I once wrote an essay for a class on American masculinity in film about how the male characters in Die Hard avoid seeming gay. Here it is in all its way-too-in-depth glory.
“I Love You, Man… with a Firm Handshake: Quelling Homoeroticism in Die Hard“
John McClane, protagonist of John McTeirnan’s 1988 film Die Hard, is heterosexual. This may not appear as the singlemost relevant detail of the character, but the film makes relentless efforts to make the viewer aware of this. In the first scene, as McClane disembarks his flight, he is checked out by a female flight attendant and in turn checks her out. This is only after the camera focuses in on his wedding ring, marking him as a heterosexually married man. In addition the film makes passing shows of McClane looking at scantily clad pictures of women, as both comic relief and assertions of what attracts him. This insistence upon affirming McClane’s heterosexuality and nullifying any suggestion of homosexuality in Die Hard means that the film argues for the mutual exclusivity of masculinity and homosexuality.
David Savran in his work Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture explores how exactly the audience is dissuaded against suggestions of homoeroticism in 80s action films. The first important concept is the action hero as being both an idealized masculine hero and an object of spectacle. While Savran uses Rambo as an example in his work, the same observations can be applied to any number of hardboiled 80s action stars.
One the one hand, his enormous strength, self-confidence, and resilience clearly mark him as a phallic male, as the one, indeed the only one […], who ‘has’ the phallus. On the other hand, his masculinity and his muscles are so constantly and extravagantly on parade that he simultaneously undergoes what can be described only as feminization.1
McClane is then both glorified and exploited, seen as both the “hypermasculine and the feminized, as both ‘having’ and ‘being’ the phallus.”2 This dual identification does not mean that the hero is emasculated, rather constantly at risk of emasculation. In order to prevent this, McClane’s masculinity must be exercised at a rapid-fire rate. This is demostrated in various ways, like pulling himself up into an air vent, being shot at from a helicopter, and having his bare feet torn to shreds by glass. In performing these painful feats, McClane “allow[s] his sadistic, masculinized half to kick his masochistic, feminized flesh ‘to shit’ […].”3 In being brutalized, McClane shows how tough he is. These threats kept consistently at bay, he proves his masculinity.
Masculinity is then to be understood as a performance. One is not masculine by nature— one must demonstrate his masculinity through physical acts in order for him to be characterized as such. Savran’s observations on Rambo, as well as Sylvester Stallone more generally, continue to be relevant: “[M]asculinity is figured in [Stallone’s] films not as a presence but a lack, as not a stable state of being but a performance, he must continually restage his inner struggle, challenging himself anew […].”4 Masculinity as performance is important to understanding why the film continually insists upon McClane’s heterosexuality. It is another facet of masculinity that must be restaged, reaffirmed, redemonstrated.
While physical endurance and tolerance for pain are important aspects of masculine affirmation, equally important are how the character evades sexual threats. This is most explicit in the rigidly homosocial relationship between John McClane and Al Powell. The two men have the shared experience of being middle class cops on the street, and their bond develops rapidly and strongly over the course of the film. Powell is the only character with whom McClane has explicitly emotional conversations with, for example the scene in which Powell tells McClane that he shot a 13-year-old child or, especially telling, the scene in which McClane tells Powell that Holly deserves better than a “bum” like him. These actions indicate a kind of affection for Powell, some deeper connection that might be considered even romantic.
In order to curb the potential feminization of either character by this relationship, the film consistently reminds the viewer that both men are heterosexual. McClane’s heterosexual affirmations have already been mentioned. Powell’s sexual orientation is no less explicit. During the first scene in which we see Powell, at the minimart, the dialogue is quick to inform the viewer that he has a wife. Even the aforementioned emotional conversations between McClane and Powell tend to revolve around their family life—McClane’s marital strife, Powell’s pregnant wife, etc. Their brotherly, “no-homo” comaraderie is cemented in the final scene. After finally taking out all the bad guys and saving the hostages, McClane exits the building with his wife. Then, for the first time, McClane makes eye contact with Powell. The result is perhaps the most overt sign of affection between men in the film—they smile warmly at each other, slowly walk up to each other, and embrace. Then, just as soon, they removed themselves from the hug. This is the extent of male affection according to the film. And even then, it is under limited circumstances that these men embracing can “make sense.” McClane and Powell are allowed to hug only because of the extreme catharsis of the moment, the reprieve felt at the end of the movie once all the bad guys are apparently dead and the joy of meeting in person for the first time. Men can show signs of close friendship, but only under the surrounding, even suffocating, context of heterosexuality, and with little room for homoerotic suggestion.
