October 7, 2022
The Witcher - a feminist manifesto or a misogynistic tale?
Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg
The story of The Witcher, first told in Andrzej Sapkowski’s novel, made its way from Rivia to Hollywood as the show’s fame grew worldwide. In 2019, It was one of the best-received television shows, becoming Netflix’s most-watched season one premiere at the time.
Sapkowski’s saga is not only a fantasy tale – it is also a social commentary. That’s why the TV adaptation has brought into the limelight various types of discrimination, prejudice, and hate-rooted violence.
Everyday inequality towards women is one of the strongest insights in the story. It is not obvious, however, whether The Witcher is more of a feminist manifesto or a misogynistic tale. The core of this concern can be seen in one of the protagonists, Yennefer of Vengerberg.
A young lady with a curved spine and partial facial paralysis, who at the beginning of the saga was not aware of her birthmark, is to become a sorceress. In the series, we meet Yennefer when she is bullied, dirty, and visibly disabled. However, when assaulted, she displays a unique ability to use magic – or ‘Chaos’, as it is named in the franchise.
Her life has been a series of humiliations – Yennefer was sold by her stepfather for less than what he had asked for a piglet – but surprisingly, the female buyer turns out to be a powerful sorceress, Tissaia de Vries, who runs Aretuza, a school for magically talented girls.
After completing her magical training, Yennefer is to be placed in one of the various courts across the kingdom in order to exert political influence and steer the king (in nearly all cases the sovereign is male). Therefore, almost all young graduates of Aretuza – including Yennefer herself – dream of being placed at a court of great importance.
Aretuza mage gathering
Aretuza court mage selection
Being denied a coveted court position once promised to her, Yennefer decides to take drastic action: she undergoes a magical procedure that removes her womb and ovaries in exchange for bending her spine.
The procedure renders her both beautiful and infertile. Thereafter, she is given a place at the court she had dreamed of, but soon realises the ability to have children is also important to her. Thus, she embarks on a journey to regain her reproductive capability. It becomes her character’s main drive throughout the first series.
The character of Yennefer, portrayed in the series by Anya Chalotra, has been recently welcomed as an addition to the feminist canon. It is understandable as she transforms from a poor, inconspicuous, disabled girl into a great mage.
She independently decides to surrender her capacity to have children to succeed professionally, while also exploiting the power of appearance and sex-appeal instead of being its victim.
As a poor, vulnerable woman, who takes charge of her own fate and exerts power equal to men she appears, on the surface, to be an ideal modern woman. But is she truly a feminist role model?
The story of Yennefer supports the stereotype (which girls in the 21st century still face) that the type of power available to women is only an authority held beside a man. It is a sad reality that women are judged based on appearance rather than competence. Pop culture still perpetuates this idea that women who undergo a metamorphosis will be rewarded with recognition and respect.
At the same time, Yennefer is a character constantly driven by her incompleteness. She is presented with either a choice of motherhood or power. Once she embraced her political career as a court mage, she immediately regretted the abandonment of her maternity.
It is reflected in many modern histories when women are forced to choose either to continue evolving in their job or family life.
Therefore, the main question we ask should be if The Witcher indicates a problem or perpetuates it. It is possible the conviction that a woman ‘cannot have it all’ has been captured on the show to signal how it is still a vital issue in our society.
If we lived in a less misogynistic and patriarchal world, Yennefer would both be enabled to become as powerful as she desires and be satisfied with every component of her storyline – just like most of the male characters created by Sapkowski. So maybe it depends whether women feel encouraged or suppressed by the story of Yennefer. This question still remains valid.