Warning on this video for book and TV show spoilers, as well as some graphic images
With Season 2 of The Witcher finally coming out on Netflix, I want to review the first season and how it compares to the books. First, I’m not arguing that The Witcher is perfectly feminist. But to me, it does stand out among other fantasy books for its depictions of compelling female characters—that only occasionally go into Reddit’s “Men Writing Women” level of detail. You know, the sub that posts scenes of women written by male authors who spend an awful lot of time describing women’s breasts.
First, Andrzej Sapkowski’s writing definitely passes The Bechdel Test. That the test where TV, book, or show has to have the following three criteria: there need to be: 1. more than two named female characters; who 2. have a scene together where; 3. they talk about something other than a man. The show and books easily pass.
In this video, I want to talk about magic and physical appearance. I’m going to focus on the women in the series, but first, I need to mention a fact I found super unsettling about Geralt’s appearance in the show. While filming the shirtless scenes, actor Henry Cavill dehydrated himself to make his muscles stand out more while filming those scenes. He said he didn’t drink much water over three days, and by the last day, he said he could smell water.
Part of me wants to make a thirsty joke, and the rest of me is getting drymouth just thinking about this.
But there’s something interesting I want to address about Geralt’s appearance in both The Witcher 3 game and the Netflix series. First, there’s been a lot of discussion about the differences between men’s and women’s appearances in video games and comic books. When people complain about overly sexualized female characters, it’s argued that male characters are sexualized as well. However, I’m not the first to notice that men in video games… are really more of a male power fantasy than what turns women on. Women in video games tend to be provocatively posed and dressed, while men—though fit and attractive—are made to appear powerful. And that’s not what women want. Overly muscled heroes are created for men to live vicariously through them, not to turn women on.
A good example of this distinction, what women actually prefer, is Loki versus Thor, in The Avengers movies. While Chris Helmsworth is the typical Hollywood hunk, and even has a love interest in one of the films, he’s not the one that gets the most female attention offscreen. That distinction goes to the much more slender and brooding Loki played by Tom Hiddleston (You can also make the same argument for Spike Speigel and Jet Black in Cowboy Bebop.)
Full disclosure: I haven’t played The Witcher video games. I did watch the sex scenes on YouTube, though, for… research purposes. But you don’t have to play the video game to be familiar with Geralt’s bathtub scene. There are plenty of memes about it, and it also appears in the series. Geralt seems to be that perfect combination of ripped yet sensitive that appeals to both the straight women’s gaze and to men’s fantasy of being powerful.
Another disclaimer before we continue: I’m going to objectify everyone in this series. Men, women, everyone gets to be hot.
The first difference between the book and the show I want to talk about is in regards to Yennifer’s physical transformation. I actually think the books handle the subject of her physical change much better—in particular, how she changes her appearance.
On the TV show, Yennifer’s change from hunchback to conventional beauty is a physical one. In the books, her transformation isn’t shown, and is instead a combination of spells and magic.
Part of me understands that showing her physical change, and making it actually about changing her body, not masking it, was intended to graphically explain both Yennifer’s appearance and her inability to bear children. Instead of a conversation disguised as an info dump, for example. There was already a lot of lore being handed out in this show, so I get why they opted for a visual.
I’ll say more about the “not having kids” part later, and how her infertility is connected to her looks.
Let’s start with how Yennifer changes her appearance in the Witcher books themselves. In the books, we never get a scene that actually explains how sorceresses get their looks—just this description from what’s considered to be the first Witcher book, The Last Wish:
“…not many would describe sorceresses as good-looking. Indeed, all of them came from social circles where the only fate for daughters would be marriage. Who would have thought of condemning their daughter to years of tedious studies and the tortures of somatic mutations if she could be given away in marriage and advantageously allied? Who wished to have a sorceress in their family? … only daughters with no chance of finding a husband become sorceresses.”
Unlike priestesses and druidesses, who only unwillingly took in ugly or crippled girls, sorcerers took in anyone who showed evidence of a predisposition. If the child passed the first years of training, magic entered into the equation—straightening and evening out legs, patching harelips, removing scars, birthmarks and pox scars. The young sorceress would become attractive because the prestige of the profession demanded it. The result was pseudo-pretty women with the angry and cold eyes of ugly girls. Girls who couldn’t forget their ugliness had been covered by the mask of magic only for the prestige of their profession.”
