An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 12, 2016

Fusco: Marco Polo

Marco Polo, season 1. Written by John Fusco; directed by David Petrarca, Alik Sakharov, John Maybury, Daniel Minahan. Distributed by Netflix, 12 December 2014.

Reviewed by Pamela M. Yee (

Early in Netflix’s 2014 original series Marco Polo, the title character, recently traded by his father to the Mongol court, asks: “Am I a privileged guest or a prisoner in this hell?” (“The Wayfarer”). Viewers, ensnared in the show’s sluggish and sometimes incoherent narrative, might well wonder the same thing. One must admire its sheer ambition; its astronomical price tag, its epic narrative scope, meticulous world-building, and in-your-face shock factor inevitably draw comparisons to its more successful cable cousin, HBO’s Game of Thrones. As Mitchel Broussard observes, “there’s a certain scrappiness here that I found endearing, a show, who [sic] pretty much draws comparison to one of the biggest TV series of all time by merely existing, attempting to stay on level ground with said behemoth.” But Marco Polo fails to capture either Game of Thrones’ popularity or its critical acclaim. As of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes lists the show at a dismal 24% rating, averaging a rating of 4.7 out of 10 from 33 reviews. Hank Stuever at the Washington Post drives the nail home, calling the streaming service’s offering “practically binge-proof.” Ouch.

Marco Polo opens with the eponymous character’s (Lorenzo Richelmy) arrival in the thirteenth-century Mongolian court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong). Young Marco, barely out of his teens, is abandoned there by his father. He learns to navigate his new environment with the help of Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), a blind Taoist monk and kung fu master. Marco quickly falls in love with Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), the beautiful but mysterious Blue Princess of the (Mongol) Bayaut tribe. Meanwhile, he develops a strained relationship with Kublai himself, bonding over midnight games of chess and discussions about their respective fathers. Eventually, Marco’s silver tongue earns him the privilege to participate in the Khan’s quest to conquer Xiangyang, the last remaining Chinese stronghold. Power-hungry Chancellor Jia Sidao, played with Machiavellian sadism by Chin Han, leads the Chinese resistance while jockeying for position in the Song court against the Dowager Empress. His deceptive and ruthless tactics make him the Khan’s main antagonist. The Chancellor is not above coercing his own sister, imperial courtesan Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) – a femme fatale, whose sexual prowess is matched only by her fighting ability – into infiltrating the Khan’s court, becoming his favorite concubine, and spying on Mongol plans. There, Mei Lin finds a formidable foe in the Khan’s chief wife, Empress Chabi (a magisterial Joan Chen), a Chinese noblewoman whose marriage to Kublai brings prestige to Chinese traditions practiced in the Mongol court. Chabi is mother to Prince Jingim (Remy Hii), the Khan’s heir, but his mixed Mongolian-Chinese heritage makes him an object of suspicion to his father, who questions whether he is suitable to be the next khan. Jingim’s troubled relationship with his father and Marco’s growing esteem in court foments a rivalry between himself and “the Latin,” as they both compete for the Khan’s trust and affection.

Although the show suffers from a number of narrative difficulties, I will focus on a problem central to medievalism, the show’s failures in its cultural representation. Marco Polo depicts medieval Asia as an Orientalist fantasy, gratifying the tastes of a Western audience. The show perpetuates both racist and sexist stereotypes, which mutually reinforce each other. Its problematic racial representations bleed into and amplify its troubling gender politics, revealing that issues of race cannot be meaningfully separated from issues of gender. I will look first at the show’s fundamental issues of racial representation, before moving on to examine its troubling depictions of Asian women and men at some length.

To cater to a Western audience, the series oversimplifies its major cultures. Because the show deals with two Eastern cultures in conflict, Mongolians and Chinese, this introduces a storytelling problem – how to tell the two Asian cultures apart? To maximize differentiation, creator John Fusco applies a well-established dichotomy, the East-West binary. Audiences may think that this problem is limited to past productions like the much-maligned Miss Saigon, but it persists even in more recent works. Game of Thrones, for example, in their representation of Westerosi vs. Dothraki culture characterize the West as civilized, technologically-advanced, rational, and familiar while the East is barbaric, primitive, mystical, and foreign. But in Marco Polo, there is a crucial difference. Neither side is familiar; rather, both cultures, though radically differentiated, remain firmly Other. What remains of the East-West binary is the basic dichotomy – the two cultures are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, the Khan’s Mongols epitomize the brutal violence, over-sexualization, and nomadic lifestyle reminiscent of Western depictions of Native Americans. Theirs is a warrior culture, proficient in horse-back riding, archery, falconry, and wrestling, all skills that Marco struggles to learn. On the other hand, the Chinese possess a distinct intellectual and aesthetic history. They study the military strategy of Sun Tzu and quote from the I Ching, as well as practicing arts like calligraphy, sword-dancing, kung fu, and divination. Both strategies are well-worn methods of Othering, of imagining the Oriental as either highly aestheticized or as brute savage [1]. This tendency to polarize, to force one culture into the antithesis of the other simply for the purposes of differentiating them, is both racist and insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

