Analysis

Eight Sexist Themes From The Witcher TV Show

Renfri and Geralt fighting from The Witcher.
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

Ciri with her hair splayed out on the ground.

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

The warriors Tea and Vea escorting their charge.

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!

Geralt shirtless in a tub.

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

Queen Calanthe telling Ciri to find Geralt

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

Geralt holding a sword at Renfri's throat.

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

A group of female mages from The Witcher.

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

A queen holding a child and Yennefer.

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

Yennefer staring at Geralt.

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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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    I think the Witcher is pretty entertaining, but yeah, it’s not exactly difficult to find stuff to critique.

    I’m gonna throw in a little defense for Yennefer wanting a baby, though: I got the impression that “I’m gonna have a beauty parlour wizard do a hysterectomy on me, and turn my uterus into a beauty potion!” was a poorly thought-through decision made when she was very young, and her desperately wanting a baby was WAY later, even though she still looks young. So I guess that could happen, in a setting with that kind of magic.

    Possibly Yennefer changing her mind is more disturbing in the US? The law here is that regardless of gender you gotta be 25 and talk to a counsellor before having a sterilization. But I’ve heard that in the US, or at least many of the states, they have a sexist gender difference where men can get sterilized just like that at 18 whereas only women have to be older etc so they “don’t regret it”, and with that background, it might come off worse? IDK.

    • Brigitta M.

      The laws regarding women getting a hysterectomy in the US are worse than wherever you are. Unless it’s cancerous or otherwise obviously medically necessary (not “a pregnancy could kill the woman” kind of thing either…more along the lines of cancer or something similar) the woman needs the husband’s consent and needs to have had at least a couple of kids (one kid isn’t enough…but it may be three) or “of menopausal age” (around 50). Not married? Too bad.

      Most people don’t know this and the only reason I know about it is because a woman was told that if she tried to get pregnant again it would literally kill her. Since they didn’t have any kids she couldn’t get the hysterectomy. Husband got a vasectomy…but what if she was raped and got pregnant from that?

      Ugh.

      –Bri

      • Jeppsson

        Did you MEAN to write hysterectomy, or did you mean getting sterilized? Taking out the whole uterus is much more radical than just “getting your tubes tied”, which I think is the English expression… And yeah, you only do THAT if you have cancer or some other serious medical problem.

        Still really weird and misogynistic to involve the husband, though.

        • Jeppsson

          Adding: I meant a hysterectomy is much more radical than sterilization in the sense that it’s a bigger surgery. Both hysterectomy and standard sterilization make you sterile.

  2. Gray-Hand

    The law of surprise works as follows:
    You promise to pay someone with the first thing they discover that they own but don’t know they had.
    This is clearly explained in the show.

    In both cases the people who made the promise didn’t realise that they had a child on the way. It doesn’t just applies to daughters. If the babies had been boys, they would have had to hand them over too.

    Obviously problematic, but not sure it belongs on the list.

    • Jeppsson

      Yeah, my impression was that in-universe, the law of surprise was usually a somewhat whimsical thing with no serious consequences. The weird thing was how Geralt invoked the law of surprise RIGHT AFTER people were shocked to realize that there could be as-yet-unknown pregnancy cases where it affects a PERSON. You’d think that after this, people would be more cautious.
      Geralt seemed pretty tired in that scene, though, so he probably spoke without thinking.

      Still, I think Oren’s point about daughters wasn’t that the law of surprise only applies to them in-universe, but rather that it’s no accident that the writers choose to focus on girls.

      • Angel

        In the book he invokes it in the hope that they will have a son, so he could turn the son into a witcher. It’s hard to make him sympathetic if he did that in the show probably.

    • Stephanie

      I didn’t have any problems with the law of surprise itself. I can see where, as depicted in the show so far, it’s only promised two girls. But I would think it would apply to male children, too.

      There’s a similar story in the Old Testament about a guy who wins a battle or something, and promises to sacrifice the first thing that greets him when he returns home–and of course it turns out to be his daughter.

      It’s also, in a way, similar to Tolkien’s doom motif in The Silmarillion.

