A Good Day to Die Hard: Age, Action, and the Masculine Hard Body
Rebecca Feasey / Bath Spa University

Bruce Willis

Live Free or Die Hard

Extant literature from within the field of film and gender studies examines the representation of the male action hero, paying particular attention to the spectacular body and the herculean physical performances of characters such as John McClane/Bruce Willis, Martin Riggs/Mel Gibson and Indiana Jones/Harrison Ford. And yet, at a time when these stars are returning to the action roles that made them famous, in some cases, several decades later, scholars continue to ignore and overlook the fundamental notion of age in their discussions of the hard bodied, hegemonic hero. After all, hegemonic masculinity has associations with physical prowess, sexual virility, social dominance and aggression, which are potentially at odds with the image of the ageing male. With this in mind it is interesting to consider the depiction of the ageing action hero in the popular and long running Die Hard series (1988, 1990, 1995, 2007, 2013) and consider the ways in which mature masculinity is either conforming to or challenging the hegemonic ideal.

I have suggested elsewhere that the hegemonic ideal is both impossible to create and implausible to maintain for the contemporary male, and as such, this figure of powerful masculinity ‘may only ever be embodied by mythical figures, legendary heroes and a very small number of men in society’. Therefore, it is interesting to examine the ways in which the most masculine of Hollywood genres presents the male hero in relation to the hegemonic ideal. The male driven action film is understood to be the most visually explosive and macho of Hollywood genres due to the spectacular sight of the hard male body. Indeed, extant research from within the field of feminist film theory makes it clear that it is the body of the hero that sets the tone for the action narrative. We are told that action heroes are ‘constructed almost exclusively through their physicality, and the display of the body forms a key part of the visual excess that is offered in the muscular action cinema.’ ((Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular bodies: gender, genre and the action cinema (London 1995) 35.)) It has even been suggested that ‘American action movies work hard, and often at the expense of narrative development, to contrive situations for the display of the hero’s body.’ ((Ibid., 79.))

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Die Hard

Extant literature on both the action hero and the hegemonic male routinely refers to issues such as class, race, sexuality, nationality and the body. However, little research to date focuses on the notion of age and ageing as a sign of difference to be studied in relation to the hegemonic male, on or beyond the big screen. One might suggest that a lack of research on the ageing action hero is unsurprising given the predominance of the thirty-something hard body to the genre in question, a genre that focuses on the physical prowess of the male body for the viewing pleasures of a youthful male audience.

That said, there currently exists a trend for older actors reprising earlier heroic and hard bodied action roles, be it Bruce Willis (52) in Die Hard 4.0 (2007), Dolph Lundgren (53) in The Expendables (2010), Arnold Schwarzenegger (55) in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Bruce Willis (58) in A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), Sylvester Stallone (60) in Rocky Balboa (2006) and (62) Rambo (2008) and Harrison Ford (66) in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). And there are currently rumours surrounding a sixth installment of the Die Hard franchise starring Bruce Willis.

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Die Hard 2

Putting a fifty-something actor and character in the role of the pre-supposedly young adult action hero will of course lead to some negative commentary and ageist criticisms, and a wide range of news, magazine and review media were fast to challenge the appeal of the ageing action hero in the Die Hard franchise. Reviewers quipped that the latest installment of the series should read ‘Die Hard: with a bus pass’ or ‘Die Hard with a Hernia’. Commentators talked about John McClane ‘squeezing back into his sweaty vest and wheezing out a few more catchphrases’ and announcing that Willis is ‘so old that Die Hard 5 will have to feature a plot that largely revolves around a Werther’s Original theft in a haemorrhoid cushion factory’. That said, commentary on the ageing action hero was overwhelmingly positive, and the small number of negative reviews as seen here were more mocking than hostile to the presentation of the mature maverick cop.

