I should go ahead and start this off by making clear a few opinions of mine regarding The Witcher, both the games and books:
- The sex cards in the first game are shockingly immature and sexist. Especially so because of the game they are a part of. They feel terribly out of place.
- The Witcher does fall into some of the “medieval times were just that way” traps plaguing many stories in fantasy settings.
- Too much of the time our hero, the witcher Geralt, is a male power fantasy, desired for his irresistible virility by women and feared and admired by the men around him for much the same reasons.
- There are things in both the games and books with unfortunate messages (the beginning of Geralt’s relationship with the sorceress Yennefer chief among them)
- Fan service nudity is everywhere and totally worth criticizing.
I’m not going to deny any of this or attempt to explain it away. Every bit of it is disappointing. Instead what I’m hoping to look at the world and its characters as a whole and respond to some of the more open-ended sexism criticisms leveled at the series. Because unlike many such worlds, especially in video games, I feel The Witcher deserves an honest debate without any easy answers either way. Author Andrzej Sapkowski and CD Projekt Red do not always get things right; however I believe their intentions to be just, and worthy of examining their successes, not just their failures.
(Spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to keep them tame because anyone who hasn’t read the Witcher books or played the games SHOULD DO SO ASAP)
One of the biggest draws of The Witcher is easily the world in which it takes place. It is more than just your typical dark fantasy world. Quick overview: after a cataclysmic event long before the events of the series called the Conjunction of the Spheres, multiple separate dimensions were merged and their inhabitants trapped on the world in which the events of the series takes place. This event is claimed to have brought humans to this world from their original dimension, and is responsible for the magic they can wield. It is also how many of the monsters witchers are responsible for hunting came to exist on this planet. Overall there is a distinct feel to The Witcher, an amazing injection of political intrigue in a fairy tale story, with a feel of real scientific progress typically absent from fantasy.
The world of The Witcher is a hard, violent, cruel world. Terrible people are around every corner and often rewarded for being terrible. Morality is often punished. Peasants suffer in just about every way. Racism, sexism, and classism permeate everything. Sexist insults are thrown around more often than any pleasant greetings. Often in the games the player will be presented with tough choices resulting in pain no matter what. It very much leans towards the acedia that has jaded many of us here at Fandomentals regarding Game of Thrones. Westeros is an apt comparison, both the show and book version.
And unfortunately, as I mentioned near the start, there are more than a few examples of “that’s how it was back then” clichés throughout this series involving the various -isms I listed. The worst example is the rape of a female character in The Witcher 2 meant mainly to inspire feelings of vengeance in both Geralt and the player. Women are often treated quite badly in these games. The sexism complaints were not made up from nothing, after all.
All of this would be fine if there was more of an examination of the harm these various issues cause. That is what separates a story with something to say (such as A Song of Ice and Fire) from the stories that merely use uncomfortable material for shock and the impression of maturity. Not to say The Witcher is one of those stories; Sapkowski’s books are very, very political and have a lot to say about racism and classism through the cruel treatment of nonhumans (elves, dwarves, gnomes, and witchers) and the peasant class. The subjugation and eventual settlement of elves is especially meant to bring to mind similar treatment of civilizations such as Native-Americans.
This makes the more casual use of mistreatment towards women sting harder. It is easy to walk away from both the books and the games wishing they managed the same messages regarding sexism that they do towards other issues. As is, it is hard to defend many of the sexism complaints made towards the series, the games especially.
(Though perhaps those with a deeper knowledge of the short stories and novels can just as easily a barrage of claims at Sapkowski’s feet. I can certainly think of some questionable storylines.)
What does make defending the series easier is something which separates The Witcher from most similar fantasy series; the wealth of women in charge (not Women on Top™). Princesses, queens, jarls, sorceresses that use rulers as puppets, soldiers, they come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities and are found everywhere. Not only are they prevalent, but they are respected, revered, and play central roles in everything that occurs. Very rarely are capable women questioned simply for being women. Queen Calanthe of Cintra rules her country with an iron fist. Philippa Eilhart rules Redania in all but name as the king’s sorceress advisor and engineers a plot to steer the fates of multiple countries. Francesca Findabair is the unquestioned leader of the elves and one of the most revered and respected people in the entire Witcher universe. The main character of the novels and third game is a girl/young woman.
