Race gender and the male body

Also alerting us to 'surface structures' is another element that did not escape the critics, often said to belong to the arsenal of the post-classical cinema, namely the emphasis on the body, and in particular on the display of the male body:

Bruce Willis in another one of those Hollywood action roles where the hero's shirt is ripped off in the first reel so you can see how much time he has been spending at the gym.

(Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 15 July 1988)

As Ebert implies, the film reflects a preoccupation of popular culture and especially media culture since the 1980s with the eroticized male body, as we know it from body-building, Baywatch and jogging, leading another reviewer to speak of Die Hard as 'a body-intensive, cardiovascular workout movie' (Hal Hinson, Washington Post, 15 July 1988).

Not least because of television, and its ability to invest sports performers via close-up with a special kind of physical glamour, representations of the male body have changed dramatically in the past two decades. Slow motion and action replays have turned televised football (or soccer) into one of the most lucrative forms of entertainment ever known, helping to make this traditionally uniquely male spectator sport also pleasurable to women audiences. The male body has become big business visual spectacle, in contrast to the classical male body, usually seen as the bastion of abstraction from its physical manifestations (except in pornography), neither eroticised nor 'marked' (for fear, it is said, of yielding to the homoerotic subtext that has always been present in Hollywood). Although there have been exceptions in certain genres (such as the boxing film or the war film), certain stars (Clark Gable's string vest), and certain directors, notably in Anthony Mann's Westerns, and almost all of Robert Aldrich's films, classical cinema has mostly shown its-men fully clad and physically unimpaired: their Oedipal wounds have remained symbolic, the bodily envelope largely unaffected. But not so in Die Hard, where Bruce Willis's body is exposed and put on display. Physically wounded and relentlessly punished, McClane's vulnerability is graphically shown; indeed, his body is 'somatized' and so are we as spectators: we 'feel' how painful it is to walk over broken glass and have the tender skin of our soles torn open and bleeding.

This attention to male skin as a surface - tender in both senses of the word - has not escaped commentary, when film scholars theorize the shifting relations of gender, and in particular, the representation of gays. Whether as pin-ups presented for visual pleasure to male and female viewers, or in scenes of same-sex physical contact between males of different race, Hollywood has not hesitated to follow trends in fashion, advertising, and other areas of popular (sub)culture, in order to make what once was called 'deviance' or even 'miscegenation' consumable. We have already quoted Fred Pfeil, who links the slippage of the classically tabooed race boundaries in the representation of males to the problematically 'multiracial community' of unskilled workers gathering as a reserve pool in low-paid service industries. Yet it is again remarkable how Die Hard looks as if its makers had read all the relevant cultural studies literature, so as to provide 'something for everybody'. With the bi-race buddy theme between McClane and Al Powell (and their tearful final embrace), with the 'Johnson and Johnson' joke of the two FBI agents ('no relation'), and the Spanish maid occupying structurally the same nurturing role in respect of Holly as Al does in respect of McClane (aligning 'people of colour' as unthreateningly neutral in the caring positions/ professions), Die Hard has ensured that the interpretive community of 'race-class-gender' studies can have a field day, by catering to hoary clich├ęs and stereotypes, while sufficiently mixing the categories and boundaries to mildly impress even radical activists like Pfeil.

Sharon Willis is less impressed. In her essay on the genre (Willis 1997), covering much the same ground as Pfeil, she is nonetheless careful to make a distinction between the formations of gender and race, arguing that it is race which, precisely because it is so excessively foregrounded, remains the unacknowledged pivot of the film's ideological construction. Rather than the film translating racially coded issues into gender-coded ones, she sees a constant slippage and reversal, indicative of what she calls the 'trade-offs' between race and gender, from the point of view of masculinity in crisis, which then release different 'erotic economies' that entail the consequence that 'black' and 'female' emerge as incompatible with each other, unable to exist within the same discursive space. For Willis, it is therefore race that remains the bi-racial buddy films' actual trauma, which they cover up by jocular homoeroticism, spectacularized bodies, and a liberal presentation of interracial communication around the upholding of the law. This strategy disavows the very real impossibility of the white United States to come to grips with its racism, especially seeing that blacks in America do not so much represent the law as have the law inscribed on their bodies in the penal institutions they so disproportionately populate. The liberalism or 'licence' of representation in the films, along with the permanent sexual innuendo and the physical bravado, are the mask that a deeply reactionary genre gives itself, in order to reassert the narrowest of social spaces and the most cliched of discursive places reserved for non-whites, and to redraw more firmly the lines of sexual and racial difference.

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