Indeed, both popular and professional review literature seemed to form a consensus in their praise of the ageing action hero in the most recent Die Hard film. We are told that ‘age catches up to Bruce Willis’ everyman hero, and it makes him all the more appealing’ and that although ‘Bruce may be aging fast […] he still looks the part and plays John McClane so convincingly you reckon he could go on for ever’. In this same way it was said that even as a fifty-something balding male ‘Willis still reeks of hero; still ranks as someone who gives bruises as good as he takes ‘em; still rocks when he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time’. In this way, it has been suggested that ‘the aging body can work as an asset, just another challenge that our battered hero has to overcome’ rather than an unreliable or failing image of problematic or powerless masculinity.

Die Hard 1.0

Die Hard with a Vengeance

Indeed, some reviewers made the point that the franchise is based on the physical assaults on the male hard body irrespective of the film in question or the age of the actor at that time, and as such, it is the physical toughness of the body rather than its age that is of importance here. Therefore, although John McClane has aged during the life span of the Die Hard franchise, the character has always been middle-aged rather than youthful in the series. Bruce Willis was 35 when he made the original film, and thus already beyond a youthful image of masculinity. The point here then is that McClane always was and continues to remain a tough guy with a hard body that can withstand routine pain, repeated punishments and habitual brutality, and as such the ageing hero is not only accepted, but applauded, by audiences and critics alike. The fact that Bruce Willis is currently talking about making another Die Hard film before retiring from the franchise goes further to quash any suggestions about the deteriorating action body or the loss of hegemonic power for the heroic male.

At a time when the ageing body can be said to ‘represent a narcissistic affront to, even an attack on, the adult ego,’ ((Charlotte Herfray cited in Chris Holmlund, Impossible bodies: femininity and masculinity at the movies, (London 2002) 145.)) the ageing action hero remains potent and powerful rather than weak, unreliable or failing, which perhaps represents a less than realistic, and thus less than helpful, version of the ageing body.

Image Credits:
1. Live Free or Die Hard
2. Die Hard
3. Die Hard 2
4. Die Hard With a Vengeance

Please feel free to comment.

The Blurring of Fame and Talent: Female Celebrity and the Glossy Gossip Sector
Rebecca Feasey / Bath Spa University

heat Cover

A Typical heat Cover

Celebrity gossip magazines such as Closer, Now and heat are notorious for their irreverent attitude towards famous figures in general, and for their slightly mocking presentation of female celebrities in particular. These texts favour gossip over staged promotions and candid celebrity images over commercial collaboration with the stars. And although such publications are keen to reveal the troubled romances, tawdry secrets and trivial stories of the rich and famous, the fact that they rarely distinguish between an A-list Hollywood actress, a critically successful singer, a popular socialite or a reality television contestant tends to reduce female celebrity to a personality contest and relegate contemporary stardom to a debate over appearance and attractiveness. This is not to say that female celebrities are not proficient performers, talented vocalists or skilled models, it is just that for every leading lady we are offered a wealthy heiress and for every award-winning musician we are given a Big Brother evictee, and each incarnation of famous femininity is given equal and undifferentiated coverage in these magazines.

I would suggest that even though the female celebrities who dominate these magazines tend to be hard-working, disciplined and indeed talented individuals from the entertainment world, the way in which these celebrity texts speak of lifestyle and leisure activities over discourses of labour and performance blurs the boundaries between fame and talent. Publications such as heat negotiate hierarchies of female talent and professional achievement in favour of distinguishing between surface appearances, ranking sartorial styles, grading weight fluctuations and categorising the celebrity life in motion. heat appears to devalue female celebrity by reducing professional success to a discussion about body sculpting and shopping, however, it is necessary to reiterate the point that while the women who dominate the magazine are skilled, talented and accomplished, it is the reporting of such figures that reduces work and labour to a discourse of superficiality and surface appearances.

