Movies are a form of entertainment. However, like other aspects of popular culture, movies do more than entertain. The crime genre and especially the hardbody films are no exception. In the words of Gray Cavender, crime films tend to “circulate ideologies – about good and evil, order and disorder – and images of masculinity and femininity” (Cavender, 172). Unfortunately, these ideologies tend to be implanted into the plot and characters in ways that often go unnoticed.
In recent discussions of female representation, a controversial issue has been whether women can successfully be a part of crime films (Cuklanz and Moorti, 115); in this case the Die Hard series. On the one hand, Die Hard producers seem to believe that the simple presence of female bodies in the series satisfactorily fulfills a quota, perhaps because the characters are part of the plot. From this perspective, the representation of women is either ignored or simply not taken into consideration. On the other hand, however, others argue that a number, or the vague elaboration of a female character, does not satisfy an allotment and that the Die Hard series raises questions of gender inequality (Nilsson). Cavender, one of this view’s main proponents, says, “Men dominate the crime genre. Indeed, in the typical plot, a woman exists as either a ‘good girl’ love interest or a femme fatale, a dangerous woman who threatens the hero” (Cavender, 161). According to this view, whenever women are actually developed in the crime films, though to a minimal point, their representations can be classified by a limited amount of categories. In the Die Hard series, this is no exception. Though the women in the series do not necessarily take the roles Cavender suggests, they are still segregated into three less important roles: the hostage, the idle representative, and the silent assassin. These three limited categories can be used to find the overall representation of women within the Die Hard series.
For this research, I analyzed the first four films of the series: Die Hard (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2007). Unfortunately, I could not analyze the fifth movie, A Good Day to Die Hard, as it does not premiere until February of 2013. The analysis of these four movies, ranging from 1988 to 2007, should allow us to see how Hollywood circulates ideas about gender and the representation of women, and how these representations have changed over time.
The Die Hard series is distributed by 20th Century Fox and still has the main character, John McClane (Bruce Willis), as the epitome of the tough, heroic man. In the series, the movies revolved around McClane, the bad guy, and the crime. Because of this plot and the limited supporting cast common among hardbody films, women did not play a big role. After seeing Die Hard, I predicted that in the next three films, women would become more prominent and actually contribute to the plot of the movies since feminism was rising in American society in the 1980s (Nilsson). Due to women’s attempts to create a more equal society, laws were created that were beneficial to them, and several demonstrations were held against gender differences and stereotyping. Both men and woman received a whole new perspective on the role of the women in society and the media (Nilsson). Women now had more power than ever before.
Looking at the developing film industry, numerous films produced in the 1980s were highly connected to the current feministic development in the society. These films took the typical gender stereotypes and transformed them to provide power to the female character, different from the majority of films produced before this era. From the start of my research, it was apparent that the producers of the first two Die Hards (Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver, and executive producer Charles Gordon) and the director (John McTiernan) were not aware of this trend as their development was focused on the graphics, not the representation of the women.
Die Hard and Die Harder
For the purpose of this research, I analyzed the first two films together because they presented an identical representation of women, likely because they were filmed two years apart from each other (1988 and 1990) and still had the same director. In fact, these two movies were so alike that Die Hard 2 (also known as Die Harder) even acknowledged its repetitiveness. McClane (Willis), finding himself in the exact situation as in Die Hard, said: “Oh man, I can’t fucking believe this. Another basement, another elevator. How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” (Die Hard 2) In the words of Drew Ayers, Die Harder “plays out the exact same scenario from the first film (but this time in an airport and on an airplane), although the film makes the audience aware that McClane knows he is in a sequel, perhaps allowing the repetitiveness of the film to be easier to digest while injecting humor in the formulaic narrative” (Ayers, 57). It is no coincidence then that the representation of women also remained the same within these two films.
In history, women and crime hardly never came together (Cavender, 174). This was something extremely noticeable in Die Hard. I looked up the cast and found that, of the named characters, 28 were male and 5 were female. Not only are these numbers disproportionate, but none of the females actually participated in any of the action and all of them were hostages, except for McClane’s daughter, Lucy McClane. All of the women in the first Die Hard, including the unnamed, could be placed into one of the three categories previously mentioned: the hostage. The hostage is a key character in crime genre. Because of Die Hard’s common plot (the hero, the bad guy, and the crime), women did not have large roles throughout the series. In fact, within Die Hard and Die Harder, the hostage was the only true female character available.