      • Luke Slater

        The ‘law of surprise’ is specifically based on the inciting incident in the fairy tale Hans My Hedgehog, because the original Witcher short stories – on which most of the episodes of the first series are based – are gritty, edgy riffs on fairy or folk tales (so Renfri’s story, for example, is based on Snow White.)

        This does show the danger of lifting too closely from fairy tales, of course, which is that they are in many ways dated as all get out.

        • Devor

          I don’t know if the story with Renfri was sexist or not, but the description offered here didn’t feel like the same episode I saw. Geralt told both sides that he didn’t want to get involved because he only goes after monsters. He only fought Renfri because she tried to force him to kill the mage, which was pretty messed up of her.

          The thing is, the romance between Geralt and Renfri was about as casual as it gets. And Geralt wasn’t actually supposed to be broken up by it. That was the whole point: That what should be a “hard” choice for a person are just another in a long string of them for the Witcher.

          That is, Renfri didn’t die to develop Geralt’s character. She died to prep viewers for the kind of show they’re watching.

          • Devor

            Woops! that wasn’t supposed to be a reply to someone.

          • Angel

            Renfri’s death did further Geralts character, he said he didn’t want to chose but in the end he chose to kill Renfri and save the mage, the mage won and didn’t bare any consequences for what he did to the women.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO9ZGr84Xg4
            7:51 The Lesser Evil
            explains it much better

        • Rose

          The problem with the “law of surprise” is not only that men get to sell their DAUGHTERS, it is that MEN get to sell a child. Any child. Even if it is boys, too.

          The witcher ought to just take that spermium and be on his way. Men don’t contribute terribly much to a pregnacny, and what they do contribute, they can easily spare. It just does not feel FAIR that they get to buy all those great advantages without having to pay any meaningful price. (I mean, just imagine sperm donation was a thing in that universe, and think about it again.)
          Instead, the whole price is paid by some unlucky woman who was stupid enough to not inquire about the man’s past before having sex with him.Or even then, he might have lied.

          When a woman barters away her firstborn, that’s nine months of pregnancy, plus all the pain and danger of birth, and then she doesn’t get to keep the baby she has bonded with. That means something.
          (And no, I don’t feel that bad for the father. In Rumpelstiltskin, the reason the heroine bartered away her firstborn was thanks to a situation her husband to be had put her in, if I recall correctly, so yeah …)

          Demanding such a price still makes the character who does it evil, even if they demand it from the person who actually can be conceived to have a right to barter away the child she gestated in her body for nine months. (I do NOT agree with surrogacy in the least. Children aren’t objects owned by their parents, they’re their own people. But the idea that a child is property of the mother at least has some logic to it.)

          The bartering away of babies should be limited to women, and even then, the idea that children are anyone’s property to be bartered away ought to not be written into the very fabric of a fantasy universe. At most, it should be a shitty thing some supernatural creatures do and are able to enforce by the threat of violence. (That’s how it is most often done in fairy tales.)

          And I would have a very long and hard think about whether it is a good idea to have my protagonists engage in such behaviour.

    • Martin Christopher

      While you could argue that Duny got himself a wife as a prize for his heroic deeds, the relationship of Ciri and Geralt is completely different.

      Geralt does not want her, and would prefer that he wouldn’t have to take her. From how I remember the first two books, the whole situation feels quite wrong to him, and he tries to avoid that destiny and push it out. You could even say that Geralt takes the position that the story of Duny and Peveta is a bit messed up.

      From what I’ve read about the show, it does compress this part of the story quite a lot, which in turn leaves out a good bit of Geralt’s resistance to take Ciri when their paths cross on several occasions, and their existing relationship when he finally does take her in.

      That the law of surprise is somewhat messed up is certainly true. But the story of Geralt and Ciri, as originally written, deals with the discomfort of this fairytale trope and then reworks it into something meaningful.
      If that doesn’t properly carry over into the show, that would be something where the scriptwriters failed.

    • Elda King

      As far as I remember, the law of surprise is actually how people “get” boys to become witchers, including Geralt himself. In the book I think that’s a big part of why Geralt asks for it, it is what he is _supposed_ to do “professionally”.

      It is still creepy in general, and in the show it only happens to girls. But I’m not sure if it is inherently sexist – and I’d be a bit more forgiving, as the author was kind of rationalizing a fairy tale trope.