Cheryl Cole vs. Zooey Deschanel

Cheryl Cole vs. Zooey Deschanel

Much literature in the field of film stardom and celebrity culture can be seen to form a consensus as it comments on the undeserved character of modern fame, foregrounding the role of the mass media in producing unworthy personalities and highlighting the lack of skill, talent and achievement in the celebrity sphere. (( Turner, Graeme (2004). Understanding Celebrity, London: Sage; Wilson, Cintra (2001). A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, London: Penguin; Johansson, Sofia (2006). ‘Sometimes you Wanna Hate Celebrities: Tabloid Readers and Celebrity Coverage’, in Framing Celebrity, eds Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, London: Routledge, pp.343-358 and Hartley, John (1996). Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular Culture, London: Edward Arnold. )) Magazines such as heat seem to support Joshua Gamson’s work on fame when he comments that ‘surface has overwhelmed substance, image has overtaken reality [and] the values of “lifestyle” and consumption have pushed aside those of work and production’, at least in relation to the contemporary female celebrity. (( Gamson, Joshua (1994). Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, London: University of California Press. )) My point here is that extant literature from the field says little about the character of modern celebrity and much about the gendering of the celebrity gossip sector. David Gritten makes this point when he states that ‘the media find it easier to write vacuous nonsense about famous women [because] their appearance, their fluctuating weight [and] their dress sense are considered legitimate subject matter’. (( Gritten, David (2002). Fame: Stripping Celebrity Bare, London: Penguin. ))

Even though existing research suggests that we are living amongst ‘a new generation of celebrities whose fame owes nothing to achievement and everything to appearance’, (( Cashmore, Ellis (2006). Celebrity Culture, London: Routledge. )) I would suggest that even a cursory glance at the pages of heat magazine makes it clear that the women who dominate the front cover and the regular feature articles are those who have demonstrated professional skill and working talent. Indeed, a closer examination of the text in question provides evidence to suggest that the vast majority of the women who are presented in the magazine are famous first and foremost due to their accomplishments and achievements in their chosen field, be it performing, modelling or presenting.

Diane Kruger vs. Liberty Ross

Diane Kruger vs. Liberty Ross

heat depicts all female celebrities in relation to surface appearances, attractiveness and sartorial choices, without a single reference to their modus operandi or their particular reason for fame. This is not to say that these women are lacking talent in their chosen fields, but rather, that the commentary on them relates to weight gain, weight loss, fashion successes and relationship disasters. In this same way, there is very little acknowledgement of the work or labour involved in maintaining a successful career or even regarding the amount of effort and organisation that goes into preserving media interest. David Marshall may have said that ‘it takes effort to be famous’, (( Marshall, David (ed) (2006). The Celebrity Culture Reader, London: Routledge. )) but there is no acknowledgement of such work, labour or effort in the celebrity gossip magazine.

Indeed, as I have commented elsewhere, the publication is only keen to talk about star labour in relation to the superficial skin care practices, diet programmes, shopping excursions and exercise regimes of the female celebrity. (( Feasey, Rebecca (2006). ‘Fame Body: Star Styles and Celebrity Gossip in heat magazine’, in Framing Celebrity, eds Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, London: Routledge, pp.177-194. )) And yet although the text might seem to delight in exposing and dismissing the hidden efforts necessary to maintain the celebrity body, any relationship between professional work and career success is overlooked and seemingly unwarranted.

Janet Jackson's Weight: A Popular Tabloid Topic

Janet Jackson’s Weight Gain: A Popular Tabloid Topic

What is of concern here of course is not merely the dismissal of talented performers, but what the devaluing of female celebrity means to girls and young women who read these texts. A wide range of popular news media has suggested that the growth of ostensibly talentless female celebrities are distorting the professional aspirations and career projections of an entire generation, with recent statistics telling us that 89 per cent of girls would rather be a recognisable celebrity than a talented, skilled yet unknown professional. Due to the representation of female celebrity in magazines such as heat, young women believe that being a celebrity is an unskilled job that demands little in the way of work, labour or commitment. Therefore, rather than look to a career that demands qualifications or an occupation that benefits from hard work, we are being told that fame and recognition appeals to the younger generations because the trappings of celebrity look like a career structure in themselves, devoid of any actual professional efforts or working achievements beyond appearance and attractiveness. However, I would once again state that it is not a lack of talent per se, but the reporting of celebrity that is devoid of a dialogue about skill, performance or accomplishment.

