All hail the 80s career woman. Holly is the quintessential working girl, fresh off second wave feminism and ready to take on the boardroom. She's even got the shoulder pads.
It's Holly's meteoric rise in the Nakatomi Corporation that's got her out in L.A. in the first place. Apparently, she "had a good job, turned into a great career," and when she headed west, McClane couldn't follow. (He's a New York cop, after all.)
Holly's choice of career puts an interesting spin on the 80s version of the nuclear family. She and John are technically still together, but it's clear their marriage is on the rocks and a separation hasn't exactly made the heart grow fonder, if you know what we mean. They're navigating the awkward waters of not-quite-being-married, hence Paulina making up the spare bedroom "just in case."
Holly's commitment to her job also emphasizes a similar commitment in McClane. He won't move for her, and she won't stay for him—so that leaves them with an awkward bi-coastal separation, with McClane back east, away from his kids. Interestingly (maybe even progressively), the movie doesn't place any blame on Holly for this less-than-desirable scenario. She's not cast as a corporate-ladder climber, willing to sacrifice her family for her career. And the movie goes out of its way to stress that she's a good mom, too. It's actually McClane who bears the brunt of the blame.
He totally cops to it, too. As McClane nurses his bruised and bloody feet in a bathroom, he hails Al Powell on the radio:
I want you to find my wife […] I want you to tell her something. […] Tell her it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I've been. But that when things started to pan out for her, I should have been more supportive, and I just should have been behind her more. Tell her that she is the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She's heard me say "I love you" a thousand times. She never heard me say "I'm sorry." And I want you to tell her that, Al, I want you to tell her that John said that he was sorry.
If we go the pop psychology route, we might argue that the tension in the McClane marriage stems from John's sense that Holly's career success is a threat to his masculinity.
There, we said it. There's no denying that McClane is a man's man. He's all bravado and machismo, and talking about his feelings is something he only seems to be able to do over a radio with a total stranger. Early in the movie, he stresses how important his own job is, saying:
"I got a six-month backlog of New York scumbags that I'm still trying to put behind bars. I can't just pick up and go that easy."
Yeah, okay, John. Because L.A. is fresh out of scumbags for you to throw in the slammer.
But if we go the plot psychology route, we here at Shmoop would argue that Holly's career success is also a catalyst for John's redemption arc. He begins the movie resentful that she's left, mad that she's dropped his surname, and oh so uncomfortable with the whole L.A. scene. But by the time he reunites with the Mrs., he's ready to atone for his marital sins—namely, for not being her number one cheerleader. (Oh, and spoiler alert: in Die Hard 2, we learn he has become an L.A. cop.)
Holly, too, comes around. She corrects McClane when he introduces her to Al Powell as Holly Gennero. "Holly McClane," she says. It's all very romantic (if a little old-school), but we can't help but recommend that these two go to therapy in any case. Maybe it's because we've seen Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Damsel in Distress?
Not so fast. Sure, Holly exhibits all the telltale signs of a damsel in distress:
- She's held hostage by big meanies.
- She's literally trapped in a tower while her heroic prince tries to free her. (Okay, so "prince" may be a bit of a stretch.)
- The whole motive of the hero boils down to saving her. She's the prize.
- Oh, and the Big Bad uses her as a human shield in the final showdown.
So yes, this is not exactly the action movie role the Women's Lib movement had in mind. But still, Holly manages to find some opportunities to show that she's no delicate flower. She's feisty, savvy, and can throw a mean right hook.
Holly's the one who stands up for the hostages, asking Gruber for bathroom breaks and a couch for her pregnant secretary. She's also savvy enough to realize that Takagi stands to gain nothing by revealing himself, so she tries to stop him. (She's proven right, of course, when Takagi ends up dead for, frankly, no good reason just a few scenes later.) Several characters—Harry Ellis in particular—emphasize her business prowess. And, perhaps most important, she's not afraid to challenge—even provoke—Gruber by calling him a "common thief." Holly, quite simply, does not suffer fools.
Everyone's favorite Holly moment comes at the end of the movie, when her inner mama bear really rears her fierce head. Having learned that the opportunistic reporter Richard Thornburg has put her kids on television without her permission (and therefore jeopardized their safety), she's, um, a wee bit peeved. And when she runs into him at the end of the movie, instead of responding to his questions, she straight-up decks him. It's the movie's final triumph, and it's also a moment meant to highlight Holly's true strength: you mess with hers, you'll see a woman gettin' mean.
P.S. Fun fact: While we're on the subject of Die Hard's one central female character, it's worth noting that, technically speaking, the movie passes the Bechdel test. Shocking, we know. But Holly, a named female character, has a conversation with her secretary Ginny (another named female character), and they discuss drinking champagne—not another man. (Unless you count Holly's passing reference to Ebenezer Scrooge… in which case, oops. Never mind.)