Marco Polo and (not) Mary Sue

Last week Vice published my review of Marco Polo, the new series from Netflix. I genuinely enjoyed watching it, despite the problems, most of which revolve around a character named . . . Marco Polo.

Marco Polo has all the makings of a great series. There’s intrigue, politics, battles, betrayals, assassins in the night, discussions of tax policy, executions, angst, torture, and gorgeous male and female bodies thrown at each other in epic martial arts battles and sex—sometimes simultaneously. Unfortunately, it also has a scrawny white guy named Marco Polo wandering through the scenes, often moping and confused.

A friend of mine, when I quoted some of the review at her, noted that it was amusing to think of Marco Polo as a Mary Sue. “Mary Sue” is a description used to criticize characters that are unrealistic, often break the story, and often function as an audience insert.

Marco Polo is absolutely this last one. He is, I think, the show’s way of trying to draw in the young white kung-fu-loving male audience to the show. He’s going to learn kung fu. He’s going to have sex with Asian ladies, perhaps in large numbers (he has not yet been granted access to the harem, but the expectation that this is possible is set up in the end of the first episode). He’s going to be granted access to the “mysteries of the East!”

Fortunately, before I published a piece calling him a Mary Sue, I ran across some tweets from author (and friend) Seanan McGuire criticizing the gendered nature of Mary Sue. She directed me to this post of hers, which argues that the term is used largely to delegitimize certain kinds of female representation. McGuire writes:

The definitions of Mary Sue are often contradictory, as are the
definitions of her male counterpart, Gary Stu. That being said, I have
seen many, many female protagonists accused of Mary Sue-ism, but have
very rarely seen the opposite accusation leveled at male protagonists,
even when the weight of the definition seems to point much more firmly
at the males in the situation. Harry Potter is the son of two
incredibly beloved, talented, respected wizards; he’s never been exposed
to the wizard world before the start of the series, yet is instantly
one of the most skilled Seekers the Quiddich Team has ever seen; all his
flaws turn out to be advantages; everyone loves him, or is instantly
branded a villain for ever and ever and ever. Hermione Granger has
worked hard for everything she has. She’s the smartest girl in
Gryffindor, but that’s about it; she isn’t naturally incredibly
magically talented, or handed all her advantages for nothing. Yet I see
her accused of Mary Sue-ism way more often than I see him accused of
Gary Stu-ism.

Half the time, “Mary Sue” seems to mean “female
character.” And that doesn’t work for me, for a lot of reasons,
including “I write female characters who aren’t Mary Sues,” and also,
“if all women are Mary Sues, why does my hair get frizzy when it rains?”
(I would totally be willing to be a Mary Sue if it meant my hair was
always perfect and I could go to sleep wearing eyeliner without waking
up the next morning looking like a raccoon.) Male characters get to be
competent or obnoxious, skilled or clumsy, intelligent or ignorant,
without being accused of being Mary Sues. Shouldn’t female characters
have the same luxury?

I think this is right. The kinds of criticisms rendered on high-accomplishing female characters serve to say ‘women can’t do that.’ Or, as McGuire writes, “When a female character is awesome, when she’s the star, when she’s the
one the story is about, she runs the risk of being called a Mary Sue.

Marco Polo functions as a designated audience insert. I could have called him a Gary Stu, and swapped the gender, but instead I’m just going to call him a designated audience insert. Or author wish fulfillment, since the creator, John Fusco, said, “I grew up with this great interest in Asia. And I was this unlikely
Italian-American kid who loved the East, and I was always reading about
ancient China. And you cannot go into that world without encountering
Marco Polo.”

It is pretty cool when Fusco, I mean Marco Polo, learns kung-fu from Hundred Eyes, the blind martial arts master. Wish I could do that.

2 Replies to “Marco Polo and (not) Mary Sue”

  1. Vaughn Marlowe says:

    I feel much the same way about the eponymous character; he is the show's least interesting cast member. It's clear we're meant to get our vicarious kicks through this Gary Stu. However, he is not scrawny. He has a Nautilus-sculpted body, complete with the currently obligatory six-pack stomach.

    In contrast, the most interesting female character in TV fiction is the autistic police detective in FX's ''The Bridge.'' She's definitely no Mary Sue; she's Sherlock Holmes with a badge.

    (Hmm. An idea for a stand-alone series? Dr. Watson as a social manners coach and interpreter?)

  2. David Perry says:

    Well, compared to the Mongols. I was really thinking about the Mongol men with their girth, but I take your point. He's slender rather than bulky.

    I'm amused by your standalone series and will have to watch the Bridge! Is the show overall worthwhile?

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