  3. Cay Reet

    Given the base material, I’m not surprised about all the sexual stuff, to be honest. The Witcher series has always been known for how Geralt bangs everything with a pulse. I mean, the guy is about a hundred years old, stands to reason he’s had a lot of affairs. So, yeah, sex and boobs are unavoidable in The Witcher, no matter the medium (there’s sex and boobs in the books and in the games as well).

    As far as 1 is concerned: a lot of women actually like the fact that women in The Witcher get loud. Among the things which women ‘do not do’ in society is raising their voices. Women screaming is something which goes against how they are socialized. Personally, I have no problem with women ‘waking their powers’ by screaming at all.

    In the books, Yennefer isn’t attractive at all, but stays the way she is before the ritual. This is a valiant criticism, but might be more due to TV production than to the source material: people who are not attractive, but Team Good, are rare on TV, especially if they are or identify as women.

    Yennefer has a wish to have a child to leave a legacy. In the Witcher universe, a lot of magic users, male and female, are sterile, it’s a side effect of magic. For her, the wish for offspring is pretty much on par with a man’s wish to have an heir, it’s not at all about ‘I need to have a child to feel that I’m a true woman.’

    • Martin Christopher

      I seem to remember very clearly that Geralt speculates that Yennefer was a hunchback before she became a sorceress, and that was his educated guess after he had been thinking about her hangups with her appearance.

      Not quite sure if she is directly described as being super beautiful, but it’s mentioned that she had her body redone when she became a sorceress.

  4. Stephanie

    I honestly felt all the boobs were just trying too hard. When it comes to the orgy scenes–I’ve got to say that I didn’t really like Yennefer until the last couple of episodes, and her manipulation of people was the major reason.

    As a child-free-by-choice woman who has never wanted children (and has been told patronizingly for at least 35 of my 43 years that “you’ll change your mind”), I was incredibly disgusted by Yennefer’s yearning for a baby. Yes, she made sacrifices for her power, and yes, we often learn later that what we sacrificed wasn’t worth that power. But the tired trope of women needing a baby to be complete? Every time that came up, I gagged a little bit.

    When it comes to the other things you mention, I love how you are always able to take things that I absolutely love and still make me see the problematic issues and how it could have been done better. Your critiques make me evaluate things in a new light, and I think that makes me a better writer.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yennefer the battle mage is way more interesting than Yennefer the orgy mage, it’s true.

      Your reaction to the baby arc is exactly why this “arc” was a terrible idea, especially since the writers weren’t willing to actually do any work on it and just switched Yennefer’s motivation on and off like a light switch.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the critiques, and just to be clear, we can all still enjoy things that have problems. No one is a bad person for enjoying problematic media.

  5. Innes

    Once I ate a bite of meat and all my woman teeth fell out to be replaced by man teeth. Now I can only speak in a series of gravelly grunts and angry silences. Alas, if only I had stuck to the woman foods….

  6. Martin Christopher

    The real issue is not actually the Witcher, but a new period of exploitation entertainment.
    Nothing wrong with violence and nudity in fiction, even on TV, when it is used meaningfully as part of the storytelling. But since Game of Thrones (I believe), it feels like tits and gore are shoved in entirely for its own the sake. Forget storytelling. It’s more a competition who dares to be the most in your face.

    • Angelo Pardi

      Nudity has a long history of being used as an appeal to the male reader or watcher, so GOT can’t take “credit” for starting the trend.
      Zola, Maupassant, Potocki, Sade, the One-and-thousand Nights… the trend is old as fuck, literally.

  7. Kieran

    Honestly, you shouldn’t have opened with the “power via screaming” as sexist. Because that is NOTHING compared to the rest of the show. See also: ableism in Yennefer’s arc.

    • Martin Christopher

      But isn’t it kind of the point of the storyline that fixing her spine and jaw did not actually make her happy? And that the price for it was too high and not worth it?
      The world and the people certainly discriminate against her, but I wouldn’t say that the story says her worth as a person relies on fixing her impairments.