It is not that this film condemns homosexuality outright—rather, it argues for the mutual exclusivity of homosexuality and masculinity. Continuing with Savran’s analysis of the Rambo films: “First, First Blood (like most action movies) evokes male homosexuality not as sexual deviance, as love between men (a very slippery and dangerous category in this tale of passionate male bonding), but as gender deviance, as a kind of feminization.”5 One cannot be tough and gay at the same time in the Die Hard universe. Interestingly, the only explicit mention of homosexuality in the film is an insult that McClane delivers to Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson: “Asshole? I’m not the one who just got butt-fucked on national TV, Dwayne.” This quote equates being “butt-fucked” with ineptitude in a stereotypically masculine occupation. McClane cannot be the masculine hero if he reveals homoerotic inclinations. As a result, his heterosexuality is brought to the viewer’s attention again and again, quelling any possibility of the character having anything more than a homosocial relationship with any other male.
The relationships between other male characters are similarly prevented from being construed as homoerotic, or for that matter even remotely feminine. Take for example Karl and Tony. The easiest argument against this relationship’s potential homoeroticism is the fact that they are brothers. Die Hard has already been established as a film that upholds traditional values—most clearly represented by Holly re-accepting her husband’s last name in the conclusion—so incest is absolutely out of the question. But the film’s rigid adherence to heterosexuality denies the two even outright signs of brotherly affection. The only way by which the viewer is shown Karl’s affection for Tony is through his thirst for vengeance after McClane kills the latter German mercenary. The film’s depiction of mourning for a loved one must be manly. As such, Karl’s mourning manifests as violence and frustration. This is evidenced when he smashes a table in front of the hostages and when he cries “No one kills him but me!” to his fellow bad guys. Karl is thus portrayed as neither homoerotic nor feminine. He expresses only manly emotions in a hypermasculine manner. Moreover, his affection for his brother is only ever illustrated in a strictly heterosexual fashion—no hugs, no “I love you”s, not even a cordial pat on the back.
Die Hard‘s instistence upon heterosexuality is not limited to its characters—the film also seeks to quell homoerotic desire in the viewer. While McClane is oiled and shirtless for a third of the film, the viewer is consistently reminded of this being a spectacle of pain rather than a spectacle of desire. Again, Savran analyzes Rambo: “Any delight that the male spectator might derive from watching Rambo’s rippling flesh is mitigrated by the fact that that same flesh is insistently brutalized and turned into a spectacle of pain which the spectator might be expected, if not to avert his eyes from, at least wince at.”6 Sadomasochism, then, is the way by which this sort of film goes about avoiding homoerotic display. The viewer both enjoys, sadistically, the spectacle of pain and finds pleasure, masochistically, in identifying with it. Whether or not this is successful is another issue entirely. The arguable point of the matter is that the film wishes to illustrate McClane in a manly light rather than sexual.
The question of why masculine films of the 1980s must be so self-consciously heterosexual must also be addressed. This answer to this lies in post-World War II society. Savran sees Reagan-era masculinity as a continuation and evolution of 1950s standards. “The homosocial and homophic bravado of the new masculinity suggests that in some ways it represents a continuation of the masculinity that was normalized during the height of the domestic revival, with its violent crusades against alleged communists and homosexuals.”7 Die Hard is thus a strictly heteronormative film because it wants the viewer to adhere to one of the core beliefs of postwar masculinity—that is, maintaining the patriarchal heterosexual nuclear family.
Masculinity in Die Hard reveals itself to be an exclusively heterosexual affair. The characters that the film want the viewer to admire are shown endlessly to be strictly attracted to members of the opposite sex. Characters who are meant to be looked down upon, such as Robinson, are ridiculed using homophobic rhetoric. The historical background of the Reagan-era even supports this homophobic tendency. Most importantly though, homosocial relationships in the film—chiefly between McClane and Powell and between Karl and Tony—are consistently kept within a heterosexual, platonic, masculine framework. According to Die Hard, homosexuality is not wrong for a moral reason. Rather, the suggestion that same-sex attraction cannot be reconciled with masculinity deters its characters from engaging in any semblance of homoeroticism.
Die Hard. Directed by John Tiernan. 20th Century Fox. 1988.
Savran, David. Taking it Like a Man: White Masculnity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1998