Could Sexism “Die Hard?”: Pauses, Balance, Difference, and Rose Coloured Sap

Reading Time: 19 minutes

I’m watching Die Hard, first released in 1988. I am noticing that once the massive, multi-agency law enforcement crowd gathers around the skyscraper full of presumed terrorists and hostages there are no women visible in that crowd.

I think about Geena Davis’ organization that – among many other interesting research projects – tracks these demographic truths in film and TV. It tracks how many women are in the frame at any given time and how much lead and supporting character screen/talk-time female characters get relative to their male counterparts. I consider how I might not have even noticed that there were no readily identifiable female characters in that law enforcement crowd were it not for a bunch of feminist film theory in my undergraduate years and this work by Geena Davis’ organization. I reflect on how often these types of ideas have recently shown up in my Facebook feed.

I contemplate how law enforcement agencies probably didn’t have anywhere near as many women in their ranks in the US major cities in 1988 as they might now have.


I pause.

I ask myself, “Would I really be better off as a ‘woman’ if there were more ‘women’ in this crowd? Would ‘men’ be better off if the screen had more ‘women’ on it?”

I know that when we don’t see ourselves (whoever we are relative to race, religion, belief systems, gender, sexuality, ability/disability, body type etc.) represented in forms of public discourse it damages our relationship to ourselves and to our broader culture. To live without ever feeling represented in cultural spaces such as politics, education, movies, TV, novels and children’s books, music etc. curbs and even fractures our ability to fit ourselves meaningfully into our culture. And, even if we do still find ways to connect to our cultural stories, it often means subverting essential components of who we are.

To find connection we often consciously, or unconsciously, identify with aspects of our cultural environment that may or may not serve us or our wellness. This can be made even worse when there are representations of some aspects of who we are in the world, but they all tell a single story and that story is horrendously negative or woefully narrowed from the truth of its fecundity and complexity. Perhaps more crucially still, though, to not see ourselves represented in our cultural conversations – or to live with constant simplification, misrepresentation, and/or outright vilification – can grossly and egregiously limit our fundamental ability to imagine.

Full stop.

If nothing around us seems to have space or place or role for who we are, do we even exist? And if we do not exist, then how do we imagine who we could be? What our communities could be? How do we imagine anything at all? And, if those who are regularly and fully represented in our cultural stories and spaces never get to see the fullness of who we are also represented, then how do we exist to them either? How can they ever begin to imagine what we might or could be?

I know these issues of representation matter. Though I am absolutely on the fairly privileged end of a lot of spectrums, a combination of my personal experience and a lot of my work over the last several years has made it very clear to me how much representation matters. So, perhaps it really does matter to all of us that there are no women in that crowd. Still, there is something else nagging at me as I look over this crisis scene in Die Hard.

So, I pause again.

I think, “But the law enforcement crowds around the building in Die Hard are morons and assholes. Even the alleged ‘good guys’ are kind of off, crazy, or a bit hokey and there are endless types and levels of power-tripping, ego-centric, and narcissistic idiocy at play not to mention the reams and reams of gratuitous gun-crazy-explosive-trigger-fingered violence. Would it really help me imagine better things for myself as a cisgender, straight, white, non-religious-but-spiritual-Jewish woman and half-time solo mama with an overabundance of empathy, lots of generous curves, cellulite on my ass, and vitiligo stealing colour from my skin to be able to see ‘women’ in that crowd? To have ‘women’ have equal or more screen time than the ‘men’?”

My first answer to my own question: “No. Not if the ‘women’ are behaving just as awfully as the ‘men.’ Not if law enforcement agencies remain as fundamentally hierarchical, aggressive, and punitive as they often tend to be portrayed and despite the best efforts of the many beautiful souls who do their best to affect change within their ranks…”

Certainly not for the first time, I think about moving these “men” and “women” conversations into a framework that shifts them toward an analysis of “masculine” and “feminine” energies and how they relate and meet each other in our public discourse and systems. Also not for the first time, I think about how this reframing feels important; it feels like the genuine, soft, tender, and sore underbelly – the foundational issue – under all the “man” vs “woman” arguments, struggle, violence, anger, despair, conversations, and heartfelt efforts for healing and change.