      • Kieran

        That COULD be an interpretation one could take away from The Witcher-that her arc is really about self-acceptance- except for a few points:
        1. Post-surgery!Yennefer never, not once, gives any hint that she would be fine with returning to her old looks if it meant she could be fertile once again.
        2. Nobody ever tries to stop pre-surgery! Yennefer from getting the surgery based on the principle that “she’s fine the way she is”. Not her mentor figure, not her love interest, nobody. In fact, her mentor figure actively helps her through the process, is only upset that Yennefer did the surgery because of office politics, and the narrative explicitly states that the beauty procedure is an expected part of graduation from magic school.
        3. Nobody ever states that pre-surgery!Yennefer, is fine the way she looks, period. The narrative does not conjure any voice of reason to contrast against the bigotry whatsoever. In fact, both people who could have been the voice of reason, her love interest and mentor, actively insult her looks as well. The former says she’s ugly while arguing with her, and the latter calls her “piglet”.
        So yeah, a self-acceptance arc, Yennefer’s isn’t.

  8. Kieran

    Also, thank you for explaining what the proper term for Yennefer’s disability was. “Kyphosis”, nice.
    I’ve been worrying about what the proper term was ever since she showed up, but I only knew the word “hunchback” to describe people like her, and I had a feeling it was offensive, but not to what degree, so I was at a loss there.
    But now I know the polite term.

  9. Tifa

    I keep reading ‘Law of Surprise’ as ‘Last Surprise’. Proof that I’ve been playing too much Persona?
    Anyway, my mum was planning on checking this series out on Netflix, so I’d better warn her about the content…

  10. Guest

    seems like screaming to activate magic/super powers is one of those things where you would expect SOMEONE to work it like the ‘ki-ai’ is meant to work in martial arts (which involves tensing muscles in the core/abdomen) and do more of a ‘roar’ or ‘bellow’ than a ‘scream’
    there is an audible difference, and it’s not about pitch, really. (similar to the difference between casually singing vs. using the muscle of the diaphragm to add power to the voice)
    Haven’t seen this show, just commenting in general on the concept of using the voice to communicate ‘power’ (or invoke power, in this case) vs. just …making loud noises.

  11. Matt

    I never understood the infertile complaint. If some organization sterilized me without my consent, I’d be pretty pissed off. I don’t even want to have kids, but to have that choice taken away from me would be heartbreaking.

    • Elda King

      Because it plays to very toxic stereotypes about women: that they are “naturally maternal”, that being a mother is the most important thing in their lives, that their value is in their ability to produce offspring. It is a gendered thing – it always happens to a woman, it is rarely a man’s arc to get erectile dysfunction or something. Instead, men have arcs about how their families (mostly women) were killed and they weren’t able to protect them.

      And the way it is framed is always something like “I can’t be a mother so I am not complete as a woman, this is the worst thing that could happen because obviously now I want children”. Never as “people performed a medical procedure without my consent, violating my body autonomy. It is wrong to take control over women’s reproduction from them; let’s talk about consent and women’s rights and medical violence”.

      • LeeEsq

        Many women don’t want kids but there are also many women and/or couples who do want children but can’t have them biologically so it isn’t an un-common experience. Also, Yennefer gets to live a lot longer than the normal human, so her opinions now whether she wants children or not can change during that life time.

        • Jeppsson

          Yeah, desperately wanting a child should be considered a storyline you have to handle well, not a storyline always to avoid.

          Me and Husband are childless by choice, but we also know people who struggled to have children. In the book I’m working on now I have a storyline (not the main storyline though) about a woman who goes through a sci-fi:ish medical treatment to get fertile and have a baby with her husbands. It’s inspired by people close to me who spend lots of time and money on IVF.

  12. LeeEsq

    The Witcher series was created by a Polish man who spent his formative years in the Communist Soviet bloc. Despite their propaganda, there were certain cultural attitudes regarding sex and gender that remained relatively static in Communist block compared to the liberal capitalist democracies of the developed world. So, it isn’t really that surprising that the Witcher reflects somethings that seem retrograde because of the source material and background of the creator. You’d basically need to do a lot of revision work in order to get rid of these elements. Might as well create a new series.

    This gets us to the other problem. The arguments and criticisms in this post may or may not be valid but they aren’t exactly what I’d call common or widespread even in liberal circles. Most people are going to see this type of criticism as needlessly didactic. I’m not into overly sexual entertainment because most of it is pretty horrid but people seem to like things in fiction that they wouldn’t stand in real life.