To further understand my research, it would be best to clarify on the identity of the hostage. By “the hostage,” I don’t necessarily mean the female (or females) that McClane risked his life for when heavily armed terrorists took hostages in a corporate office building in the first film. By hostages, I am referring to the hostage representation common among the women in the series: weak, dependent, fragile, and emotional. These characteristics make for an all around insignificant character in the crime genre, yet this feminine character is also the most frequent in the Die Hard series. In the words of Cavender, “though these images appear to be natural, they are socially produced” (Cavender, 159). Needless to say, the women in the films are subordinate to the men.
Of the females in the first two movies, a couple stood out above the others, though not for the best reasons. When the main antagonist of Die Hard, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), ordered the terrorists to take the workers hostage on the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Plaza building, all chaos broke loose. Once the shooting finally came to an end, Hans asked for silence. Even though the actual fighting had ceased, the incessant cries continued, none of which were coming from men. After this part of the movie, 23 minutes in, the only woman that was still part of the plot and had a speaking role was Holly Gennaro, McClane’s wife. That is of course, if you don’t count the numerous wails of horror that many different women were responsible for. Due to the lack of female bodies in Die Hard, their inactiveness, and their minimal complexity, we do not have a lot to work with. This observation itself says a lot about the start of the Die Hard series.
Holly, though in the physical sense a hostage, was the only real attempt to portray an empowered woman in Die Hard. She was the lone strong female character; fiercely independent, and formidable, even if she needed a bit of rescuing. Bonnie Bedelia, the actress that played Holly, wonderfully represented her character. Bedelia would guard her facial expressions when in scenes with Hans and the rest of the bad guys, but be emotional and open when around the other hostages or McClane. In one of the final shots, Holly punched the TV reporter who interviewed her kids, knocking out two of his teeth in the process; the only time a woman partook of physical violence in Die Hard.
In every way, the second film continued the representation of women set by Die Hard. Women were still irrelevant to the story plot and equally lacking in complexity, though it would do good to point out some minor attempts to empower them. Towards the beginning of Die Harder, there were some noticeable scenes. An older woman was sitting beside Holly as she was flying to New York to meet up with McClane. When Holly spotted her fumbling through her purse, the woman pulled out a tazer and told Holly that she was always prepared; her character was now instantly powerful…and still unrelated to the plot of the film.
Holly’s sense of power is more evident in the second film when she becomes a hostage within a plane in danger of crashing. The terrorists decided to overtake an airport in order to free the new antagonist, and some planes were withheld from landing, all in risk of running out of fuel. To Holly’s disappointment, she was on the same flight as Richard Thornburg, the newscaster she punched at the end of the first film. When Thornburg first noticed Holly, he turned and yelled at the plane’s stewardess: “You cannot put me near that woman!” Upon hearing this, Holly responded flatly: “He means he’s filed a restraining order against me. I’m not allowed within fifty feet of him” (Die Hard 2). As if to mimic the first film, Holly ended up taking the older woman’s tazer and using it on Thornburg when he created panic by revealing the terrorists to the public. With the help of the tazer and some questionable courage, Holly was depicted as a character with power…and still a physical hostage that needed to be rescued.
Within the first two Die Hards, the only female depiction was stereotypical. Though there was a minimal attempt to empower the women, their overall representation was clear. Besides Holly, only the news reporter in Die Harder, Samantha Coleman, was a reoccurring character. She would be verbally pushed around and manhandled throughout the film and had to beg for the information she needed (and never received). Thus, her character joined the hostage category without ever being in physical danger. Holly, despite her newfound power, was “physically helpless, awaiting rescue by her noble-warrior husband” (Cohen, 77). She, along with the rest of the women in Die Hard and Die Harder, was still a hostage.