So, now I turn my mind to the women who are in the film Die Hard. In particular, I think about main character John McClane’s wife – Holly.

She is successful, willing to risk/surrender her marriage to follow her passions and exciting career opportunities even when her husband is being selfish and insecure. She is utterly, amazingly calm in the face of a full-scale hostage crisis. Honestly, she is the only one in the room with any real clarity and soul-centred, instead of instinctive-adrenal, guts. She tries to stop her boss from making it easy for the criminals to find him in the crowd of hostages. Eschewing her caution, he chooses instead to surrender himself ‘bravely’ and gets shot in the head. Smoothly assuming authority after he is dead, she asks for a sofa for her pregnant colleague to rest on, suggests that the criminals start taking hostages in small groups to the bathroom.

Her steadiness and general nature are clearly and immediately respected by all who encounter her – even the boss criminal. And, the only act of brutality in the film that is not motivated by greed, madness, or a seeming cultural addiction to violence, is when she punches a reporter in the face for violating her home and making her children talk on TV during the crisis. Her children are very young and they might never have known that their parents were ever in danger had it not been for the reporter’s maniacal, exploitative avarice and lack of a viable conscience.

The pregnant woman herself, in her limited screen time, also shows a tremendous amount of fortitude and grace during the crisis. She seems a knowing and skilled friend/assistant to Holly. Two other women are also memorable. First, the assistant to the unconscionable reporter: she finds information which incites one of the bigger plot points for Act III and is shown to be resourceful and diligent, even if morally questionable. And, second, the female news anchor covering the breaking news is shown to be far more capable and notably smarter than her male co-anchor.

Even with their varying moral compasses, the “women” in Die Hard are a combination of smooth and strong. They are warm-granite-in-the-sun humans when compared to the screaming, shooting and gaudy-feather-plumped bunch of chest-pounding bloodsport toddlers who are the “men” in the film.

I pause yet again.

I think, “I’d far rather my child learn from Holly than from John in this film. If feminine energies are the well from which we find our calm and our peace and our ability to hang back instead of leap into action so that we can choose right actions to take, then I want my kid to value those things. I want my child to be able to see, articulate, engage, and value feminine energies. I want my kid to be able to do so without shame for not being one of the blood-covered toddlers who think – as a line in the film suggests – that it’s okay to lose 20-25% of the hostages just to take down some ‘bad guys.’ I want everyone’s children to see how valuable are those feminine energies, even within the universe of the film itself, no less in the wider day-to-day of our lives.”

This feels important.

It’s tied to many things I’ve been thinking about off-and-on since I was a teenager and writing more fervently about in the last year. There is a part of me that always sort of twitches with a little bit of discomfort whenever I hear any version of the sentence: “we need more women in _____.” I feel like I’m supposed to go “Hell yeah we do!” I feel, in fact, like I will be labelled a traitor if I don’t feel that having “more women in _____” is what the world needs. But, another part of me cannot help but feel that this phrasing and its underlying thought process winds up making sex and gender more important than the balance of energies that guide and shape all Life and living. Some systems of thought/belief, as I already mentioned above, might start by defining these energies as feminine and masculine (yin/yang). Other perspectives, such as the holistic teachings I’ve been introduced to by Nehiyaw (Cree) Elders, friends, scholars, and colleagues, might also discuss this balance with four direction teachings which emphasize the emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of Life and Being.

An emphasis on sex and gender often pulls focus, especially when we focus on “the numbers” of “women” or “men” involved in some area of human existence. It often makes us spin off into conversations where we must first define what a “woman” even is; where people often wind up mired in virulently prejudiced distractions about whether or not transgender women are really women, or if women who can’t – or choose not to – bear children are really women, or if women who’ve had hysterectomies or mastectomies are really women, or if women who sit in positions of high political and/or financial power are really women. And those debates live in tandem with other debates that still go on about whether or not women are women if they have short hair and wear pants, if women are women if they choose to work outside of the home instead of staying home to raise children, if women who bottle feed instead of breast feed are really women, if women who had C-sections instead of vaginal births are really women… It’s endless and pervasive, this constant sleight-of-hand that typically winds up pitting “women” against “women” and is invariably called forth each and every time we say “We need more women in _____.” It frequently means that people who seek and struggle for deep healing and change are always on the defensive and neck deep in semantics…

It also tends to make us minimize and ignore the ways “men” are also alienated from energetic balance and mired in definitional crisis – something I will try to write about more on another day.