And yet, the fact that heat and its imitators outsell more reverential celebrity titles such as Hello! and OK! leave us to conclude that readers are more interested in reading about the superficial and candid representations of female celebrity than they are about the value of work that is highlighted in the glossy monthly publications.

Image Credits:
1. A Typical heat Cover
2. Cheryl Cole vs. Zooey Deschanel
3. Diane Kruger vs. Liberty Ross
4. Janet Jackson’s Weight Gain: A Popular Tabloid Topic

Please feel free to comment.

Mothers on the Naughty Step: Supernanny and Reality Parenting Television
Rebecca Feasey / Bath Spa University

Supernanny Logo

Supernanny‘s Logo

Our television landscape is currently littered with documentaries, docu-dramas and reality programmes that seek to expose salacious and scandalous images of motherhood. Programmes such as Half Ton Mum (2007), Octomom: Me and My 14 Kids (2009), 8 Boys and Wanting a Girl (2010), Too Old to be a Mum (2010), Misbehaving Mums to Be (2011) and Fast Food Baby (2011) present an ostensibly realistic look at some of the more shocking representations of motherhood that exist in the contemporary cultural climate. Moreover, reality parenting programmes such as Supernanny (2004- ) and Supernanny USA (2005- ) that seek to correct well meaning but ultimately ‘poor’ parenting tend to focus on the image of the incapable, ill-equipped and incompetent mother.

Reality parenting programmes are in a position to explore, examine and unmask gender roles in society due to the fact that they focus on the women’s relationship with the domestic sphere. However, although there is the potential for informed commentary regarding the lived reality of mothering without extended family support systems or the challenges faced when combining motherwork with paid labour, programmes such as Supernanny tend to offer conservative agendas and patriarchal conclusions concerning women’s appropriate domestic role and innate maternal instincts.

Supernanny routinely emphasises the mother as the primary caregiver in the family unit. Mothers are portrayed as domestic manager, in charge of meal times, bath routines, bed-time stories, school runs, grocery shopping, household chores and general children’s entertainment planning and activities. Mothers are assumed to have sole responsibility for childrearing, and any problems that they experience in the domestic sphere are seen to be due to individual failings and their own ineffectual maternal practices. The programme makes it clear that it is the lenient, weak and fragile maternal figure that is the family problem that needs to be re-educated, not the supposedly ‘bad’ children, and the fact that parenting techniques are ‘almost exclusively taught to mothers … whether stay-at-home or not’ ((Green, Fiona (2007), ‘Supernanny: Disciplining Mothers through a Narrative of Domesticity’, Storytelling, 6:2, pp.99-109. Available at Literature Online, http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk (accessed 10/08/2011) )) is particularly telling here.


The programme conforms to the patriarchal ‘good’ mother myth that demands a mother be always available to her children, and if that woman happens to work outside of the home, she must plan her work schedules around the demands of her family. ((Chase, Susan and Rogers, Mary (2001), Mothers and Children: Feminist Analysis and Personal Narratives, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, p.30)) The programme seems to set up an opposition between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers, privileging the woman’s role as caregiver in the domestic sphere over her participation in the public realm. Any jobs, careers or other non-domestic labour is clearly and deliberately established as a troublesome ‘interference’ to a mother’s domestic life. ((Fairclough, Kirsty (2004), ‘Women’s Work? Wife Swap and the Reality Problem’, Feminist Media Studies, 4:3, p.345))

Reality parenting television tends to focus on working-class families, so that incompetent, incapable and inarticulate motherwork, maternal care and domestic duties tend to be laid at the door of the economically, socially and educationally underprivileged. Those working-class women who are struggling financially, living in claustrophobic conditions and unable to find time to not only clothe and feed their children, but to also educate them inventively, entertain them and inspire them creatively are held up as ‘poor’ mothers because the show seems to suggest that these women are in a position to choose how to speak to, feed, discipline and clothe their children, with no acknowledgement of the material, economic or geographical constraints which shape their lived reality and thus inform their maternal practices. In short, these mothers are marked as culturally inappropriate maternal caregivers with little attention paid to the context in which they are mothering.

