Netflix’s TV adaptation of The Witcher has been making all kinds of waves recently, for everything from its impressive fight choreography to its critic/audience split* to Henry Cavil’s impressive abs. You may have heard that it was criticized by a misogynist pundit for the outlandish idea that women can in fact use swords and also eat meat, for some reason. Don’t ask me – I don’t know why misogynist pundits say the things they say.
In that context, you might expect The Witcher to be a bastion of progressive values. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While it does pass the low bar of showing that women can wield weapons, it’s still extremely sexist. Some of its issues are subtle, but others are so obvious I’m honestly surprised they made it into production. What are these sexist themes, you ask? Let’s find out.
Spoiler Notice: Season one of The Witcher
1. Female Superpowers Come From Screaming
Screaming is something humans do when they’re frightened or otherwise in danger. It’s a basic survival mechanism to summon help for when we get ambushed by lions or what have you. But naturally, storytellers have found ways to make it sexist. For one thing, it’s nearly always female characters who scream. Guys rarely scream unless they’re the effeminate comic relief, because it’s unmanly to be scared, you see. Worse, female characters often scream in really inappropriate situations, like when a love interest from I Am Number Four screams at seeing some weird lights, or when a battle-hardened Hermione screams at every shadow in the later Harry Potter books.*
In that context, it was really disappointing to see that both protagonist Ciri and her mother activate their magic powers primarily by screaming. As far as I can tell, we don’t even have the excuse that their powers are sound-based like DC’s Black Canary or Teen Wolf’s Lydia. That wouldn’t have made it okay, but at least there would have been an explanation.
At best, this is just lazy storytelling. My guess is that the writers wanted to show that Ciri’s powers activate when she’s in extreme distress, which is a fairly common trope. So they reached for screaming since that’s something we subconsciously associate with women.* But there are lots of ways to show that a character is in distress, whether you’re writing a book or a TV show. If Ciri were a boy, the writers would probably have shown she was upset by having her clench her fists, grimace, or even snarl. There’s a whole range of emotional expressions to explore.
I’m not sure if this was something the TV show invented or if they inherited it from the books, but either way it’s a tired cliché. I hope they drop it in season two, but I’m not optimistic.
2. Harassment Is Fine If the Guy Is Funny
For anyone who is unaware, repeatedly propositioning someone for sex when they show no interest is a form of harassment. Yes, even if they don’t actively say to stop. The onus is on you to proceed only if you know they’re into it.
Now that we’ve established that ground rule, let’s talk about Jaskier, the internet’s favorite bard. Most of the time, Jaskier serves to both humanize the stoic Geralt and inject some levity into the show. That’s all well and good until episode six, Rare Species.
In this episode, Geralt and Jaskier team up with other hunters to go after a dragon. Two of the hunters are badass Black women. Jaskier immediately makes it clear he would like to have sex with them. When they show no interest, he repeats his desires over and over again.
The show treats this as funny and endearing, but it’s actually super gross. They’re not into you, Jaskier! Take the hint and stop creating a hostile work environment. I suspect the writers felt this was okay because Jaskier is really weak, and either woman could break him in half if they wanted to. While that’s better than someone like Geralt doing it, it’s still not good.
In real life, men who harass women have a lot more than physical strength protecting them. They have a whole system that punishes women for just saying no, let alone calling out their toxic behavior. From what I can tell, The Witcher’s world is pretty patriarchal too, so Jaskier’s behavior is just as bad in-universe as it is to us.
3. There Must Be Boobs!
Do you remember Game of Thrones? It seems like we all immediately forgot about it after the end of season eight, so let me remind you: it’s a highly successful fantasy show with deep worldbuilding, powerful conflicts, and well-rounded characters. It also shows a LOT of breasts. Breasts everywhere, as far as the eye can see.
I can only assume The Witcher’s creators thought that if they included the breasts, GoT’s other qualities would follow, because oh boy are there a lot of breasts in this show. There are the many sex scenes of course, in which the camera lovingly focuses on the woman’s body before resentfully giving us a bit of the man’s chest. This is already pretty sexist, as you don’t need a degree in film studies to see how the scenes are shot with a straight male gaze in mind.
At least in a sex scene, there’s a plot-relevant reason for people to be naked. In theory, the sex is part of a relationship between characters we care about; it could even be part of their arc! But then The Witcher also gives us a whole bunch of nudity in scenes that have no reason for it whatsoever.
The first is when Geralt goes to a wizard’s tower, and the wizard has created an illusionary garden full of naked women. Calm down, writers. Geralt’s just here to pick up a side quest; he doesn’t need to see breasts for that. Later on, when Geralt finally meets up with co-star Yennefer, she’s summoned the town’s hottest young people to her house for an orgy. There are men here too, but again the camera is way more interested in the women.