So. To be clear. It seems to me – personally – that anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman. It really feels that simple and that I identify as a woman is not made smaller or less-than by anyone else also identifying as a woman.

Given I was born cisgender and white, I also feel its important to use my privilege and add that at this point in history, being a woman still doesn’t tend to come with many social perks. It does come with a lot more risk of domestic and sexual violence, genital mutilation for the express purpose of reducing sexual pleasure, reduced job and creative opportunities, generally lower levels of formal education and financial remuneration, and increased, reasonable fear of being murdered. As such, identifying as a woman not only means you are a woman in my book, but also makes you a pretty rocking combination of strong and courageous – especially if your place and body of birth make the identification even more complicated than it already is.

And – if I can help it at all – I don’t really want to talk about that again. I don’t want to get mired in the pulled-focus-sleight-of-hand-finger-pointing semantics of “woman.”

I want to talk about the balance of energies in the universe and how Western culture skews itself to value masculine energies over feminine ones and fell dangerously out of balance a long time ago.

I want to talk about how a path back into that balance necessitates that we make sure all of us – in our different places, beings, identifications – get to simply be who we are and make use of our gifts in safe, supportive, nurturing, and effective environments so that we can contribute meaningfully to our communities and the broader living world with which we are indelibly bound.

And before some alarm goes off ringing, “Careful now, Sulya, not only are you treading a fine line of pretentious and touchy-feely, especially given you started all of this by talking about the movie Die Hard – of all things – you’ve totally neglected the character of Sargent Al Powell, and you’re also dangerously close to being the privileged white gal who collapses difference!” I’m going to say quite succinctly:

No. I haven’t and I am not.

First off, I will come back to Die Hard and I have not forgotten Powell.

Secondly, this is not about collapsing difference. It’s about expanding it to include differences in energy. I’m just trying to have another conversation as well as the ones that frequently dominate (and sadly often distract and limit) about “men”/”women” and “women”/”women.” The goal here is to invite discourse that I think might actually make conversations about difference and intersectionality more meaningful because they can be had alongside what winds up being a broader conversation about balance.

This attempt at expansion invites so many questions in me:

How do people’s and peoples’ differences contribute to the balance of our masculine and feminine energies? To the emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical energies that we inhabit and which inhabit us?

Would we even have created more than 60 years of films like Die Hard, no-less the much older and rather war-mongering cultures which choose those stories, if we embraced difference as one of the most powerful ways to find true, all-encompassing balance?

How is difference a healing teacher? A force for change? What does one way-of-being offer to another in respectful, reciprocal relationship so that each can find greater balance? Greater stability and healthful sustainability?

We can’t even have these conversations – no less broaden our forms of cultural representation –  if we get unduly mired counting the number of “women” in the background scenes of blockbuster movies…

And this thought, with its shiver of mild irritation, makes me pause yet again.

“But,” I think, “Before I saw it again today, all I remembered from the first Die Hard movie was sweaty, filthy, sleeveless undershirt-wearing Bruce Willis with an automatic weapon saying ‘yippie kay ay motherfucker.’ I barely remembered his wife or her pregnant assistant. Historically accurate or not, when I saw it the first time, I never would have even noticed the total absence of women in the law enforcement crowd. I probably thought the federal agents making cracks about letting 20-25% of the hostages die were kind of ‘over-the-top’ and funny. I immediately identified with the rather violent and hot-headed ‘male’ protagonist probably because there were so few ‘women’ in the movie and I was too young to easily identify with Holly.”