(There are very few characters in any intellectual property more compelling to me than Ciri. I hope Arya Stark turns out even half as amazing as Ciri did. They share quite a few similarities)
The games certainly do not slouch in this regard either. A woman can rule the islands of Skellige based on the player’s decisions, and even if she does not she is a key advisor her brother relies upon and well-respected by most of her people. The sorceresses may lose power, but never their scheming or capabilities. As Barbara mentions, the latest DLC brings back Anna Henrietta of Toussaint. There is a clear attempt made, at the very least, to give women agency and respect in the world. And for the most part the world is consistent in its behavior towards women.
Which unfortunately is the reason the mistreatment stands out so much.
It’s jarring to see a female soldier impressing in an arena one moment and then five minutes later see a sorceress brutally tortured and burned alive. It’s strange to see the respect one woman gets and then hear a barrage of slurs towards another simply for being a woman. It’s tough sometimes to reconcile the power a nonhuman race has in one city and then see their mistreatment in another. Ultimately I think this has a lot to do with the complaints people have towards this series; why are things one way sometimes, and then not?
You can’t talk about The Witcher or any complaints towards it without discussing the sorceresses. They are the driving forces behind the majority of the events in both the books and games, they wield immense power both in their abilities and political influence, and the main characters are constantly in contact and conflict with them. Some of them are main characters. Many of the sexism accusations are due to their behavior. However they are also among the shining examples of when The Witcher gets women right.
Like with the world in general, we’ll start with the bad.
There are a lot of traits seemingly native to all sorceresses, in both the books and games, that can easily rub people the wrong way. They are dressed very often in provocative clothing not befitting of their prestigious status. Even when they are dressed more practically, downloadable content gives the option of skimpier clothing. They are very promiscuous and Geralt sleeps with the majority of them. Many of the sex scenes in the games involve sorceresses. They are almost always catty towards each other, with the only true friendship I can think of off the top of my head between Yennefer and Triss.
Triss is an unfortunate symbol of the sexism people feel exists with The Witcher. She was featured in Playboy. The scars covering her neck and chest in the books, which cause her to wear clothing covering them, are removed so she can wear clothing showing cleavage. She spends most of The Witcher 2 as a damsel to rescue. She has by far the most sex scenes in the games. Her devotion to Geralt in both the books and games is obsessive despite the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, to the point she is willing to sleep with him at will knowing there can be no relationship. That’s just how irresistible Geralt is to her.
And yet, I can think of no better example of the things The Witcher does right with women then the portrayal of its sorceresses. Yennefer is a strong, secure woman who is unapologetic in her manipulative nature and single-minded determination to achieve her goals. Yes, she has a deep desire to be a mother that some might not like, but it does not give the impression of Womb Syndrome™ present in something like Game of Thrones. Rather I think it adds a human layer needed by a character who often comes across as viciously cold to even her friends and loved ones. It also adds a perfect sense to the way she bonds with Ciri, the “adopted” daughter she and Geralt raise and spend most of The Witcher 3 trying to find.
(Geralt also has the same parental yearning and shows the same uncharacteristic vulnerabilities through Ciri that Yen does, so it is hard to lay that charge at the series.)
Despite the many sexist implications and attributes applied to Triss, she is a well-developed character in her own right, her compassion unique among her sorceress peers. She is also a very strong, intelligent, and capable leader as shown in her successful efforts to gather the persecuted and escape witch hunts throughout Novigrad. And both Yen and Triss value their friendship far more than a relationship with Geralt and will not let him ruin it. This is made clear in the books and also in the games. As both women are potential love interests for the witcher in the third game, players are tempted to try for a threesome, which they may think possible due to the promiscuous portrayal of sorceresses throughout these games.
This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the game where the two sorceresses play along long enough to tie Geralt to a bed and leave him there, with the chance of a relationship with either of them lost for good.
