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Welcome to the fantasy world of Netflix’s “The Witcher”: where superhuman monster hunters (a.k.a witchers) keep the peace between man and beast, negligent kings have demonic daughters, and there is a massive war waged with sorcery and magic! And yet—despite being an imaginary world where anything can happen—a powerful, complex disabled character is unimaginable. Disappointing, but not surprising.
“The Witcher” was released on Netflix last December and has started filming for its second season this February for an anticipated 2021 release date. The first season mainly follows Geralt Rivera, the titular witcher played by Henry Cavill, as he hunts dangerous monsters for coin and gets frustrated with kingdom politics and prejudice against his profession. Alongside Geralt, the first season also introduces Yennefer, played by Anya Chalotra, a young woman with a hunchback and a severe jaw deformity. Due to her appearance, she is constantly harassed by the other villagers and considered an outsider, even by her family.
Compared to other genres, fantasy regularly includes disabled characters to fulfill a quota for disfigurement and grotesqueness that encourages suspension of disbelief. These characters are treated as monstrous, or at least un-human, because of their appearance, which fits the genre’s imaginary aesthetic. Yennefer’s character, specifically her appearance, seems to pander to this aspect of “The Witcher”‘s genre, but her training arc leads us to believe she can break the mold set for her. Yennefer’s luck changes when a sorceress, Tissaia (MyAnna Buring), discovers Yennefer’s ability to conjure portals and buys her from her father for less than a pig. Thus begins Yennefer’s new life and transition into a fearsome witch! But not without its own share of hardships.
Once sold to Tissaia, Yennefer becomes one of the sorceress’s apprentices and learns how to master magic. For a while, she’s miserable about being the worst in her class and Tissaia constantly antagonizes Yennefer for her failures. After lying about being able to read another girl’s mind—the magical task of the week—Tissaia offers a particularly scalding appraisal of Yennefer. She says, “You take weeks to lift your stone. You can’t bend water. You struggle to perform the simplest physical tasks. And now you lie to me? Your worst fear makes such sense. Even if you were a beauty, still, no one would love you.”
With this quote, “The Witcher” seems to be aware of the popular tropes the media has about disabled characters. Often, disabled people are depicted as undesirable and non-sexual beings because they don’t conform to conventional standards of attractiveness. Take for example Tyrion Lannister from “Game of Thrones” or Alaster “Mad-Eye” Moody from “Harry Potter.” However, “The Witcher” overthrows that trope as we see Yennefer and Istredd, a fellow sorcerer, fall in love. The third episode, “Betrayer Moon,” even features a sex scene between them where the cinematography portrays them as simply two people making love. In the one minute long scene, there are no shots explicitly highlighting Yennefer’s disabilities and equal time is spent on her and Istredd’s bodies. Their relationship and the sex scene subvert the stereotype of disabled people being unlovable, and normalizes romance for these characters.
At the end of Yennefer’s training arc, she emerges as one of the most talented and skilled of Tissaia’s students. In spite of being called useless and mocked her entire life for her disabilities, Yennefer defied all of their expectations. Up to this point of the eight episode season, the show positively portrays Yennefer’s character. Ideally, the series would have continued her strong development and subversion of negative tropes. But alas, “The Witcher” pathetically caves to Western, conventional standards of beauty: an able-bodied woman with a thin figure.
In the same third episode, Yennefer has completed her magical training and is preparing for her initiation ceremony into the Brotherhood of Sorcerers. One of the rites is a required magical procedure that allows the girls to become their ideal selves. She is unsure of what her ideal self looks like, and after a consultation with the enchanter in charge of the rite, Tissaia offers her some advice. She says, “There is not a person alive that does not look into the mirror and see some deformity. Except for us. We remake ourselves on our terms. The world has no say in it. Look. You can free the victim in the mirror forever.” When Tissaia tells Yennefer to imagine the most powerful women in the world, Yennefer sees herself completely unchanged. To be beautiful is something she does not need to feel worthy, to feel powerful.
Yet, contrary to these core beliefs wrought from years of abuse and tribulation, the showrunners still have her choose to become aesthetically beautiful to spite Istredd. Istredd betrayed how she was a quarter-elf to the other sorcerers, ruining her chances of working in her home kingdom because of human prejudice against elves. She confronts him on his betrayal and at the peak of their argument, he shouts, “no amount of power or beauty will ever make you feel worthy of [adoration].” She walks away in anger, finds the enchanter and forces him to make her beautiful to prove Istredd wrong. This decision to conform to conventional beauty standards reverses her development—specifically, as a disabled character who created a sense of worth and power separate from her body.
The sequence of Yennefer’s operation is horrific as she sacrificed her reproductive organs in return for physical perfection in the eyes of the Brotherhood. Watching Yennefer go through this physically traumatizing process promotes the idea that victims of pre-existing trauma are willing to endure even more to “cure” their problems. In a fantasy world where male sorcerers aren’t required to undergo the same operation, this scene normalizes pain as a means to an end to achieve beauty for women. Thus, the dissatisfying end of Yennefer’s training arc problematically teaches us that beauty at any cost is more important than anything else.
“The Witcher” teases us with the possibility that a disabled woman could overcome trauma and the damaging stereotypes imposed on her body only to rip it away when she is at her most powerful. The series ends up doing more harm than good: by magically “curing” Yennefer’s disabilities, it makes the assumptions that disabled people are unable to be fully satisfied with their lives. Where almost all other media exclusively feature thin, fit, conventionally attractive able bodies, the genre of fantasy is uniquely equipped for inclusive representation of all bodies. For now, “The Witcher” contributes to the former category. But it’s fantasy for fuck’s sake! If you can imagine flying, fire-breathing dragons, there’s no excuse to draw the line at powerful, complex disabled characters!