As I ruminate on it now (mindful that this makes me seem like one of the obnoxious humans who thinks a movie might be better if it were a completely different movie, lol), if McClane truly understood and trusted his wife’s more feminine capabilities, he probably could have quietly gathered some intel, walked all the way down the 30 flights to the parkade, met up with Argyle the limo driver, jimmied opened the gate and sent him to go get help in the first 15 mins of the crisis. McClane could have prioritized trying to find ways to communicate with his wife, who likely knows more about the building than anyone else in the crisis. They would both then have been even more effective at undermining the criminals. If John had just slowed down or paused, actions with more yin/feminine energy, for even one second and made more selective use of his more yang/masculine police training and instincts, this movie could still have been tense and fun – still had crashing fight scenes –  but it might have done so in better energetic balance.

Put another way: Holly might have naturally, easily gotten more “screen time” simply because her more feminine type of strength would not have been culturally undervalued before Roderick Thorp even imagined the novel and Jeb Stuart wrote the adapted screenplay.

With this in mind, it is probably important to share that I have never felt much affinity for “making it in a man’s world” or “beating men at their own game” which was a prevalent form of feminist discourse when I was growing up in the 80s. Since at least the age of 14 or 15, I’ve largely felt that so-called “men’s games” – as I saw them – were silly and damaging and I have been far more interested in kind of quietly going over there somewhere (whatever that might mean) and trying to make a new game. I didn’t have the language or conceptions of masculine and feminine energies to support my thinking at the time, I just knew that something felt wrong about the way “men” purportedly “ran the world” and I didn’t want to compete on that playing field. I didn’t, in fact, want to “compete” at all – testament to the fact that I myself tend (sometimes too heavily) toward feminine energies in my own personal struggles for balance.

This said, I would be obfuscating and twisting the heart of my own ideas if I didn’t acknowledge that it took years of people saying “We need more women in _____” and all the conversations that happen around that conversation for me to be able to notice all the places women weren’t and then start to really wonder if it’s the absence of “women” that’s the problem or the absence of the “feminine.”

In other words, I got here a certain way and I didn’t get here alone.

It took different minds and souls and hearts who noticed and cared about different things than I did to nudge and inspire me to think about all the things I am writing about in this piece.

Without all the different voices and ideas I’ve encountered – though I have come to see some of them as sometimes dangerous distractions from the the work I feel might be more crucial – I might never have found my way to the language of “masculine and feminine,” of “energy,” or of “balance.” I might have forever just laughed, thought Bruce Willis was sexy, and wandered around saying “Yippie kay ay motherfucker” with teenage glee. Because of all the different perspectives I’ve encountered – whether I agree with all of them or not – I now see and feel that the “women” in Die Hard are amazing even with limited parts and the “men” are kind of overdrawn caricatures of a toxic privileging of masculine energies, of what I might describe as too much physical and emotional energy and not enough spiritual and mental energy.

I am left with the sense that what matters most is that I now see these things and hold awareness that there is still so much I cannot possibly yet see. What matters is that I would not have even started to write this piece in the first place, or in this way, if I had not recently noticed that there were no women in the law-enforcement wide shots of the movie Die Hard. What matters is that Holly is a truly amazing and strong character and if someone had watched that movie with me in 1988 and pointed her out to me in the way I have described her in this piece, it would not have taken another 30 years for me to see her feminine energies of stillness, calm, contemplation, care, nurturance, quiet protectiveness, and thoughtfulness. She embodies them so elegantly and succinctly and if I’d been offered ways to think about her more deeply I might also have seen how those qualities give Holly a strength quite different from her husband’s; a strength that balances and compliments.

And this is when my mind is drawn to Sargent Powell, the would-be desk-rider who stocks up on an enormous amount of corner-store Twinkies by way of a character introduction. He is, in fact, probably the “male” character with the most balanced energies. He is not a cowboy or a toddler. He clearly feels that the characters who are behaving in those ways are largely stupid, not paying attention to the details, and too wrapped up in their own egos. He’s thinking and acting in reasonable and multi-faceted ways. He offers firmness and gentleness where necessary and even shares real vulnerability when he tells John the story of how he stopped being on active duty because he accidentally shot a kid.