The nudity serves no purpose in either scene, and it just comes across as immature, like a kid who’s just discovered that “80085” on their calculator looks kind of like “BOOBS.” It gives the impression that the show doesn’t think I’d watch it for the actual plot or characters, so it has to bribe me with titillation. No thanks, I watch TV shows for the storytelling, not softcore porn.*
4. You Can Sell Your Daughter to Destiny
The Witcher’s fourth episode introduces a truly bizarre concept, the “Law of Surprise.” If that sounds like some kind of weird birthday tradition, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s actually a tradition where someone can promise to give up something valuable later in payment of a debt now. The idea is that you don’t know what you’ll get, hence “surprise.”
This concept is pretty shaky to say the least – how do you decide what valuable thing the debtor gives up? – but that’s not the sexist part. The sexist part is under the Law of Surprise, you can apparently sell your unborn daughters. This happens not once, but twice. The first time is between two minor characters and it happens offscreen, but the second involves Geralt accidentally being promised his second co-star, the as yet unborn Ciri.
Just to be clear, this isn’t only a social custom, which we could attribute to sexist attitudes in the setting. The Law of Surprise is supernaturally linked to destiny itself, and anyone who defies it will bring disaster down on themselves. So not only are the characters sexist, but the very cosmology of the world is too.
From what I can tell, there’s no reason the Law of Surprise couldn’t apply to sons too, but it’s pretty obvious why the show chose daughters: a continuation of the toxic idea that men own the sexuality of their female relatives, especially their children. In one case, the sold-off daughter actually marries her new owner.
Fortunately, it doesn’t look likely that there will be a romance between Ciri and Geralt, so this is a simple case of child trafficking. But even with this small blessing, the Law of Surprise is simply a terrible idea. Sexist settings are bad enough when it’s just the people in them. Once you make the underlying physics sexist, that’s a whole new level of authorial endorsement.
5. Women Die to Develop Men
In The Witcher’s first episode, Geralt meets a woman named Renfri who is trying to kill a wizard named Stregobor. In return, Stregobor is trying to kill Renfri. Both of them claim the other is a monster, and while Renfri’s grievance sounds more legitimate, Geralt has no reason to get involved. That is, until he and Renfri bang in the woods, at which point he decides to take Stregobor’s side. I guess it wasn’t very good sex.
Jokes aside, this is supposed to be a moral conflict for Geralt. The woman he cares for wants to do something bad, and while he sympathizes with her, he needs to stop her. Never mind that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Renfri killing Stregobor; we’ll accept the scene’s premise for now.
This puts Geralt in the position of needing to kill Renfri, who is his lover. He is, of course, extremely conflicted. I swear his voice gets even more gravelly. We the audience are supposed to feel bad for Geralt – he had to do this horrible thing and sacrifice his happiness for the greater good. This trauma will be a major part of Geralt’s character until he immediately forgets about it after meeting Yennefer.
You notice how we’re not really supposed to think anything about Renfri, the one who actually dies. That’s because this is a minor twist on the “women in refrigerators” trope. Most commonly, a man’s female lover is killed in order to motivate him. Here, the same thing happens, except it’s to make Geralt’s character deeper.
It does help that Renfri isn’t The Witcher’s only prominent female character, but it’s still really gross. The story creates an incredibly contrived situation where Geralt has no choice but to kill a really interesting character, all so he can get a little more disillusioned with the world. News flash: there are plenty of ways to make a character disillusioned with the world. You don’t have to bury your women.
6. Women Gotta Be Hot
This next one combines the two gross tastes of sexism and ableism into an absolutely revolting cocktail. Sounds like fun! When we first meet Yennefer, she has kyphosis, a condition characterized by an unusually curved spine.* The condition also affects the shape of her face.
Even though the actress isn’t disabled herself, it could have been nice to see a disabled character represented on a major TV show. Instead, Yennefer’s early episodes are all about how horrible it is to be disabled and how she needs to do something about that as soon as possible.
As luck would have it, part of Yennefer’s mage training involves a ritual that will turn her into her “ideal self.” This is a completely random effect and has nothing to do with the way magic was established to work previously. It’s only there so we have an excuse to make Yennefer more conventionally attractive. Oh, and the ritual also means she doesn’t age, so she can be hot forever. Nice?