    • Morreth

      The point is, the series became way more retrograde in some aspects that original stories actually were.

      For example, in the original work, Ciri is shown as a tomboy who ran away from the arranged marriage at the age of 9 or 10, she was a skillful and daring skater at 12 and outran boys while skating. When Geralt adopted her and started to teach her the whitchercraft, she had no problem with physical exercise, pretty harsh even for boys. She also had a smart mouth. But in series, she has only “the power of scream”. Wow, excellent!

      Or take the problem with Yennifer’s fertility. In the books, Geralt is upset with his own sterility almost as much as Yennifer is with hers. “There will be no spring after our winter”. But in the series – is his sterility ever mentioned?

  13. Yvette

    I thought the show did indicate that male magic characters were also sterile. I don’t know for sure that it specified male mages, but that was certainly the impression I got from the conversation between Geralt and Yennifer.

    Yennifer also seems open to the idea of adopting a child, as she comments on Geralt’s connection to Ciri in the context of wanting a child.

    I say this as a voluntarily child-free woman who typically hates this type of story line. I’m not thrilled about it, but I think this show handled it better than most do. Yennifer wants someone to love her more than anyone else more than she wants to be pregnant.

    • Cay Reet

      As far as I remember, sterility happens to both men and women when they practice magic. It’s an occupational hazard in the Witcher Universe.

      Yennifer wants a legacy, which she could also have with an adopted child, it’s not all about her uterus and making use of it. As I wrote further up, her wish for a child is more akin to that of a man who wants an heir than to a woman who wants the wonders of motherhood.

  14. Jack

    “ ‘80085’ on their calculator looks kind of like ‘BOOBS.’ ”

    I’ll be in my bunk.

  15. Naomi

    Oh wow, I had a really different read of Yennifer’s character arc. I thought she had warmed to the idea that she was good as she was and was hesitant about the magical body redesign. And that it was only after she found out her lover had betrayed her and cost her the position she wanted (unintentionally on his part) that she reactionarily bought into the guild’s ideal that beauty=power and underwent the procedure to stick it to them and get what she wanted anyway. Which she found was not at all what she thought it would be. With the baby, she realized that what she really wanted was to be important to someone, and in her maladaptive way thought having a child was the only way to get that. And that’s also why she flipped out when Geralt revealed his wish to the djinn after the way-too-rushed storyline of Yennifer warming to the idea that she was important to him. It wasn’t handled well or clearly, and would have been much better if she had clearly expressed she wished for her original body back and not just fertility. But I did like the idea of this arc.

  16. Ashiok

    First, a little disclaimer. I come from Eastern Europe and am of the Slavic ethnicity, which I believe matters here a bit seeing that Witcher is based on Slavic mythology and Sapkowski even parodies Slavic and Germanic fairy tales in the short stories and the novels.
    The books are hugely popular here since the 90s when the novels started coming out here (in Czech Republic). The Polish original and Czech Translation are very close to each other, particularly due to the similarities of languages.

    The context of the books and folklore they are based on matters even for evaluation of the show. The Witcher saga and stories are one of the few popular piece of popculture of Slavic origin so I find it somewhat unfortunate how much gets “lost in the translation”. Both in the literal transition of the books and the cultural translation.

    I would also like to point out that I believe the show to be a pretty poor adaption of very good books and that I agree almost completely with the criticism in the podcast.

    Onto this critique. I think point 1) is valid – I believe characters of all genders should use similar type of “desperate yelling” in those situations, like the martial arts (karate) “ki-ai” yell someone mentioned here. In the books, I believe, this is milder, as screaming is only mentioned in Pavetta/Ciri arc and not a thing in Yennefer’s.

    Point 2) seems completely valid and a good observation. I am not sure why was this added.

    I have to strongly oppose point 3) because it feels like a familiar mix of sex-negativism and oversexualization of female bodies – a mix that often seems bizzare from an European perspective. The pervasive idea that nudity is something special that needs a special reason to be on screen. Overwhelming amount of instances of nudity in this show make sense and honestly there is very little of it. More than half of theepisodes contain no “risqué” nudity (including sex scenes) at all. Nudity in episode 3 (Geralt and courtesan at start, Yen x Istredd, Yen during surgery) seems to make sense and I would even argue that the sex scene is decently well done.