What I find interesting about him is that his story travels in an arc from inferred to overt laziness, toward genuine skill and engagement when undeniable danger arrives, to a mediative role, to a genuine rescuer who overcomes his own fears to save John and Holly’s lives in the final moments. His backstory took him outside the dominant story of “law enforcement” because he didn’t ever want to be in a situation where he might again need to fire his gun. The Naktomi Plaza story with John does bring Powell back into the heart of dominant – typically more masculine than feminine – law enforcement ways-of-being but he is not the cop he was when he began his career. Having been outside the norms of his profession, his return makes him different than the others. More feminine in his energies; he exists somewhere between Holly and John, in fact. This too is interesting and somehow important.

All of this leads me to a train-of-thought that even I struggle to see as valuable due to dominant perspectives I’ve struggled with/against all my life. In a culture that has a limited and overly masculine definition of “action,” contemplative, multi-partial, multi-perspectival, and well-informed reflection is often seen as navel-gazing nonsense. It is therefore hard to propose that this is exactly what we most need to do as a species without feeling like I am peddling rose-coloured sap.

I am, however and as it turns out, fairly used to feeling like a peddler of rose-coloured sap, so here goes:

My whole experience of re-watching Die Hard for the first time in almost 30 years led me, more than ever, to the belief that it is rich, patient, loving, and complex conversation that matters. We need to consider all of the different pieces that we encounter in others and in ourselves. Compassionate attention needs to be paid to everything we talk about so we can share what we think without getting mired in the parts of discourse that unavoidably exclude and denigrate. This form of gracious and fecund conversation then invites the perspectives and experience(s) – the difference(s) – of still others.

And so on and so forth ad infinitum.

Always sharing.
Always talking.
Always loving and open and kind.
Always in search of balance.

When I told my mother that I was writing this piece and mentioned, in particular, how surprised and impressed I was by John McClane’s wife, my mother said, “Oh, absolutely. She was an incredibly important character.” She didn’t really remember anything else about the movie. But Holly was, for my mother, still vivid even after 30 years. And I thought, “My mom would have be in her late 40s when she first saw the film. An experienced mother herself, a woman of middle-age, with her inherent curiosity and an evolving feminism, I could really have learned so much from her perspective back then and why didn’t we talk about it until now? And isn’t that interesting? And isn’t that my whole point in one neat anecdote?”

I don’t want to waste time being even momentarily irritated by someone’s choice to count how many women are in a film scene. I want to embrace that their urge to count and share findings is what led me here. I want to view everyone’s approaches to complicated and often fraught issues as potential avenues for the expansion of my relationship to the world. There is an increasingly urgent need to restore balance to the energies of all that surrounds and supports us. In all forms and forums, the values, thinking, stories, and angry, agonized, and/or hilarious voices of others (inclusive of non-human others) should be the tools that help me contribute whatever I can using the gifts that I have.

I want us to accept the challenge to see energetic balance as something that can serve to lovingly support conversations about difference, about gender and sex binaries, about the more readily discussed aspects of intersectionality. I want us to ask ourselves if maybe what we need is not more “women” in _____ but more feminine energies in _____, so that what genitalia or identifications someone has – or how we in turn define those identifications – is perhaps not as central as whether or not the humans in question can help to bring balance to the wealth of communities, industries, arts, economies, institutions, and ecologies that are the Life and living on this planet.

I deeply wish for us all to get to a place where we can have a thought

– pause –

Feel a judgment/tension course through us.

– pause –

Wrestle a difficult idea that challenges our sense of normal

– pause –

Share our thoughts without fear of being labelled “traitor”

Listen to others across any all identified and possible boundaries and differences

– pause…

What I have come to feel as a result of reintroducing myself to John and Holly McClane and Sargent Al Powell, is that the real work is in an ability to step beyond the confines of a culture that has skewed rather far, and with ever-increasing danger, away from getting couches for our pregnant friends and leans with increasing frequency and weight in the direction of “yippie kay ay mother fucker!” I don’t want our conversations to end with the numbers or the labels even if that’s may be where so many of them begin. I want us to – collectively, thoughtfully, lovingly, patiently, purposefully – build something far more akin to a sustaining, and sustainable, balance where sexism can indeed die hard (or perhaps just peacefully fizzle away?). And, I feel fairly confident saying that it is, in fact, many different brands of “navel-gazing” and “rose-coloured sap” that will get us there.

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