Die Hard with a Vengeance
Five years after the second Die Hard and seven years after the original, Die Hard with a Vengeance premiered in 1995. With a storyline much like the past two, the third Die Hard was once again a big hit. Unlike the plot, the representation of women changed. Sara Nilsson would likely argue that this change was bound to happen:
Many other laws enforced in the 1980s had a great impact on how the following films would represent differences between gender, and also how women would come to express themselves in the society. The “Independent woman” became a definition both in the society and in film. Productions that enhanced the female independency and strength were produced in genres that only men had been presented in before, such as action and science fiction. To present a character that had the same physical and psychological strength as a man was something new, challenging and provocative. (Nilsson)
While the producers of the Die Hard series were clearly getting the message, their new female representations were not much better than the last. Female characters were now numerous around the police department with 12 different women visible in the opening scene: some as call takers, others as police officers, and even some as special detectives, as in the case of Connie Kowalski and Officer Jane. While Kowalski had a badge around her neck, her emotional side was still evident. Despite being a detective, she still played no role in the storyline and never participated in any of the action. In fact, she was gone after the first twenty minutes of the film. Officer Jane was even less noticeable as she had no lines and was only referred to once. All these characters would be placed in the Idle Representative category since they were presented as females with authority at first glance, but they never actually showed that power and were, like the hostages, utterly irrelevant to the plot.
The only other vaguely developed female character in Die Hard with a Vengeance was Katya, played by Sam Phillips. Early in the film she could be seen among the terrorists, smoking a cigarette while carrying a bag. Though she clearly stood out, she disappeared after this scene. A few minutes later she reemerged, working independently; in appearance, the evil opposite to McClane. Katya snuck up behind a police officer and then proceeded to attack him with her long, curved knife. She slit the side of his throat, the front, stabbed him in the gut—causing him to bend over— and followed by stabbing him in the lower back, all in three seconds. Were it not for the main terrorist of the film, Simon Gruber, Katya would have continued butchering the police officer. This gives the impression that women can be as powerful as men, but they still need to be kept in check. Simon had to grab her knife arm midstrike and say, “I think he’s dead my dear” (Die Hard with a Vengeance) before Katya could gain control of herself once more. She never said a word. In fact, throughout the entire film, Katya never had a single line. Not only was she portrayed as a dangerous silent assassin, but her character never reappeared after this scene, less than half an hour into the movie.
Through Katya, the directors and producers of Die Hard with a Vengeance introduce their belief on women associated with crime. They seemingly believe that women can be involved in police matter, but they must be sitting idly behind a desk at the department and never in the action. If they taste combat, beware of the results.
Live Free or Die Hard
In 2007, twelve years after the previous film and 19 years after the original Die Hard, Live Free or Die Hard hit the theaters of the world. With newer and better graphics, the film was bound to be noticeably different. Still starring the better than ever Bruce Willis, John McClane was once again going to take on the world. But what were the women doing?
The depiction of women in the fourth film started off a lot like its predecessor. Women were once again visible in the department and held the same jobs as the men did, except for the head positions. The women were almost equally detectable amongst the police department and some of them were in the more advanced stages: detectives and members of the FBI. Throughout the movie only two of the females were actually reoccurring characters: Mai Linh and Lucy Gennaro, John’s daughter.
All through the series, there were some characters that seemed reoccurring despite having different actors. Mai Linh could be seen as the more developed and upgraded form of Katya from the third film. From the beginning, it was clear that Linh was authoritative. When two of the criminals failed to capture McClane, they were afraid to report to her. One of them said, “You better call her” and the other responded, “No, you call her!” (Live Free or Die Hard). When they finally told Linh what happened, she reported to McClane’s new antagonist—her boyfriend—Thomas Gabriel. Linh’s moment of dominance only lasted about thirty seconds since she herself was not the power that the men feared, but the messenger. Still, she clearly was a strong person, not to mention demanding. After she singlehandedly captured Matt Farrell, a computer genius helping McClane, she physically twisted his right hand up behind his back and subdued him, proving her authority.
