Race, Gender, and The Green Hornet

Posted by Jennifer

The Green Hornet is not Iron Man. In terms of acting, directing, plot, dialogue, special effects, and any number of other objective measures of quality, The Green Hornet doesn’t even come close. Yet while I left both the first and second Iron Man films with a glow of contentment that was quickly followed by nitpicks regarding their handling of race and gender, The Green Hornet left me with exactly the opposite reaction – no great love for the film as a whole, but an extremely high level of respect for the way it managed to tell a story about women and people of color as competent, fully-realized human beings who have to face the kinds of struggles rich white men never experience.

(Spoilers for the film follow; if you’re spoiler-phobic, you may want to see the film before reading on.)

I’ve never seen, read, or listened to any previous versions of the Green Hornet, so I’m not too familiar with his history. But I’ve gathered that it’s no surprise that Kato is far more competent and badass than the Green Hornet himself. He’s the one with all the expertise, he’s the one with the gadgets and the driving and fighting skills. That carries over to this film, to an almost absurd degree – Kato is a genius in every way. He could be Batman if he wanted to be. He’s a mechanic, a genius with cars and machines in general, and he has tons of fighting skills gained during a hard childhood on the streets. He saves the Green Hornet time and again, and he makes a mean cup of coffee to boot.

But what’s significant about his role is just how much better he is at everything than the titular hero, Britt Reid, the ostensible protagonist of the film. The problem with Iron Man is that, as much of a screw-up as he is, Tony Stark is such a genius and so attractive and charming that it’s hard to say no to him, or call him out on his crap. That was the biggest problem with Iron Man 2 – even when Rhodey and Pepper are right, Tony never really apologizes to them, and they still wind up back in his corner by the end, deferring to his authority. But Seth Rogen’s Britt Reid, though portrayed as a popular ladies’ man at the beginning of the film, is pretty much the opposite of Tony Stark. He’s awkward and incompetent and spoiled and selfish and sexist and a complete idiot. He has a good heart, deep down, and it’s that heart that makes him watchable. But as a superhero, he’s awful – and he never magically becomes better. By the end of the film, he’s become a better person, but he hasn’t gotten any better at being a hero or running a newspaper or pretty much anything else, and no one in the movie pretends that he has.

Seth Rogen co-wrote and co-produced this film in addition to starring in it, and I feel I have to give him a lot of credit for writing his role in this way. I know there were complaints, when he was first cast, that he wasn’t conventionally handsome enough for the part, but after seeing the film I can’t help thinking that’s half the point. Next to boyish, awkward Britt, Kato (played by the very good-looking Jay Chou) is all the more sexy, and he comes the closest to a romantic plot in the film, with a somewhat-mutual flirtation with Britt’s secretary, Lenore Case. Considering the tradition of emasculation of Asian men in Western cinema, this is no small thing.

But the way Britt treats Kato is perhaps even more deliberate and telling. Though he admires Kato’s abilities, he also clearly believes that he, Britt, is more deserving of fame, love, and success than Kato is. There’s a definite racist overtone to Britt’s treatment of Kato, especially when he calls him “little man” and makes up demeaning sidekick names for him. But rather than making excuses for that treatment, or turning it into a joke, the film allows the viewer to see Kato’s point of view, and the way that treatment affects him. He’s clearly frustrated by the popular attention the Green Hornet receives when he’s the one who does all the fighting, and gets upset when people – even Lenore – assume he must just be some “hired thug.” He admits to resentment he had toward Britt’s father, his former employer, for the disrespectful way he’d treated him. And then there’s the shocking moment when Kato punches a cabinet next to Britt’s head after Britt orders him to make him coffee. It’s the most genuinely violent moment of the whole film, and Kato’s anger is palpable. Britt, at that point, clearly doesn’t understand the import of what he’s done – he just selfishly wanted time alone with Lenore, who Kato was talking to. But Kato sees a white man he considers to be a partner treating him like a servant and cutting off his attempts to express himself as a sexual adult, and his anger is terrifying and absolutely justified.

