Bright Lights Film Journal

Green Hornet Makes America Bossy Bottom: Who’s Topping Who?

“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.

However, he can only get the job done with the help of Kato (Jay Chou), his Chinese sidekick who has the strategic and technological virility that the Green Hornet lacks. The racially different sidekick isn’t an innovation, of course. The Lone Ranger had Tonto, and as Britt points out, Indiana Jones had his Asian sidekick Short Round. In fact, Kato recapitulates many facets of the Asian stereotype. His knowledge of karate enables him to accomplish seemingly supernatural feats during battle, and his intelligence — particularly in chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering — makes him a strong supplement to the white American male’s (supposedly) winning charm and natural leadership. Kato’s putative role is to stand beneath his rich white employer, who initially only retains him because he uses his amazing mechanical abilities to make his master an unparalleled cup of coffee. The racist hierarchy implicit in his relationship with Britt becomes visible as his character is marked as invisible, unable to choose a heroic name and thus be a hero in his own right. As the final credits highlight, while Britt is a.k.a. the Green Hornet, Kato is just a.k.a. Kato. Without a superhero name, he lacks a voice in the comic-book (or old-fashioned radio show, the Green Hornet’s first incarnation) discourse. As a result, Kato isn’t eligible for top billing in an American context, and thus the Asian man maintains his comfortable place beneath. Right?

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.

One particular image captures this illusion in a striking manner. During the fight, savoring a lucky moment of physical dominance, Britt bends Kato over a foosball table, grasping him from behind as he hammers Kato’s face with the table’s tiny men. The image, for a brief moment, is the visual version of a joke that runs throughout the film: as interdependent as they are, Britt and Kato, the Green Hornet and his sidekick, could be lovers. Unlike Batman and Robin’s erotic fondness for one another, which in canonical representations of the Dynamic Duo is at least somewhat subliminal, the erotics of the Hornet-Kato connection are foregrounded, only to be dismissed in a homophobic manner as unconvincing as Britt’s racist illusion of dominance over his much more capable counterpart. For example, in a moment captured in many of the film’s trailers, Britt tells Kato to take his hand and go with him on the journey of heroism, and Kato says (in a manner that wins the audience’s laughter but not Britt’s) he’ll go on the journey, but he won’t touch him.

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.

If the Green Hornet is a bossy bottom, exerting public dominance while his invisible partner is really on top, their metaphorically sexual relationship (although we do see a brief “morning after” moment of Britt in bed with a woman, no one in this movie has sex, so all sex is confined to the realm of metaphor) comments on racial and national politics in a manner less familiar than the film’s semi-subversion of racist hierarchies between buddies. Kato tells Britt that he’s from Shanghai, emphasizing his Chinese-ness, and in a stereotypical show of Americans’ global ignorance, Britt concludes that Kato is Japanese. Thus we have a stereotypical Chinese man playing metaphorical top to a stereotypical American man’s bossy bottom. In the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, America has claimed the title of the world’s only superpower, for better or worse bossing other nations around. Meanwhile, America has relied more and more on Chinese money to maintain its image as dominator of the world. Just as the powers Kato gets from the gifts of the Asian stereotype make him the real, albeit invisible, power behind the Green Hornet, China may have become the real power behind the United States, providing the cash that helps to bail out America’s wealthy when they’re in crisis.

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.

The upshot of all of the symbolic capital traded among stereotypes in The Green Hornet is that the film’s American hero reflects a new position for the historically dominant straight, white, American male. The Green Hornet’s male power is compromised by his reliance on a female mastermind, his American power is compromised by his debt to China, his white power is compromised by his inferiority to his yellow partner, and his straight power is compromised by the problematic eroticism that the partnership entails. Despite all these compromises, in the end, the Green Hornet is still the hero of the film, triumphing over the city’s evil ethnic and political ensemble, so mainstream audiences get to go home happy. Perhaps that happiness, rather than a full reassertion of for-now-dominant America’s position, heralds the expansion of the dominant classes’ comfort zone. Everyone can go home happy because in the end, The Green Hornet‘s compromised values have lost their sting.