining why he wants the one thing he keeps putting his foot down over (staying in New York), as though he isn’t highly committed to the idea. We are not shown many die-hard commitments, yet we are shown many men dying hard.

DIE HARD (1988) BRUCE WILLIS CREDIT: 20th CENTURY FOX/COURTESY NEAL PETERS COLLECTION

When one tries to imagine a still from Die Hard, it is often perhaps John McClane, brandishing a massive fucking gun–the ultimate symbol of masculinity. John McClane is lauded for his direct, “just shoot them” approach. And yet, in John’s hands, the primary function of the gun is not as a weapon. There are more instances within the film of John using the gun as some sort of tool than as something to kill or hurt people with. Of the kills directly attributable to John (eight, by my count), only four are from his firing a gun (the others are: one broken neck, two from an exploding lift shaft, and one by defenestration). And in most of the instances of shooting, John doesn’t “just shoot them”, he offers them an out first. We could perhaps attribute a ninth death to John, by his wielding Al as a weapon. It is only from John’s (feminine) emotional support and nurturing of Al that Al regains the confidence to shoot. We will not count other deaths for which John could be indirectly responsible, those of men who died from not listening to him (some cops, the FBI guys, Ellis), because that was their own fault for not believing a survivor.

For the rest of the time, John is far more creative in his use of firearms. In his hands, a gun becomes a multitude of useful objects as he displays the kind of creative thinking that neurosexists like to term feminine as opposed to the logical, analytical male approach. The gun, wielded by John, is a device for allowing escapes as a rig and a thing to get back into the building, as well as jamming a fan. It is also repeatedly used as a last-resort communication device, shooting to make noise and draw attention, shooting to direct a crowd away from explosive death.

Hans Gruber, too, understands the power of the gun as more than a simple weapon, as he traps bare-footed John by instructing his bad guys shoot to break glass. Both of these men, in traversing the traditionally masculine relationship with the gun as a weapon, are far more successful than when they use guns for their intended purposes.

Even John’s costume may go beyond its face value of showing of his masculine physique. He begins the film fully dressed, is stripped down to his vest when the hostage situation begins, and bare-chested for almost all of the final act. We see one other bare chest in the film: a woman’s chest on a porn poster right at the beginning of John’s heroine’s journey. Again, we can most readily compare him to Ellen Ripley, who ends Alien in her vest and knickers. Perhaps John is sloughing away his masculine conditioning with his masculine clothing. [EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that I missed another bare chest in Die Hard. It’s another woman’s chest, though…]

die-hard

The still above shows what is one of my favourite scenes in the film, and it is (in my opinion) the emotional climax of Die Hard. John has realised that he is unlikely to personally survive his predicament, his only desire now is that Holly survives. Bare chested, with bleeding feet, he talks to Al through his walkie talkie. And it is here that he finally showcases what he has learned throughout this experience. From the inception of the hostage situation, we are witness to John’s emotional side. We see his terror: far from being a gung-ho action man, John McClane is a man who is scared shitless. We also see that he cares about others. After throwing a bunch of TNT down a lift shaft, successfully removing some explosives from circulation and killing some baddies, his first question on reestablishing communications with outside is a concerned “Is the building on fire?” And yet, up until this moment in the bathroom, he does not explicitly communicate his emotions, nor demonstrate much understanding of others’ emotional needs.

It finally clicks for him. He says to Al, ‘She’s heard me say “I love you” a thousand times. She never heard me say “I’m sorry.”‘ In this moment, John gets it. He gets what is wrong with his wife, why she’s pissed off at him. He gets that love isn’t enough. And he also opens up and shows his vulnerability to his new friend, being metaphorically as well as literally mostly naked in this scene.

Maybe John’s newfound understanding came from spending a few hours acting like Holly, problem-solving with communication and trying to understand what other parties want, rather than acting like his hero Roy Rogers. While Holly is not in the film as much as I’d like, when she is, she is nothing but competent with her feminine skillset. I get the feeling that if Holly had been in the toilet at the beginning of the hostage situation rather than John, the film probably would have been about ten minutes long because she has far more experience in using these techniques than John. John’s direct acts of aggression do little to contribute to his ultimate success–when he attacks, it is in immediate self-defence. The day is saved, instead, through John’s developing communication skills, his asking for help, and relationship-building.