    The naked illusions in Stregobor’s tower in the first episode are inspired by the original short story, however it seems a bit over the top in the show. In the story, Geralt walks into a fairy-tale like orchard with blooming flowers and one naked girl with a basket of apples. In context of the book it seems like a playful way to showcase that Stregobor is an illusionist with a fondness for aesthetics. It seems like the showrunners went a little overboard with that.

    Lastly there is the orgy during Yennefer’s introduction. I have no idea what the showrunners wanted to achieve with it, but it seems completely pointless. I suppose it is an attempt to create some “mysterious, dangerous, liberated witch” feel but it is just silly. The imbalance in focus on female bodies is somewhat minimal however so I’d rather call it stupid than sexist.

    On selling daughters to destiny or point 4). As others have pointed out, this short story is a parody of Hans My Hedgehog (which can be found here https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm108.html) or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumpelstiltskin and it is also obviously linked to the story of Idomeneus of Crete from Iliad. In Idomeneus, it is a son, in Hans it is a daughter and in the story about Rumpelstiltskin the gender of the child is not specified. The Law of Surprise is not sexist and the data set of 2 is not enough to extrapolate that seeing the origins of this law. This is the aforementioned context of folklore and culture that greatly matters – because A Question of Price is not the only Witcher short story that is not-so-secretly parodying an important fairy-tale or other piece of Slavic folklore.

    The point 5) about Renfri seems more like a poor explanation on show’s part than what actually happens. Geralt does not decide to take Stregobor’s side, he decides to take no side and to prevent bloodshed and Renfri refuses to budge. Renfri dies because of her own story arc of revenge at any cost and is not really Geralt’s driving force or anything, the episode clumsily tries to show his infamous neutrality (and how it backfires as usually).

    For 6), both male and female magicians alter their appearances and conform to the implied standard of what is valued in each of those two genders. Women choose attractivity because the society defines their value based on looks. Men choose power and wisdom because the society defines their value based on utility. Sapkowski reflects that and provides some insight on how that does not really make them very happy if they have to transform so. Showing that women with kyphosis are shunned and bullied and when they change that, this goes away, is not sexist. It might be a portrayal of a sexist world but while not Sapkowski is not exactly a flawlessly progressive, the theme of women versus the sexist world is omnipresent in the Witcher books.

    Overall, I belive this piece to be exaggerated and ignoring context of the shows cultural origin. I think the show is slightly sexist and often clumsy in a way that could be seen as sexist, however to be frank, that is the least of the show’s issues.

  17. Elle

    I have to agree with all your points here.
    I also really dislike the episode where Geralt and Yennefer met/fell in love.
    She was doing bad things, manipulated him, and then suddenly they’re in love and shagging. Where did that come from? WHY did he suddenly decided to use his wish to trap her to him?
    It’s just horrible story telling.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Honestly I couldn’t even tell from the episode *what* he used his wish for, just that Yennefer was mad about it.

  18. laura

    Hi there thank you SO MUCH for this post. I run into it very randomly after googling because the witcher is my boyfriends fav video game and I get sooo frustrated by how sexist it is that I was wondering if I am the only one who sees it like this! I am specially hurt by how blatantly the video game depicts women and downplays sexual violence against them, so I am very relieved that someone else thinks the same. the last scene I saw was the main character freeing a prostitute who was hurt and tied to a chair with a rope. And thats just normal. I would expect something more from a magic world. anyway…

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, I haven’t played any of the games, so I can’t comment on them specifically, but they also sound pretty sexist.

    • Lina

      I totally agree with you. This show is so sexist. The first episodes that I saw, the first thing that it comes to my mind it’s nudity

  19. Lina

    I thought that I was the only one who thinks the same thing. When everybody was talking about the show, I decided to watch it because everybody was saying the show was good. I couldn’t understand the first episode and I felt so uncomfortable to see a lot of nudity. What’s the point of doing that? Nowadays TV shows a lot of nudity like nothing happened.

  20. Hayley

    I loved the article. I noticed a lot of these things when watching it too, although I did like the show decently well overall.

