“Britt looks like the top as he bends Kato over and as he barks orders at his employee, but as every physical confrontation in the film demonstrates, Kato is the stronger man in both mind and body.”
The Green Hornet is, like most comic-book-style would-be blockbusters, a collection of stereotypes that dramatizes the fantasies of the dominant sectors of American culture while putting that culture’s values on display, justifying them by positioning them as an objective good that triumphs over a universally threatening evil. Like many recent films of its genre, The Green Hornet also displays self-consciousness about the stereotypes it uses, at least partially undermining their inherent classism, racism, and sexism. However, the film goes much further than making a politically correct statement about the problems of these comfortably villainized isms, and in doing so, it paints a compelling picture of the new dominant values that America secretly acknowledges but never fully admits.
Britt Reid, a.k.a. the Green Hornet (Seth Rogen), is a wealthy playboy who decides to use his wealth to create a secret superhero identity and become a defender of the people. In this role he echoes Batman, another decadent aristocrat by day who, wearing the mask of a vigilante, protects the innocent by night. Both of these characters justify the extreme wealth of the wealthy: yes, they control an unfair share of America’s resources and behave as if they’re above the laws of normal folks, but that’s not a problem because they use those resources and their superlegal status to protect in secret the people they exploit in public. Unlike Batman’s playboy alter-ego Bruce, though, party-boy Britt’s embarrassing violations of middle-class mores do not disappear when he dons his green mask. Batman is a one-man army who uses a combination of physical prowess, strategic genius, and technological wizardry to thwart his enemies. The Green Hornet, by contrast, runs out of breath as he flees better-armed bad guys, stumbles stubbornly and blindly into a near-fatal trap, and shoots himself in the face with one of his own crime-fighting gadgets. Batman, the Dark Knight, sustains the myth of the invincible feudal lord who does God’s business and thus deserves lordship. The Green Hornet acknowledges the weaknesses of the wealthy, who occasionally need bailouts of massive proportions but nevertheless seem like alright guys who get the job done in the end.
Not really. Kato may not look like he’s on top, but when Britt likens him to Indiana Jones’s Short Round, he does so during a fistfight that begins as Kato points out that because of Britt’s ineptitude, the Green Hornet would be nothing without his not-particularly-sidelined sidekick. Britt summons the cinema’s history of racist hierarchy to claim dominance over Kato during a battle that the white man has no chance of winning: while he gets in an uncanny number of lucky shots, Britt’s boxing style has no hope of overcoming Kato’s martial artistry. The fight only stops when the two fall into a swimming pool, which allows Britt to conserve his image as top dog because conveniently, Kato doesn’t know how to swim. This weakness is perhaps intentionally unconvincing. By ending the fight without giving Kato his seemingly inevitable victory, the movie doesn’t undo the racist hierarchy, but by making the Asian man’s victory seem inevitable but for a suspiciously convenient weakness, it foregrounds the hierarchy’s status as a fragile illusion.
This homophobic ha-ha moment plays out in the narrative’s structure through a typical triangulation of the men’s desire for each other via a female character (a triangulation pioneered in academic circles by author Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick). The lucky woman is Britt’s beautiful secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz). Each of the men pursues her romantically and thereby asserts a heterosexuality that at least superficially renders the homoeroticism between them benign from the dominant straight perspective. For a while, the men’s romantic pursuits also play a part in the undermining of the racist hierarchy between them, as Lenore at first shows a romantic interest in Kato instead of the usual amour of the stereotypical blonde secretary, her boss Britt. In seeming to prefer her coworker to her boss, Lenore works against the sexist stereotype she literally embodies as she destabilizes the power differential between the men whose relationship with each other is negotiated through their desire for her. Lenore’s challenge to a sexist stereotype advances further as she displays an intelligence superior to both men’s, telling Britt how to run his newspaper and showing the Green Hornet how to behave like a proper criminal/vigilante. As Britt eventually admits, Lenore is anything but the dumb blonde; she is the heroic operation’s mastermind.
Even though she willingly accepts the role of subservient secretary, leaving Britt’s sexual dominance as fragilely intact as his racial dominance, Lenore’s intelligence allows her to challenge sexist assumptions. Ultimately, she rejects the romantic overtures of both men, refusing to allow her sexual attractiveness to define her role in the crime-fighting team. She makes her rejection of the romantic triangle final by shouting that the two men might kiss each other, but they won’t be kissing her. Thus she cancels her role as a mediator who makes the eroticism between the men palatable for the mainstream audience. Without her between them, there’s nothing to prove that they’re heterosexual. Lenore’s challenge to chauvinistic assumptions about women’s subservience and stupidity becomes a challenge to heterosexist assumptions as well. In doing so, The Green Hornet crosses from a sexual territory comfortable for the action genre (after all, action fans have accepted strong women like Lara Croft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for years) into a less familiar zone where the homoeroticism of the hero-sidekick connection might have to be taken seriously.
Taking the homoeroticism seriously means thinking more deeply about the dynamics between this more overtly postmodern dynamic duo. Although gay male relationships don’t always follow a stereotypical division of roles between one physically dominant, sexually active partner — in gay parlance a “top” — and one physically submissive, sexually passive partner — a “bottom” — The Green Hornet traffics in stereotypes, and this stereotype works well as a way of understanding the power struggle between the two men. In the image of Britt bending Kato over the foosball table, Britt is miming the role of top, a role consistent with the power of his economic and racial status. However, the dominance won by that status is already in doubt because of the Chinese man’s superior virility in strategic and technological matters. Britt looks like the top as he bends Kato over and as he barks orders at his employee, but as every physical confrontation in the film demonstrates, Kato is the stronger man in both mind and body. In sexual terms, then, Kato may very well be on top, rendering Britt as what in gay parlance is known as a “bossy bottom,” someone who in public has control but ends up bending over when the partners turn out the lights.
The political resonance of The Green Hornet doesn’t stop with Chinese/American relations. The Green Hornet and his nameless sidekick do battle with an unusual coalition of all of Los Angeles’s ethnically defined gangs, representing the struggle between the rich establishment and the poor, disenfranchised urban denizens who combined are the city’s, and soon to be the country’s, majority. This criminal, racialized underclass is ultimately in league with corrupt politicians, who have for years been pulling the strings of the media, controlling ideas and votes by publishing some stories and squashing others. Analysis of the film’s symbolic resonance could go on.