Such problematic portrayals of race exacerbate the show’s even more deplorable gender stereotypes, especially its treatment of women. As Salon’s Sonia Saraiya observes, “The men – Mongol, Chinese, and Venetian – get arcs hashing out their daddy issues, along with sword fighting and heroic horsemanship. The women are fierce and intelligent, but repeatedly relegated to the role of sex object.” Indeed, most of Marco Polo’s women are frequently sexed up and stripped down. This sexualization of Asian women fits Western fantasies which presume the exoticism of non-Western women, which consists of deviant sexuality and may be expressed as insatiable sexual appetite. Michael Calabrese has noted that the act of constructing what is “typically Oriental” (read: exotic) hinges on “fetishizing Asian promiscuity” [2]. Take, for example, Marco’s introduction to the Khan’s imperial brothel, glibly named the Hall of Five Pleasures. In one scene, Kublai – surrounded by nubile young women – explains that Marco must undergo a test: “Look…but do not touch.” If he can exit the orgiastic Hall without laying a hand (or any other organ) on the nude women there, he will have earned the Khan’s trust and, it is implied, be duly rewarded with the girl of his choice (“The Wayfarer”). Predictably, the scene pulsates with whorehouse clichés, high-pitched moaning, saturated red light, rhythmic drumming, and the writhing bodies of naked women reaching out to caress the dazzled Marco. As Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times accurately observes, “Yes, perhaps women were nothing but sex objects in the real Kublai Khan’s empire, but this series is historically accurate only when it wants to be; the better examples of the costume genre have found ways to treat female characters less dismissively.” Certainly it is not unusual for period pieces to objectify minor characters or female extras, but Marco Polo extends this treatment to its main cast as well.

Mei Lin, the courtesan, suffers the most from the show’s rampant objectification of women. While her sex appeal nominally serves the narrative, it more clearly gives the show carte blanche to strip her naked as often as possible. Her most obviously gratuitous nude scene shows Mei Lin seducing three assassins meant to kill her, dropping her robes to distract them, and then proceeding to clobber them with a bout of naked kung fu (“The Wolf and the Deer”). Some might object that this scene serves not only to titillate fanboys but actually builds Mei Lin’s character. Elena Lowe argues that “the naked kung fu works to showcase [her] simultaneous vulnerability and power.” Lowe has a point; Mei Lin’s sexuality is a double-edged sword, giving her some agency but also victimizing her. However, I find Lowe’s argument a bit specious. The nudity here is certainly not required for the scene to work. If Mei Lin can defeat the armed assassins with her clothes off, she can certainly also do it with them on. The nudity in this scene functions much more as tantalizing spectacle than as plot development. It is worth noting, however, that Mei Lin bears all the hallmarks of a proto-feminist character: she is unabashed about her sexuality, yet she is not limited to an exclusively sexual role. Clearly, she can make her own living, defend herself, and be a devoted mother. Mei Lin might be taken more seriously as an empowered woman were she not blackmailed into serving her brother or surrounded so often by other naked women, who are shamelessly objectified.

At the other end of the female spectrum is Bayaut princess Kokachin, Marco’s main love interest. She is, of course, a maiden. And unlike Mei Lin, she behaves primly and properly, always averting her eyes and speaking in a docile manner. Kokachin embodies a ‘china doll’ stereotype – dainty, obedient, and in need of protection, a male fantasy and precisely the type of “virtuous pagan wom[a]n fetishized by medieval clerics” [3]. It is hardly a surprise when Marco falls in love with her at first sight. The vast difference between the sexual practices of Mei Lin and Kokachin reveal one of the more troubling facets of series’ gender constructions. The dichotomy that oversimplifies the Mongol vs. Chinese cultures also persists in its representation of women: they are either whores or virgins, with little room for anything in between. Readers of medieval literature will, of course, recognize this binary as an all-too-familiar brand of sanctioned misogyny.

