Netflix's Marco Polo – Review

My husband and I spent the last week binge watching Marco Polo, Netflix’s answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones and Starz’ Outlander. Marco Polo is about the son of an Italian merchant, trader, and explorer who was left at the court of Kublai Khan (the Emperor of the Mongols) around 1273. Marco Polo was the most expensive TV show to date, at a cost of around $90 million for one season (GoT runs about $60 million per season). Was it worth the money? My husband gave it a “meh” review, but I’m much more talkative than he is, so here is my painstakingly detailed review.

Here is a list of what I like about the show:

  • The opening credits.

I love the erhu and ink and wash paintings, so the opening is nice.

  • Lots of female characters.

  • Racial diversity of the characters

The show has Chinese, Arabic, and Caucasian actors, and the Caucasians are in the minority.

  • The show emphasizes the differences between various types of Asians.

It is impossible to walk away from this show thinking all Asians, or even all Chinese, are the same. The main conflict in the show is how the Mongol Emperor, Kublai Khan, is trying to overthrow the last of the Song Dynasty rulers so he can rule all of China. Even though the Mongols eventually succeed and the Yuan Dynasty is considered a Chinese dynasty, the Mongols are not Chinese.  This is played out most significantly in the character of Kublai Khan’s son, Prince Jingim. Jingim is a Mongol, but he was educated in the ways of the Chinese, which makes him an outcast among his own people and brings his right to inherit the throne of the Khan into question.

  • Foot binding.

For the first two episodes, I was wondering “why don’t any of these women have bound feet?” By the end of the Song Dynasty, foot binding was in full vogue in China. I realize the actresses wouldn’t really have bound feet, but with costumes, prosthetics, and CGI, I couldn’t believe that none of the women had bound feet. In episode 3, the feet of the Song princess Ling Ling are bound by her sadistic uncle. The show does a decent job of showing the horror of this practice, but it ends up being only a minor plot point and no other women in the show have bound feet, even though most upper-class Chinese women would have had bound feet during this time.

What I don’t like or find questionable:

  • A show that is set entirely in Asia and centers on two Chinese dynasties STILL stars a white guy.

Sure, I get that Marco Polo is an interesting and fantastical character. He is almost Disney-esque with his “stranger in a strange land” story. But, come on, don’t we have enough of those? There is nothing original about setting a white guy in a brown culture ans then ooh-ing and ahh-ing over how different and exotic everything is.

It isn’t as if there aren’t epic and exciting tales about Chinese explorers and warriors out there. Many people have compared Marco Polo to Game of Thrones since both involve a fight for the throne. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s most epic works of literature, does this also. The life of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di also centered around uniting a huge territory under one banner. As does the story of Kublai Khan’s grandfather Ghengis.

There are also many women in Chinese history, other than Mulan, who fought to either secure or overthrow dynasties. Princess Pingyan helped overthrow the Sui Dynasty and placer her father on the throne as the founder of the Tang dynasty.  Li Xiu helped defeat rebels and secure the Jin dynasty. There are dozens more.

The Silk Road also went both ways. As much as people like to imagine that all of Europe was all white all the time, it just isn’t true. Europe has had Asian and Arabic merchants, diplomats, and explorers coming through just as long as there have been white people going to Asia. They could have told the story about a Chinese merchant family who had to leave their son at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor or something. Believe it or not, writers and producers can create their own story. Hell, Game of Thrones isn’t set in any real universe.

  • The sexualization and fetishization of every woman on the show.

On the one hand, there is going to be sex in the show. Since the show stars only Chinese women, of course Chinese women are going to have sex. That is not the problem. Sex is a good thing, and female expressions of pleasure are a good thing. The problem is that every single woman on the show is sexualized in some way. Most of them have very graphic sex scenes . The ones who don’t are still involved in a sex scene in some way. It’s implied that Empress Chabli and one of the concubines have a private tryst. Chabli is also involved in an orgy with the harem and Kublai. There are also several scenes with large groups of completely naked women.

Even little Ling Ling, who is about 8, is sexualized by her creepy uncle. Foot binding was inextricably linked to fetishizing and infantalizing women.

The only woman who isn’t sexualized is the elderly Song Empress, mostly likely because she is the only woman on the show who looks older than 40.

Even the open credits features a sexualized murder of a woman. Did you catch it?

On the other hand, lots of male characters on the show are not sexualized. They are allowed to exist and have plots that are separate from their sexuality.

  • Lack of diversity in female roles.

While the show has lots of women, and they have various roles spanning the gamut of Empress, princess, whore, assassin, warrior, child, adviser, etc., they still all fall into two basic categories: Lady or Whore. All of the women are either nobility (Empress or princess) or whore (concubine/consort). This is a huge problem in genre fiction in general, which I’ve written about before, that seriously needs to stop. Even in traditionally patriarchal societies, women had more roles and existed in more spheres than Lady and Whore.

Final thoughts.

I read an article today that called Marco Polo a flop for Netflix. I hope this isn’t true. I don’t think that just because a show is hugely problematic it should automatically be canceled. The show is entertaining enough. Episodes 2 and 8 were especially exciting and I would encourage everyone to watch the whole series. However, I hope that if the show is renewed that Netflix will seriously consider all of the criticism and improve. Even though the show stars a white guy, no other show on TV has the racial diversity of Marco Polo, and that needs to be encouraged and supported. Studios are not going to pour money into racial diverse projects if the projects don’t turn a profit.

Have you watched the show? What do you think?