In a world full of monsters, men, elves, and dwarves, the new Netflix series, The Witcher, is a must-see for viewers that are looking for their good ole’ fantasy-fix. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter fans—I’m looking at you. While all three fantasy-hit series were nothing short of Hollywood successes, The Witcher has quite a few unique qualities going for it—a female executive producer for one, and a storyline featuring strong female leads, not to mention the show’s nonlinear timeline.
If you’re at all familiar with the books and video games, or you’ve recently dipped your toe into the series, you’ll have picked up on the fact that despite being the show’s main protagonist, Geralt is neither the strongest nor the most compelling character in the series. Rather, the show’s grittiest characters prove to be Yennefer, Ciri, Tissaia, and Queen Calanthe—all female characters, which is rare in both the fantasy genre and video game industry. For the purposes of this article, Yen will remain the main point of discussion, as her character endures the most dramatic transformations in the show.
In their own right, the women of the show demonstrate considerable ambition and aptitude for forging their own paths and “destinies,” displayed by their complexity, wit, and power beyond measure. They accomplish this without the help of men, of course. Similarly, the show celebrates women who desire power, rather than shuns them for it, an attribute that distinguishes The Witcher from its more traditional, paternalistic counterparts such as Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. It is this fact, ultimately, that challenges the ubiquitous notion that the status of women should be secondary to the status of men. As such, The Witcher is, arguably, the most ground-breaking television series for its genre and for its time.
The show’s high regard for women in power begins to reveal itself in the second episode, “Four Marks.” In the episode, the audience is introduced to Yennefer, a hunchback girl who has been be ostracized by her village. In the midst of an attack by two village bullies, Yennefer panics, and unaware of her power, mistakenly creates a portal to Aretuza, the magical kingdom of sorcerers.
Ultimately, it is the build up of Yen’s character as a “small-town no one,” to “all-powerful sorceress” that is analogous to the “Hero’s Call” storylines that most Hollywood movies abide by – but whose plot lines tend to center around men. Yen’s “call to action” as the hero of the story occurs when she is ripped from her dull and ordinary farm life and thrust into a world of magic and warlords. Tissaia, her mentor, alters her fate forever by finding her and helping her cultivate her magical talents. Through vigorous mentoring and slight torment Tissaia empowers Yen to transform from a pitiful, hunchbacked farm girl, to a powerful, dark, and elegant sorceress-kween—but her journey is not for the faint of heart. While at first, Yen is characterized as a “pitiful” and “deformed” girl who feels sorry for herself, over time she learns to be strong. Her resilience and tendency to act as a rebel are exemplified through resisting Tissaia’s efforts to help her grow and become the mage that she knows she can be. Ironically, both Yen and Tissaia are some of the most stubborn characters on the show, aside from Geralt himself.
In many ways, the two women’s relationship evolves into a dynamic-duo of sorts, particularly in the last episode, in the battle against Nilfgaard. The evolution of Yen and Tissaia’s somewhat tumultuous relationship at the beginning of the show, to a more productive and powerful force at the end, essentially threatens the very existence of the Brotherhood that prevents them from truly experiencing their own power, and truly being “free.” The façade of freedom is further exemplified through how Yen sacrifices her choice to bear children, in exchange to be “beautiful,” a decision, which, on the surface, appears to be her own, but in reality is not. Her decision to “become beautiful” is too heavily dictated by the cruel and oppressive social systems and environment that she grew up in—a reality not so different from our own, wherein beauty and ableism are rewarded so much that mutilation to one’s own body becomes irrelevant; it becomes only a trifle, a trifle that is much preferred over being a woman who is ugly and “disabled,” but able to bear children.
It is for this reason that Yen is the most daunting and influential character on the show. In many ways, her pain exemplifies the pain that many women face today in not truly having ownership and power over their own body and decisions because of the male-dominated society in which they live. This can be further seen in that despite how powerful an individual sorceress may be, she is still hindered by the antiquated system that enslaves her by obliging her to a ruling King.
In multiple ways, Yen defies the misogynistic tropes of female characters. Her act of ultimate rebellion against the system, however, occurs when she utilizes her “chaos,” or “dark magic” to destroy the Nilfgaardians and use her power for good. Her abandonment of her duty as mage to the Aedirnian king is also a final act, signifying that she is approaching the fulfillment of her destiny to become an all-powerful mage, who is finally breaking free from the oppressive shackles of poverty, ableism, patriarchy, and “the male gaze.”
Comparatively, Yen is an example of how women in television can be both powerful and good, as opposed to how Game of Thrones HBO writers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, chose to portray Daenerys as a “crazy-woman,” whose desire for power consumed her and became a self-fulfilling prophecy—hence, the “Mad Queen.” While Daenerys could have been a very strong female character, Thrones’ depiction of her as a woman who met her own demise through her insatiable thirst for power reinforces negative stereotypes that women who desire power are inherently evil, and therefore, a threat to the male-establishment. Unfortunately, this view dominates the majority of how women who seek power are portrayed today. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Witcher has received so much widespread criticism. Perhaps viewers should examine their own feelings of internalized misogyny before providing blanket criticism, and comparing the two shows—for they could not be more different. The Witcher is in a league of its own. Fans should be ecstatic because haters are going to hate.