More disturbing, though, is that several Asian women express attraction to the Venetian. While Kokachin takes a while to warm to Marco, Khutulun (Claudia Kim) of the Mongol Chagatai tribe does not. In keeping with the warrior ethos of her people, Khutulun is a gifted wrestler and has promised not to marry until a man can defeat her in wrestling. Yet, mere moments after she meets Marco, she maneuvers him into private encounter, playfully tussles him to the ground, and mounts him – to both his surprise and ours (“Feast”). Worse, when it becomes apparent that Marco has feelings for both ladies, Kokachin and Khutulun begin to snap at each other, giving an oily soap opera aura to the love triangle (“White Moon”). Clearly, the writers imply, Asian women are attracted to white men. Long live the male (and imperialist) gaze.

Thankfully, there is one female lead who escapes fetishization, Empress Chabi. She is written as a surprisingly round character with influence both in the political and domestic arenas. Joan Chen plays her as a trusted confidante and advisor to her husband, dispensing both queenly mercy and encouraging acts of ruthlessness. Chabi provides a strong foil to the widowed Song Empress, who is weakened by her lack of husband, dependent child, and the chancellor who actively works against her interests. It is obvious that the screenwriters intend Empress Chabi to impress audiences with the respect women can garner in Mongolian society versus Chinese culture, where women’s roles were more traditionally restricted [4]. Chabi, like Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, achieves a great deal of female agency in a largely patriarchal world, but it is a shame that she must be forced into the stereotype of the unlikeable “dragon lady” to do it. The OED defines this term as “a domineering, powerful, or belligerent woman, specifically one of south-east Asian origin” and indicates that it is usually “derogatory.” Chabi’s draconian qualities emerge most clearly in her interactions with other women, where she always dictates the terms. When she suspects that Kokachin might have feelings for Marco, for instance, she quickly decides that it is time for her son Jingim to take Kokachin as his fourth wife, thwarting both lovers for the benefit of her own family. It is worth noting that the “dragon lady” is a particularly Western and modern stereotype, not one that is rooted in the medieval period. Unlike the promiscuity of Khutulun and the demureness of Kokachin, whose stereotypical qualities have roots in both medieval travel writings and historical accounts, Chabi’s dragon lady constitutes an anachronistic revisionism.

Finally, the sexist typecasting of the show’s women has ramifications for male sexuality as well. In comparison to Mongol men like the Khan, who are sexually insatiable, the show’s Chinese men are portrayed as asexual, celibate, or sexually deficient – seeming to draw on the toxic stereotype of the sexless Asian man. Jia Sidao, when offered the services of the woman he loves, refuses them; previous scenes suggest that he is too traumatized by the memory of young Mei Lin’s decision to sell her body to engage in sexual activity (“The Scholar’s Pen”). Hundred Eyes’ lack of a sex life seems conveniently explained away by his monkish celibacy (“The Scholar’s Pen). Perhaps the most interesting character in this department is the mixed-race Jingim. Though the prince has his father’s Mongolian blood, his Chinese upbringing and education makes his father question his masculinity. Whenever Jingim fails on the battlefield or in court, Kublai rationalizes that he is ‘too Chinese’ and ‘not Mongolian enough.’ Whenever Jingim tries to defend himself, Kublai impatiently tells him to stop “whining like a woman” (“Feast”). He is forever struggling to live up to his father’s expectations. Marco’s arrival, though, makes this task even more daunting. The Khan’s growing fondness and trust for the Latin irks the Prince; it becomes increasingly clear that Jingim views Marco as a usurper, a surrogate son whose word Kublai inexplicably trusts over that of his biological offspring. Jingim’s concerns about Marco’s rise affect his performance in the bedroom. Though he has three wives, he has not yet produced a child, and finds it increasingly difficult to perform. The rivalry between Jingim and Marco is not exclusively sexual, but Marco clearly emerges as the ‘winner’, catching the eye of two attractive Mongolian women while Jingim struggles with his wives. In their portrayal of Jia Sidao, Hundred Eyes, and Jingim, the screenwriters perpetuate the pernicious myth that Chinese men are sexually inadequate, especially in comparison to their Western counterparts. Among all the Asian stereotypes that the series condones, I find this to be the most damaging. Given all the naked women, is it so unreasonable to wish that the writers might include a single, well-adjusted, sexually active Chinese man? I think not.

Despite these stereotypes, a number of television critics have jumped to Marco Polo’s defense. The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz reasons: In the grander scheme, the not-so-well-reviewed Marco Polo does more for the overall goal of increasing the representation of Asian characters … than other highly acclaimed Western shows that ignore such characters altogether. Recall that Marco Polo’s cast is more than 90 percent Asian; how many other big-budget Western shows can say that? It would behoove critics and TV viewers alike to acknowledge these kinds of efforts to hire more Asian actors and place them in lead roles.

