I went into Netflix’s new original series, The Witcher, with the same low expectations I have of any highly anticipated new sci-fi/fantasy series. Touted as the new Game of Thrones, I was expecting the same world-building narrative with an unsure dedication to character arcs, especially for the female characters the way that Thrones had, especially in its later seasons. As though it heard this challenge through the chaos, the show rose up and defied expectations.
As women, it is often difficult for us to find a female character to identify within male-driven dramas like The Witcher. Lee R. Edwards states that if we read male-driven centric text and media as the authors intended which makes us repeatedly choose men as the characters to identify with—identifying with Hamlet instead of Ophelia. In male-centric stories, Edwards argues, “power [is] unfeminine and that powerful woman [are], quite literally, monstrous. . . Bitches all, they must be eliminated, reformed, or, at the very least condemned.” In addition, “those rare women who are shown in fiction as both powerful, and, in some sense, admirable are such because their power is always based if not on beauty, then at least on sexuality.”
Edwards goes on to say that these women’s power is frequently seen as a means to an end, with “the men who succumb to it losing everything, including frequently, their masculinity.”
And certainly, The Witcher could have easily fallen into this age-old trap. Its lead female character, Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), is a powerful, beautiful mage who could have been the sensual sorceress who lures Geralt to his downfall. But The Witcher, with Lauren Schmidt Hissrich at the helm, left this trope in the pilot episode where Renfri (Emma Appleton), a Child of the Black Sun, uses her sexuality and charm to play with Geralt’s emotions and lure him into a trap.
Yennefer is initially introduced as a disabled unfeminine outcast, with an unharnessed power. She’s ridiculed and abused, both physically and verbally, by those in her village and her father. This characterization reaches a pinnacle when Tissaia de Vries (MyAnna Buring) comes upon her, after sensing Yennefer’s chaos. In the scene, Yennefer struggles with the feed for the animals, only to be knocked over by her father into the mud and covered with the feed. We’re made to see her as “beastly,” as Tissaia says, a combination of her visible impairments, the ragged state of her appearance, and the fact that she is still kneeling in the mud. In this moment, she is subservient to the well-dressed, almost regal Tissaia—roles that will reverse in the final episode. It is arguably Yennefer’s lowest moment in the series. From that moment on, elements of this characterization are broken down as The Witcher takes deliberate steps to keep Yennefer from the typical trappings of a powerful female character in a male-driven story.
Until she receives her enchantment, Yennefer has hunchback and severe jaw deformities–the result of being cursed with a “twisted spine.” While her disability made her an outcast in Vengerberg, it goes wholly ignored by her sister initiates at Aretuza. While Tissaia is still critical of her, labeling her “piglet” during her training (so named because Yennefer’s father sold her to Tissaia for less than he would get for one of his pigs), Yennefer is not ostracised by her sister either for her disability or slower understanding of her powers. Of course, Arteuza is clearly a crucible for all the women involved, but realistically friendships and alliances form between Yennefer and others, including Anica.
Yennefer’s other major relationship prior to her enchantment is with Istredd (Royce Pierreson), a mage apprenticed to the sorcerer, Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen). Istredd is the first mage Yennefer meets when she first channels her chaos and portals to the Tower of the Gull to escape the abuse by the young couple from the village. Istredd is intrigued with Yennefer from the very beginning because of her “impressive” magic, even trying to protect her from being recruited by the Brotherhood by providing her with an untraceable portal back to Vengerberg. Once Yennefer arrives at Aretuza, her relationship with Istredd continues to develop. Istredd helps Yennefer practice and study for her various trials. It is in these sessions that we see Yennefer’s frustration and sarcasm, she’s not meek by any stretch. She speaks her mind—first to Istredd, then to Tissaia; confronting problems with passion and stubbornness. At Aretuza and in her relationship with Istredd, Yennefer is given the agency to develop as a complex disabled character, although she is played by an able-bodied actress. A fact which creates its own issues as commented by disabled critics.
Importantly, though, Istredd cares and admires Yennefer before she becomes the stunning sorceress that draws the eyes of others. He respects her growing power and determination. With Istredd, Yennefer is allowed to exist as a sexual being even before her enchantment. As Kristen Lopez writes for Gizmodo, this breaks from the usual trope where “deformity is [a] standard which often situates [disabled female] characters as non-sexual beings. It’s the misguided belief that a woman could see beyond a disabled man’s challenges, but a man can’t see a woman past her looks.”
Yennefer not only explores her sexuality but also later uses it as a weapon to exploit Istredd to steal the Feainnewedd in order to prove herself to Tissaia and move closer toward her ascendance. By allowing Yennefer to both explore and weaponize her sexuality as a disabled female character, Witcher gives Yennefer an agency to make choices for herself and her interests, rather than making them in order to support another character, especially a male character or the story as a whole.