The idea that women are primarily defined by their beauty is still sadly pervasive, but I didn’t expect to see it presented so blatantly here. Most people at least seem to pay lip service to the idea that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. But no, in The Witcher, it’s very clear that the outside is what matters. It’s also clear that the male sorcerers don’t go through such a ritual, as some of them are downright frumpy by Hollywood standards.
And then the ableism comes in. You see, on the rare occasions when disabled characters get starring roles, they’re almost always on a quest to cure their disability. In real life, different people have very different opinions regarding medical interventions for their disabilities, but in fiction we only ever see one side. The message is that you can’t ever have a fulfilling life while disabled, which is a really terrible thing for disabled audiences to hear.
7. Women Need Babies
Remember that magic ritual that made Yennefer hot forever? Well, it turns out there’s a dark side, and she eventually comes to regret going through with it. Is this because she realizes that she was just fine before and didn’t need to change herself in order to please the male gaze?
No, it’s because part of the immortality and hotness ritual means you can no longer gestate children. The show never comments on if male sorcerers can still sire offspring; it’s all about how Yennefer is upset that she can’t have a baby of her very own.
This motivation is particularly bizarre for Yennefer. For her first few episodes, all she cares about is power. She’s happy to accept that her magic school transforms some of its students into eels, because it means there’s more power for her. She subjects herself to a horrendously painful procedure so she can get assigned as an adviser to a more powerful kingdom. She seems to disdain the entire idea of caring for others.
At the end of episode four, there’s a sequence where Yennefer has a one-sided conversation with a dead baby, which I think is supposed to signal the change in her motivation, but it sounds more like she’s concluding that the world is too evil for children.
Nevertheless, the next time we see Yennefer, she’s obsessed with figuring out how to have children. She risks death several times, and never stops talking about the great injustice done to her, by which she means the voluntary ritual that made her immortal. She’s way more upset about that than about the eel thing, which is a minor issue to her at most. This is her motivation until the final episode, when it suddenly isn’t anymore.
After the blowup over Black Widow’s fertility issues in Age of Ultron, I was shocked to see someone else put their foot in it like this. This trope reinforces the idea that women’s value lies in their ability to have kids, something that’s thrown in the faces of real women all the time. There’s also a valuable discussion to be had about women who are denied the chance to have children, but it must be handled very carefully. Yennefer’s sudden turnaround on the issue makes it even more clear that this was done because she’s a woman and not for anything that actually worked with her character.
8. Female Rapists Are No Big Deal
Content Notice: This section describes a scene where side characters are coerced into sex via magic.
For our last entry on this list, we get to talk about sexual violence. Joy. Most people would agree that rape and sexual violence are bad, which is a good thing. The problem is that many people have a very narrow idea of what rape is. In real life, the idea that a cis-woman could rape a cis-man is often ignored, and in fantasy, many storytellers don’t realize that using mind control magic to get sex is also a form of rape.
These delightful problems merge in The Witcher’s fifth episode. You might recall that when Geralt and Jaskier meet Yennefer for the first time, she’s hosting an orgy for the town’s hottest young people in her fancy house. It’s not clear why she’s doing this, as she’s not participating, nor does she seem particularly interested in watching, so at first this looks like just another case of gratuitous nudity.
But then Yennefer reveals that this orgy was only happening because she had the townsfolk under a spell, which she dismisses to talk business with Geralt. This is treated as a humorous moment, but dear lord, it is stomach churning. Yennefer used her magic to force dozens of people into sex with each other, regardless of their wishes or consent.
Naturally, the show doesn’t recognize the horror of what it’s shown us. Yennefer is portrayed as a morally dubious character, but at no point are we meant to consider her a mass rapist. But what she’s done is no better than drugging her victims’ drinks and dragging them to bed with her. The show doesn’t recognize this as a problem, both because she was using magic, and because Yennefer is an attractive woman rather than a hulking man.
The faster storytellers leave these ideas in the dust, the better. Rapists don’t look a certain way, and downplaying sexual violence committed by women is both sexist and disrespectful to survivors of all genders. At the same time, violations of sexual consent need to be recognized for what they are, whether they involve physical force or magic spells. If we’re going to build fantasy worlds where six impossible things happen before breakfast, we need to take responsibility for what’s in them.
As I’m sure this will come up in the comments, let me be clear about something: it doesn’t matter which of these issues was invented by the show and which are inherited from the books. Adaptations must be judged on their own merits, or else any critique of them is meaningless, and this adaptation is incredibly sexist. Fortunately, a benefit of the online age is that showrunners often pay attention to online reactions, as we saw back when Stranger Things changed Max and Eleven from mortal enemies to best friends. If we’re lucky, enough people will speak out about The Witcher’s sexism for things to change in season two.
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