Then there’s Cameron Diaz’s Lenore – a woman who uses her college degree to figure out major plot points, a woman who is portrayed as sexually desirable despite being (gasp!) thirty-six, a woman who is more attracted to kind, interesting, talented Kato than useless Britt, and a woman who feels the stings of sexism in a way the audience is expected to find appalling. Britt’s objectification of her never comes across as charming; it’s just obnoxious. And when he fires her for going out with Kato, her anger is much like Kato’s in the coffee scene – fiery and justified. She isn’t the first woman to be hired, and then fired, at the whims of a man who considered her his property, and the audience is invited to be enraged on her behalf.

As the film went on, I found myself bracing for the moment when it would all turn around – when Britt would become a hero, save Kato, and assert himself as the great white hero. I kept waiting for him to hook up with Lenore, for her to fall into his arms in forgiveness and lust. I’ve come to expect that, even in superhero films where heroes of color and female characters exist, the white male protagonist will prevail. But to the credit of everyone involved in the movie, that never happens. Britt realizes he’s a jerk, and attempts to improve himself. He apologizes to Kato for the way he treated him – and Kato is not expected to apologize in return. When he does try to save Kato, at the film’s climax, it’s an expression of his gratefulness and devotion, not his innate heroism. In fact, his rescue attempt ends when he falls over, distracting the villain long enough for Kato to extricate himself from the situation. Britt does save Kato, technically, but only by chance and clumsiness. Lenore, meanwhile, does not hook up with either man (Britt because he’s Britt, and Kato because he exercised his own male privilege and allowed Britt to assume he had slept with Lenore when he had not). Instead, when they reveal their secret identities to her, she becomes their trusted confidant (and, in a pinch, their emergency doctor), a full member of the team. Britt then turns over control of his late father’s newspaper to a character played by Latino actor Edward James Olmos, who is clearly the best person for the job. And the pan-ethnic gangs of bad guys (a nice corrective to mobs of faceless non-white villains in movies like Iron Man) face justice.

This movie exemplifies everything I’ve wanted out of other superhero films and comics that have dealt with the relationships between white male heroes and the women and heroes of color who surround them. It’s Kick-Ass, if Dave’s girlfriend had kicked him to the curb for being a creep and Hit-Girl had gotten more screen time and her own revenge. It’s the relationship between Captain America and the Falcon, if Captain America’s innate perfection didn’t get in the way of any serious deconstruction of white privilege. It’s Iron Man if Pepper and Rhodey and Yinsen were the ultimate heroes and Tony was forced to apologize for his arrogance. The Green Hornet is not a perfect movie, by any means – but for these reasons alone, I’m glad it exists.

By Jennifer Smith
E-mail: Jennifer@fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • hey, that’s a great review, it sounds like something really different. I’m very curious to see it now, even if it has flaws.

  • Caroline

    Great review!

  • This is fantastic! I’m so glad someone else saw this aspect of the movie, rather than complain about how bad it was in comparison to The Dark Knight. This movie wasn’t trying to be The Dark Knight, and it broke a lot of ground in terms of the topics you mentioned. Very well written article. :)

  • Anonymous

    were u drunk when you wrote this? or just high when you saw the movie? it is sexist,, condescending

  • I’m pretty sure that asking if a reviewer was drunk or high is much more condescending than anything unproblematized in this movie.

    Britt is sexist and condescending. But because of how the film frames that sexism and condescension, and the way the plot, characters, and points of view unfold, I would argue that the film is definitively not — or, at the very least, is a better example of progress than most.

  • Caroline

    Personally, I plan to be drunk AND high when I see this movie.

    Wait, maybe I shouldn’t say that here.

  • handyhunter

    Whoa. Jay Chou learned English in one month.

    I wasn’t going to see this because of the Seth Rogan factor (and this review/reaction), but maybe if his character doesn’t overwhelm the movie, it won’t be so bad.

    Also,

    It’s the relationship between Captain America and the Falcon, if Captain America’s innate perfection didn’t get in the way of any serious deconstruction of white privilege.

    Huh. I think this is why I have such a negative reaction to the white Captain America.

  • Pingback: Herrrmp, am I going to have to see Green Hornet now? « Gynomite!()

  • Well, to be fair, Jen, you do go to the movies high, like, all the time. We’ve been talking intervention.

    Also, you made me really want to see this movie.

  • Matt

    I don’t really like Seth Rogan so I wasn’t going to see this movie but you just sold me on seeing it. Thanks!