I’ve already mentioned the considerable political power wielded by Philippa Eilhart and Francesca Findabair, and they are not alone. Throughout the books and the first two games, sorceresses are among the most powerful and respected leaders in the world. Every king has a sorceress advisor. They run schools. They form a group to control their countries according to what will serve their interests. The common folk and nobility treat them with more respect than they do the leaders they “serve.” There is so much power wielded by these women. Combined with the queens, princesses, duchesses, and such in other countries, a striking number of women control the world.
Yet, like with the treatment of women I discussed earlier, there are so many situations that can cause complaints. Philippa Eilhart’s relationship with a woman in The Witcher 2 is heavily sexualized. Yet it is also her sexual choice with a willing partner. Which side wins out, the fact that there is a woman of power in a relationship with another woman or the male gaze through which it is portrayed? Is that male gaze bad enough to ruin the effect completely, or only slightly? Is Keira Metz sleeping with Geralt just more fuel for the male power fantasy or is the fact she did so for multiple personal reasons having little to do with sex (her long isolation to avoid witch hunts, the fact she’s manipulating him to get what she wants, etc.) more important?
You could also have these issues with the books and their heavy implications that all sorceresses are using spells to make themselves more attractive. We know for a fact in Yennefer’s introductory story that she is a hunchback that used spells to manipulate her appearance. And sorceresses as a whole are ripped from their families once their abilities are discovered. How big a problem is it that the written material never tackles issues of slavery and societal pressure on women’s looks? Is it a problem at all?
This dichotomy is especially present in the witch hunts which play a large role throughout the second and third games. These scenes are usually the toughest to stomach. Sorceresses are burned alive, impaled on stakes, cut down, abused, tortured, and often graphically. It is horribly uncomfortable, but it is also supposed to be. These witch hunts and the victims of them are among the clearest examples of using disturbing material to make a point. Manipulation of the populace, religion, propaganda, sexism, class divide, and the toll of personal loss are heavily explored through the crimes committed against sorceresses. So which do we focus on? The arguably unnecessarily graphic depictions of violence against these women, or the issues that violence confronts you with?
These are the same questions which come up frequently with ASOIAF. The comparisons between these two franchises are quite apt. Both book series arrived around the same time and share many similarities.
You know what? There is no easy conclusion. That much is evident hopefully from what I’ve had to say, and also from the debate which has taken place to date about The Witcher’s problematic depictions of violence and women. True to the series itself, the issue is way too complicated to say either side is right or wrong. Yes, The Witcher is sometimes sexist, but I don’t think it makes the entire series sexist. The story shows too much respect and provides too much agency to its women to dismiss it that way, I think.
I’m also willing to cut Sapkowski and CD Projekt Red for their good faith efforts. Sapkowski may have written things that make people angry (the beginning of the Geralt/Yen relationship, for example), but it was always clear in his books that he used his subject matter to relate an important message. CD Projekt may have created those sex cards and thrown women in skimpy clothing, but they have also improved their portrayal of women in each game, showing their willingness to listen to criticism and improve.
This is not meant as an excuse. And in fact, the bad is arguably even less excusable among writers that know better.
The bigger complaint to level at the world of The Witcher is the brutality present towards everyone. The cynicism can be too much. Good people are too few and almost always punished. Happy endings are almost nonexistent outside of the standard happy ending the player can achieve in the third game. Many of the complaints about brutality towards women can be seen just as often towards men. It can be very hard to connect with characters when my choices in a conflict are between ruthless bandits and scumbag soldiers. How am I supposed to care about the winner of a battle when my choices are bitter, angry, hateful elves and a human army led by a boorish rapist? And this is no accident. The Witcher often revels in portraying a bleak world lacking in good or decency that leaves players feeling uncomfortable with the outcome.
Everything said; this really is an amazing world to lose yourself in. The politics are intriguing. The characters are rich. The constant influence of fairy tales and their “realistic” twists are fascinating. The messages are loud, clear, and worth listening to. You might have to trudge through a very depressing world to hear those messages, and you may find it hard to swallow some of what you see, but it is well worth it.
Problematic? You bet. But The Witcher is still one of the best things I’ve ever read or played. I hope more experience the world and decide on their own.
Images courtesy of CD Projekt Red and the amazing art of Wojtek Fus