We also learn Tissaia’s tormenting moniker for Yennefer, “Piglet”, is not borne wholly out of malice, but out of a need to push Yennefer harder than the other initiates because Tissaia sees in Yennefer a similarity to her own powers. Tissaia tells Yennefer that while some mages ignore their emotions, the two of them are mages who are consumed by their emotions.
As Yennefer’s confidence in her abilities grows, we see her stand taller and her eyes sparkle, she doesn’t shy away from attention but owns it. She even considers herself changed before her enchantment, reflecting on the “scared girl who tumbled” into the Tower of the Gull and was “totally unaware of her power.” The power she refers to being more than just her magic, but the power of having established her place in the world. Tissaia even tells Yennefer that the key feature of the most powerful woman in the world isn’t her looks, but the “strength of her posture . . . [and] the poise of her entire being.” She seems to imply that Yennefer has already achieved a stunning transformation even before her enchantment.
Although the enchantment modifies her physical appearance, Yennefer chooses to retain a measure of her old self–the scars from her attempted suicide. A minor detail that could have been glossed over and erased easily in her transformation, but marks which she wears as a proud reminder of her past and from where she’s come.
As Edwards states, in male-centric dramas, the rare powerful women are such “because their power is always based if not on beauty, then at least on sexuality.” We see this especially with powerful women who are also love-interests for the male protagonist. Often the characters surrounding the woman see her beauty first, then her power, whatever form that takes.
With Yennefer, we get to see the development of her power before her transformation. After her transformation into a traditionally beautiful and powerful sorceress, her beauty could have easily led before her power with all her subsequent interactions. But like the previous trope, Witcher plays to this outdated characterization for a millisecond before tossing it to the side.
While the process of her enchantment is bloody and dark, her reveal to the Brotherhood is a classic Cinderella moment. As she enters the Aretuzan ball late, all eyes turn to her and she quickly heads straight for her goal–the King of Aedirn.
This is really the last time in Witcher that we see such a dramatic focus on Yennefer’s new beauty. Throughout the rest of the episodes, those who come into contact with her focus on her power, mainly for selfish reasons, rather than her physical appearance. During her journey with Queen Kalis in Episode 4, the Queen remarks on how she’s jealous of Yennefer’s role as the King’s mage as opposed to her own role to provide the King with an heir. Yennefer counters by saying how she traded everything to be the greatest mage that ever graced a court and she has instead found herself as a political fixer–cleaning up the King’s messes. It’s a sharp contrast between the two women–one being used for her physical appearance and biological function, the other being used for her power. It’s also the first time we see that Yennefer may regret, or at the very least resent, the choice she made for her enchantment.
Unlike their male counterparts, female characters are often forced to choose one of two paths–either they remain steadfast in their choices or they switch opinions, allegiances, or choices and are judged or condemned for exercising their agency. Male characters have an overwhelming sense of free agency, especially if they are white males which allows them to make choices, act freely and control their respective lives within the story. When women exercise the same agency, they are seen as “flighty” or “unable to commit.” Free agency in female characters is usually a sign of weakness in female characters, rather than a strength.
Except in The Witcher, where Yennefer is given the freedom to change her mind without judgment. Whether it’s her decision regarding wanting to have children or deciding to help the Brotherhood in their stand against the Nilfgaardians, Yennefer is able to move between decisions and options without being considered less than. Geralt never criticizes her for seeking out ways to reverse her sterility. He does express concern for her well-being, especially when she tries to absorb the Djin, but it’s not in a way that shuts out her goal, but only those methods of achieving it which would put her in danger. Even when Borch tells her that she will never be able to reverse her decision, its seen as a statement regarding the laws of magic without opinion on Yennefer now seeming to regret her enchantment sacrifice.
When Yennefer makes the decision to stand with Tissaia and the Brotherhood against the Nilfgaardians, she’s not berated by Tissaia and the others for not standing with them from the get-go. Her help is accepted and she’s made the overseer of the subsequent battle. This is also where we see a full reversal of the first scene with Tissaia and Yennefer.
Yennefer enters the battle with a dress made of a roped overlay—a symbol of Tissaia’s command that Yennefer reserve her chaos. The battle rages with a number of mages falling to Fringilla and Nilfgaard’s army. Finally, when all hope seems to be lost, an injured and fallen Tissaia gives Yennefer a final lesson. She tells Yennefer to use all that she has ever felt and buried to allow her chaos to explode. Yennefer now takes the higher ground, looking out over the battle, and uses the abuse she’s suffered to extinguish the fire, hurling it towards the Nilfgaardian army. Such a metaphor—that a woman’s pain and emotion are her greatest strength—truly cements Yennefer’s story as an antithesis to many of the outdated tropes of male-driven fantasy dramas.
Hopefully, we’ll continue to see Yennefer and the other female characters of The Witcher continue to defy the traditional tropes and set a new standard for how to write women’s stories in fantasy and sci-fi. Until then, thank you Lauren Schmidt Hissrich for giving us a Yennefer that we can identify with and be inspired by.