The end of the film, in light of all of this character development, is therefore somewhat jarring. It kind of ends with Holly publicly announcing she is taking back John’s surname, and that’s all. One would expect, given what was foreshadowed, that John would apologise, as he learned he needed to, and perhaps move to join LAPD and partner up with Al. This does not happen. Maybe the crew realised they had just made a chick flick and felt that they needed to masc it up. Or maybe they suddenly realised they wanted sequels and couldn’t possibly do that if John didn’t repeatedly estrange himself from his family to end up in predicaments where he needed to reunite with them. Sadly, John didn’t learn the lessons he had just learned, and ultimately lost Holly and became a deadbeat to his children. It is a warning to us all.

Ultimately, the Nakatomi Plaza was not the cocoon in which John McClane entered a cuck and emerged Feminine, but had its lessons truly stuck, it could have been.

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23 responses to “Making fists with your toes: Towards a feminist analysis of Die Hard

  • oopster74

    And there I was thinking it was just an eighties action film lol.

    I’m not exactly sure on the timings of this, but from my point of view, Bruce Willis had only just finished filiming “Moonlighting” where he was the wise cracking PI, but not considered a hard action figure (was it just me or did the series get weirder towards the last few series?). Die Hard changed how the world saw him I think.

    Interested to read your take on the next 2 films in the series. Number 4 was so so, and I only watched part of 5 it was so bad.

  • Ky Purnell

    Please can you do this for Predator?

  • The Skept

    Great analysis, although there was another point I would have liked you to touch on. In particular, the little plot device involving Holly’s watch. It first appears very early in the story, as a corporate gift reflecting Holly’s success as a business negotiator.
    (Ellis: “Show him the watch… Go on, show him… (to McClane) A little token of our appreciation for all her work…”)

    From one viewpoint, it could be seen as simply reinforcing the value the feminine bargaining skills ahead of brute force. But on the other hand (no pun intended), it is more a symbol of the material benefits of a very masculine world of business. Ellis makes the point to McClane, braggingly, that it is a Rolex. And Holly appears embarrassed – perhaps not so much that it is a corporate reward, but rather that it is a significantly decadent one. A gift that John would never have been able to afford for her, being on a policeman’s salary. (And although the latter point is an awfully worn cliche, it is presented with enough subtlety that the scene comfortably gets away with it.) If John is meant to feel emasculated by the whole dialogue, he manages to not display it.

    I suspect that the audience, on the whole, is not aware of the virtual neon sign screaming “Chekov’s Gun” over the whole business of Holly’s watch at this point. I can admit that I certainly wasn’t the first time I saw the movie. (Or, for that matter, the following 16 times). But we come to appreciate the moment when the injured Gruber is hanging out of a smashed hi-rise window, threatening to take Holly (and potentially John as well) with him to his death, gripped to her wrist. It is significant that it is John who unclasps the Rolex to release Gruber and save Holly. The metaphor is not lost: It is our male protagonist, freeing the woman from the trappings of a patriarchy, that is responsible for saving them both.

  • southsidesocialist

    Reblogged this on Mitherings from Morningside and commented:
    Excellent analysis

  • babyguns1992

    Your analysis is completely wrong, you know nothing about this. And of anything Ripley is more masculine than feminine.

  • Dylan Christensen

    Your analysis is completely wrong, you know nothing about this. And of anything Ripley is more masculine than feminine.

    You’re feminazi shit is very much bullshit, it’s about a wise cracking NYPD detective who kills a bunch of bad guys without wearing any shoes. Stop trying to get all deep with it, take it at face value.

  • Horza Edeo (@HorzaEdeo)

    So very excellent. Extra bonus points for using defenestration too.

  • Tim

    This is sad. Not for what had been written here, just for the empty shell that is the joyless existence you lead each day.

    • stavvers

      You mean you don’t like Die Hard? I feel bad for you, son. You’re missing out on some quality feminist entertainment.

      • Tim

        The book was much better. But the film was just a hastily rewritten adaption of what was actually a father-daughter story.

        And unfortunately, the girl dies at the end. Dragged to her death by Hans, using the Rolex the father had bought for her graduation. Oh, the tragic irony.

        You should try reading about it.

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