I do not disagree, nor would I detract from the work Fusco and company have accomplished in employing so many Asian actors onscreen. But simple by-the-numbers representation is not enough. While television screenwriters are beginning to pen larger roles for actors of color, these parts still need to break away from (conscious or unconscious) racial stereotypes. Certainly Marco Polo has broken ground in that area: the characters of Kublai Khan and Jia Sidao are more layered, conflicted, and psychologically realistic than most televised Asian characters that jump to mind. Even Mei Lin and Chabi, despite substantial typecasting, possess an interior life that breathes some depth into their personas. I acknowledge that the show has written complex characters under the auspices of solid research. But regardless of the depth of characterization, the fact remains that they maintain racist and/or sexist stereotypes. Nor are these stereotypes merely minor aspects of each role; rather, they substantially shape these characters’ narrative arcs. To take just one example, Kublai’s libido – conflated with his Mongolian identity – compromises his plans for conquest by allowing Mei Lin to learn his secrets and pass them onto his enemy. His lust nearly brings down his entire empire. To viewers, his character condones the toxic stereotype of a highly eroticized, exotic East, where even the highest dignitaries are ruled more by their genitals than their heads. Yes, Marco Polo may employ dozens more Asian actors than the average show, but it simultaneously perpetuates the damaging clichés that limits their chances of landing fresher, better, more complex roles.

Overall, Marco Polo fails to live up to its lofty ambitions. The show’s treatment of medieval Asia as a hedonistic fantasy world aligns with voyeuristic intentions in the source text. But, ironically, this faithful aspect of the show presents major problems, in terms of modern race and gender paradigms. The toggling between medieval representations and modern ideals that this adaptation requires is, the screenwriters admit, a tricky line to walk, particularly in the genre of historical drama. How can one portray female characters respectfully and with nuance when they are embedded in a historically patriarchal culture? How can one depict multiple cultures unfamiliar to Western audiences without resorting to reductive stereotypes? In some sense, it should come as no surprise that the series is plagued by such difficulties. After all, the problematic perspective is written into the source material; Marco Polo was a white Western male and his observations, as objective as he claims them to be, are inexorably colored by his viewpoint. It feels almost inevitable that a televised version catering to modern Western viewers would somehow make the show’s only white male the hero. But it need not be this way, and there is room for the writers to correct these issues in the upcoming second season, due out in summer 2016. Here’s hoping that season two can improve its cultural representation. In the words of Mic’s Zak Cheney-Rice, “Do better, Netflix.”

Pamela M. Yee
University of Rochester

1 Take, for example, two exemplary fight scenes. The first, a duel between two Mongols, is set outdoors, in a green valley. The two warriors approach each other on foot, heavily armored and bearing their blades. The ensuing fight is a brutal one, full of sweating, forceful strokes, heavy bodies hurled through the air. The soundscape is primarily of guttural battle cries, grunting, and metal-on-metal clanging. The winner eventually beheads his rival in a graphic, bloody display. The tone of the Mongolian fight scene is vicious and visceral (“The Wolf and the Deer”). A later showdown between two Chinese warriors, set in the Song imperial palace, presents a stark contrast in tone. Unlike the bulky, earthbound Mongolians, both of these kung fu masters somersault acrobatically off various surfaces and arc through the air like gymnasts, their robes flowing gracefully around them. Where the Mongolian battle was defined by weight and exertion, this skirmish seems to come effortlessly to both opponents, resembling more a choreographed dance than mortal struggle. Their soundscape is mostly one of whooshing – both from their flying robes and jabbing limbs. Unlike their Mongolian counterparts, neither combatant vocalizes at all, fighting in elegant silence (“The Heavenly and the Primal”). The aestheticization of both the Mongolian and Chinese battle methods reveal the heavy-handed ways in which the writers differentiate these two cultures.

2 Calabrese, Michael. “Between Despair and Ecstasy: Marco Polo’s Life of the Buddha.” Exemplaria 9.1 (Spring 1997): 197-229, p. 197.

3 Calabrese, “Between Despair and Ecstasy,” p. 201.

4 Co-executive producer Patrick Macmanus elaborates, “There was the Chinese side, where women were ultimately cast aside, either as concubines or at the whim of powerful men. In Mongolia, though, women were lauded. They were warriors, they were leaders, they were never seen as second-class citizens.” Actress Olivia Cheng notes the same dynamic, observing that “In China … Mei Lin is demonized for possessing stereotypically male characteristics such as strength, intellect and political prowess. In Mongolia, however, these characteristics are revered in Empress Chabi, adding to Mei Lin’s frustration” (Lowe).