Supernanny appears to delight in humiliating these women and we are routinely asked to bear witness to their shame as they scream and swear at their children, smack them, ignore them, leave them, lock them in bedrooms, force-feed them and resort to sarcasm at their expense. Each episode, without exception, sees supernanny Jo Frost deriding, dismissing and berating mothers for being physically frail, mentally fragile and ineffectual in their parenting practices. Frost asks parents to ‘witness the pinnacle of their own parenting failure,’ ((Green, Fiona (2007), ‘Supernanny: Disciplining Mothers through a Narrative of Domesticity’, Storytelling, 6:2, pp.99-109. Available at Literature Online, http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk (accessed 10/08/2011) )) at which point, these primary caregivers refer to themselves as ‘poor’ mothers, talk about their own inappropriate childrearing practices and berate themselves for their lack of consistent disciplinary techniques. Mothers routinely apologise for what they see as their maternal failings and acknowledge their inability to follow through with clear, consistent discipline in the household, aware that these failings are going to create further chaos, disorder and disharmony in the domestic space.

Jo Frost

Supernanny Jo Frost

The voyeuristic camera spends far longer registering the upset, anxiety and humiliation of the mother compared to the father of the piece, with the suggestion that these women should be embarrassed by their parenting practices, reprimanded for their motherwork efforts, and ridiculed for their ineffectual domestic labours. However, although one might look to reality parenting television in general, and the long running and popular Supernanny in particular as an example of patriarchal, misogynistic or class-based programming, some have suggested that the representation of appropriate and inappropriate mothering in these shows is useful, necessary and of importance.

Supernanny not only exposes parenting problems, but offers parents in general, and mothers in particular, ways to create a more harmonious family unit, and as such, one might look to praise the show for its entertainment potential and educational possibilities. Extant research tells us that audiences watch these programmes for interest and educational reasons ((Ganeshasundaram, Raguragavan and Henley, Nadine (2009), ‘Reality Television (Supernanny): A Social Marketing “Place” Strategy’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, 26:5, p.316)) with supernanny becoming a ‘spokesperson for audiences who need a kind of civic education in parenting’. (( Tally, Margaret (2008), ‘Reality Television and Contemporary Family Life: Make Over Television and the Question of Parenting,’ Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Boston, Available at: http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/2/3/9/2/7/pages239270/p239270-1.php (accessed 10/08/2011) )) Indeed, members of the British Conservative party have praised the programme’s routinised and organised methods in a parliamentary debate on anti-social behavior. The fact that each show concludes with a short revisit to the originally struggling family, and that, without exception, these families are calmer, more courteous, and the mothers more confident about their maternal practices demands that the audience acknowledge the success of the techniques being presented, irrespective of the earlier humiliation and shame of the mothers involved. Therefore, rather than critique or condemn the programme for exploiting fragile mothers or for humiliating depressed caregivers, the programme might be seen to present a powerful maternal voice. Indeed, if one considers that contemporary mothers are said to bring inaccurate or ill-informed, disabling and delusional expectations to that role ((Maushart, Susan (1999), The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend it Doesn’t, London: Pandora, pp.xi-xxi)) , then the representation of motherhood in parenting reality television might be seen to bridge the gap between expectation and experience here.

Image Credits:

1. Supernanny‘s Logo
2. Supernanny Jo Frost

Please feel free to comment.