The Case of Marco Polo

marco-polo

It’s always exciting when a show with a multicultural cast with a minority of white performers hits the screen – big or small, it’s rare enough that it’s always a treat. There comes a point, however, where viewers have to stop and ask whether the series is using the cast and setting as a smoke screen for the same cultural appropriation rampant in popular media.

Marco Polo is Netflix’s pseudo-historical royal drama. A dazzling cast backed by a lavish production brings viewers into the political intrigue, violence, and wealth of the court of Kublai Khan. This is based loosely on Polo’s account of his travels in his sensationalized Travels of Marco Polo. Historians have debated the accuracy and truth of the narrative for a very, very long time, and it’s possible we will never know how much of Polo’s story was spun to gain a better audience.

Netflix’s version, which recently released a second season, not only takes Travels at face value, but also introduces a host of fictional elements to play up Polo’s importance in the court of the Khan. The first season took serious liberties, but the ending to the second season might have jumped the shark once and for all so far as facts are concerned. We will have to wait and see.

While the semi-factual nature of Polo’s story does make for great storytelling, it opens a can of worms for present day filmmakers who have to choose between historical accuracy and entertainment. Fact and fantasy mingle and may give birth to fascinating commentaries on current politics and racism, but that same mixture can also open the door for accidental clichés, orientalism, and racial stereotypes.

First, let’s give the show the credit it’s due. Unlike many shows in this genre, Marco Polo does a great job demonstrating the intertwined nature of human history. Kublai Khan’s court is full of people from all over Asia, and although Marco and his family tend to be the only white characters (at least in season one), the court is far from ignorant about the struggles, victories, and power-shifts in the west. Different countries do not belong to different worlds, and people met, traded, married, and fought with other ethnicities long before Britain became the leading world power. MedievalPOC (a Tumblr archive) does a phenomenal job presenting the same principals in European art history. This has not been well-presented in pretty much any kind of popular media for a ridiculously long time.

And now it’s time to look at the unfortunate side effects of hiring nothing but talented white men to direct a story about Mongolian and Chinese history. Marco, for all of his white savior tendencies, is often an unnecessary side character added for a certain demographic to empathize with and cheer for. By the end of the second season, I was beginning to wonder why the show made him the titular character. The show would have been much better served if it openly acknowledged the fact that the plot revolves around the Khan and his court. Marco Polo would have been much more interesting as a side character rather than his current role as the lead who often has about as much screen time as the host of more-relevant side characters surrounding him.

The first and greatest problem with the show is orientalism and the fetish-ization of Asian culture. This is clearly seen in the first season, especially, where much of the plot involves the Khan’s harem. There’s nothing Europeans find more titillating than a harem. Any opportunity to feature writhing nude females, orgies, and general displays of “talent” is taken, regardless of whether or not any of this is historically accurate. And that’s just in the Khan’s realm. Meanwhile in the Song Dynasty’s capital, a royal concubine who has given the Emperor a child is treated and showcased like a regular prostitute. She is a deadly martial artist (of course), but she has to get naked before she can take any action.

This leads us to the second major problem: cultural stereotypes. Chinese and Mongol women are all either elegant and untouchable pieces or art, or they are hyper-sexualized prostitutes – in one way or another. Chinese men are all secret martial arts masters. And most telling of all (spoilers for season one), the only Middle Eastern character who has been given a place of trust and power in the Khan’s court is a murderous backstabber who wants to see it all burn.

It’s painful to face such glaring errors of judgment on the part of the writers and directors. It’s especially painful when you look at the show’s amazing cast.

Still, I continue to hope that the show will improve. There was, to be fair, a LOT less of the harem in the second season. There are so many great things about this show, but so many serious problems that keep getting in the way. Hopefully the third season will continue to build upon recent progress.


M. Leigh Hood is a rare beast of the Cincinnati wilderness typically preoccupied with writing, nerding, and filming The Spittoon List. For more articles and stories by M. Leigh Hood, look HERE.

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