    First, the whole Yennefer randomly raping the townsfolk part was so baffling to me. Why would the writers add that in? This was by far the most problematic part of the show in my opinion and it didn’t even serve the plot in any way.

    To me the scene with Renfri wasn’t meant to develop Gerald as a deep character. I think it was meant to show his grim and morally questionable daily reality. I don’t think that was communicated well at all though.

    Similarly, I think that Yennefer’s wanting-a-Baby arc COULD have worked if it had been done very differently. If she had shown a clear motivation of wanting power in all aspects of her life and body, rather than any maternal instincts, I think it would’ve been much more consistent with her character. However, this wouldn’t have worked for the show, because I think her quest for a baby will be ultimately resolved by (my guess) that she will take on a maternal role with Ciri next season.

    It was shown in the show that the Law of Surprise (which is one of the flimsiest plot devices ever) can definitely apply to boys. When Gerald first learns that his Law of Surprise did involve a child, he immediately asks about “him” (assuming the child was a boy) and then seems a bit surprised that it was a girl. Geralt, despite being the epitome of a toxicly masculine loner who can single handedly defeat any foe, seems disgusted by the whole idea. I guess that was supposed to make it better, but it missed the mark for me. The actual cosmos of this world is insisting upon giving a person to another person to repay a debt to their father.

  21. Amy

    So disappointed in this. I honestly hoped that this article would dive into the ACTUAL sexist aspect of LoS – men, who did most of the traveling and therefore made the “payments” in surprise were the ones giving away things they didn’t own – or at least the things weren’t theirs to give. That way children (yes, CHILDREN, not just girls) were taken away from mothers without them having a say in it. But NO. This article has the balls to ignore all of the lore for the sake of an argument. Law of suprise doesn’t care about your gender. In fact, the witchers are most commonly created from kids who were taken as such surprises. So technically, the girls aren’t even the surprises majority of the time. This aspect IS in the show.

    And by the way, the nudity comes from the books as well as taken as “inspirational” aspect from the games. GoT does not own the concept of nudity. And Witcher books came long before GoT show did. And if you think that somehow a female body showed naked is a bad thing but in the same breath make googly eyes at the male nudity, you need to sort your priorities.

    Also, Renfri and who Blaviken plot, like it or not, revolves around the main – TITULAR – character, as it should.

    “Females” (and by that you should have meant witches, because only witches get to change their bodies) aren’t just eye candy in the show – the witcher lore (all books, movies AND show) makes it clear that witches morph their bodies into who THEY want it to look like. If you hate the fact that no one wants to live ages (yes, ages) in a disabled body, then that’s your perspective but I honestly doubt you wouldn’t change the attributes you hate about yourself under circumstances shown in the series.

    Honestly, most of your points come from you choosing to ignore most aspects about it. And the “it doesn’t matter if it comes from the books” only sounds like an excuse to stay ignorant about them and just peddle your own sexist, yes, SEXIST, bullshit. You simply hate the fact that the show made from books that are set in a fantasy inspired middle ages, created based on medieval Europe’s folklore, doesn’t follow your personal 21st century rules.

  22. Rose

    “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.”

    So what? Should it be about how wonderful and empowering it is to suffer from back pain all the time?
    Not all disabilities are the same. Your typical blind seer might not want his blindness fixed. But here’s the thing: Perhaps his blindness is not painful.

    I don’t know anyone with that condition, but I do know someone who has scoliosis, which is a much milder deformation of the spine, and the reason she wants it gone is not to make herself more attractive to the male gaze, you bet.

    Assuming a woman wants a serious spine deformation fixed to be “pretty” is pretty male-gazey in and of itself.

    Oh, and about the sterility: You word it as if Yennefer did not know the magic ritual would render her sterile.
    Forced sterilisation where the victim is told the surgery would just relieve her painful periods or some shit, is a thing in real life, it is extremely traumatic, and it is totally plausible that the victim of such a thing would be pissed off that a normal function of her healthy body was removed without her consent.
    Having a choice taken away is always traumatic. Even if you probably would not have choosen to have children, to have the choice taken away is a good reason for grief. (I guess The Witcher should be commended for inflicting sterility on men, too. I loathe works that render women infertile for no good reason whatsoever, see Twilight, while men never suffer any downsides from their supernatural skills.)

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