Linh was the most successfully represented female in the Die Hard series. Unlike every other female character, she never displayed the personality of a hostage. In fact, she held hostages of her own. She was not an irrelevant, passive character; she actually fought with McClane and came very near to killing him after their five minute long battle. Yet she was still fighting for the criminals and using her power malevolently. She, like Katya, was a danger to society and masculinity. Before the first hour of a two hour long movie, she had already been killed off by McClane. Once again, the directors and producers were ready to get back to the action – and the men.
Towards the end of the film, the only other reoccurring female returned: Lucy Gennaro. She was first presented as a disobedient daughter, disappeared, and then came back as Gabriel’s hostage. Lucy, like Holly, was not afraid of the men around her and was willing to stand up to the criminals. When Matt, Gabriel’s other hostage at the time, heard Lucy talking back to the terrorists, he suggested, “Seriously, uh, you probably shouldn’t antagonize them, since they have all the loaded guns and whatnot.” Lucy barked back, “Listen, will you just take a minute and dig deep for a bigger set of balls, cause you’re gonna need ‘em before we’re through” (Live Free or Die Hard).
Lucy was an empowered female character. She had the same courage that was presented 19 years earlier in the first Die Hard. Both Holly and Lucy knew how to push the men’s buttons and seem powerful – when they truly were not. Their power was only verbal and never got them out of trouble. Their only supremacy, a power that was not presented in any other characters throughout the series, was their connection to McClane.
Although movies are a form of entertainment, they impact the public in numerous ways. When it comes to media, ideologies about gender and crime tend to circulate; ideologies that influence how we think. Over time, these beliefs become natural in our minds when they are actually artificially and socially made. Within the Die Hard series, the gender inequality is evident as the women can be broken down into three categories: the hostage, the idle representative, and the silent assassin.
In terms of numbers, the men dramatically outweighed the women. Over the span of almost twenty years, the ratio of visible characters clearly changed. Throughout the movies, there were noticeably more women in the police department and their hostage characteristics slowly disappeared. Their complexity, on the other hand, remained minimal as they transitioned into the idle representatives—behind the desk and out of harm’s way. Though there were some attempts to empower the women, their representation remained stereotypical. When they physically empowered a female, the character became uncontrollable and a threat to society. The silent assassins had power, but they did not know how to use it and required the order of man to stay in line. Obviously, they had to disappear and the directors made sure of that.
At first glance, one might believe that the Die Hard series successfully bettered the representation of women over time. Without a doubt, the women became more visible, but not better represented. The Die Hard series is all about masculinity and men. The women are both physically and characteristically left behind. According to the producers, the only successful power allowed women has to be based off a man. That is why, when the action goes down in the world of men, it would be beneficial to have McClane in your name.
Ayers Drew. “Bodies, Bullets, and Bad Guys: Elements of the Hardbody Film.” Film Criticism, 32.3 (2008): 41-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.
Cavender, Gray. “Detecting Masculinity.” Making Trouble: Cultural Constructions of Crime, Deviance, & Control. New York: Aldine de Gruyter., 1999. 157—75.
Cohen, Paul. “COWBOYS DIE HARD: REAL MEN AND BUSINESSMEN IN THE REAGAN-ERA BLOCKBUSTER.” Film & History (03603695) 41.1 (2011): 71-81. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Cuklanz, Lisa M., and Sujata Moorti. “Television’s “New” Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women And Victimization.” Critical Studies In Media Communications 23.4 (2006): 302-321. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Bruce Willis. Prod. Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver. 20th Century Fox, 1988. 2012.
Die Hard 2. Dir. Renny Harlin. Perf. Willis. Prod. Lawrence Gordon, and Joel Silver Charles Gordon. 20th Century Fox, 1990. 2012.
Die Hard with a Vengeance. By Jonathan Hensleigh. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Bruce Willis. Prod. John McTiernan and Michael Tadross. 20th Century Fox, 1995. 2012.
Live Free or Die Hard. By Mark Bomback and David Marconi. Dir. Len Wiseman. Perf. Bruce Willis. Prod. Michael Fottrell. 20th Century Fox, 2007. 2012.
Nilsson, Sara. “Women’s Representation in 1980s American Film: Development, Influence, and Effect.” SBCC Film Reviews. 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.