I flinched when I first read this. Like physically unattractive people have different eyes than pretty people. Writing like this just reminds us how much society values women’s appearances over their actual selves.
As for what Yennifer looked like prior to her transformation, we get this realization from Geralt, also from The Last Wish:
“But he suddenly knew the truth. He knew it. He knew what she used to be. What she remembered, what she couldn’t forget, what she lived with. Who she really was before she had become a sorceress.
“Her cold, penetrating, angry and wise eyes were those of a hunchback.
“He was horrified. No, not of the truth. He was horrified that she would read his thoughts, find out what he had guessed. That she would never forgive him for it. He deadened the thought within himself, killed it, threw it from his memory forever, without trace, feeling, as he did so, enormous relief.”
Still, whatever Yennifer may have looked like before doesn’t change Geralt’s feelings much. This quote is about three paragraphs away from when Geralt makes the wish that ties his fate directly to hers.
To really get a sense of the sorceresses’ use of magic to affect appearance, we’ll need to look at other books. In The Time of Contempt, the fourth book, the banquet scene in Thanedd features the sorceresses showing off their looks—but it’s clear from the dialogue that this display is intended not for the male mages in attendance, but for the other sorceresses themselves. I like that the book acknowledges that makeup and clothing are often things women use for each other and not simply for the male gaze.
Sure, it’d be great if there were a happy medium between image-focused women, and, say, Brienne of Tarth from GoT. I do like the idea that women in The Witcher display attributes that are both stereotypically male and female— that is, they get to be society’s idea of feminine while also having political power… and their power doesn’t come from their looks.
Brienne of Tarth
In Baptism of Fire, the book after Time of Contempt, there’s also a scene from the Lodge of Sorceresses that I should mention. This is after the coup at Thanedd, when the sorceresses form their own group because the Brotherhood of Sorcerers disbanded. While the scene is heavy on political discussion, the women also find time to note each other’s looks— especially one Nilfgaardian sorceress, who’s from a place where being attractive means you’re superficial. Then we’re treated to the description of the new sorceress, Assire var Anahid, as the spells start.
“Bloody hell,” Kiera muttered, wiping her forehead. “Haven’t they heard of beautifying spells down in Nilfgaard?”
“Apparently not,” said Triss out of the corner of her mouth. “They don’t seem to have heard of fashion either.”
“Or of make-up,” Philippa said softly. “But now hush. And don’t stare at her. We must stabilise the projection and welcome our guest. Intensify me, Rita.”
“The woman in the projection had a pale face with poor complexion, dull, expressionless eyes, thin bluish lips and a somewhat hooked nose. She was wearing a strange, conical and slightly crumpled hat. Dark, not very fresh-looking hair fell from beneath the soft brim. The impressions of unattractiveness and seediness were complemented by her shapeless, black, baggy robes, embroidered on the shoulders with frayed silver thread.”
The woman in the projection also has aged hands, bitten nails, and a cat to complete her ensemble. It’s pretty obvious to me that her appearance is hinting at that of the stereotypical witch: cat, pointy hat, not conventionally attractive. There’s no wart on her nose, but you’re probably imagining one there.
(yes, I know her appearance in other media, like the video games, is different than the book. They did keep her cat, at least!)
When I first read this scene, I understood it as an attempt by the sorceresses to separate themselves from the stereotypical folk witch: a frightening and untrustworthy crone who lives in a hut in the woods. Since sorceresses in The Witcher work in politics, it makes sense that they’d want to project a certain image.
This scene in Baptism of Fire also got me thinking about the conventional differences between magic and gender in fantasy—specifically, witches versus wizards. I’m certainly not the first one to notice this. Since The Witcher books, especially Lady of the Lake, often reference other famous works of fantasy, I think Sapkowski was playing with these conventions of what magical women “should” look like.
Magical men like Merlin and Gandalf tend to be wise, bearded, and universally trusted; witches, while intelligent, are definitely not trusted in the same way. Witches are presented as either cryptic or just up to no good. Acclaimed author Terry Prachett humorously noted the differences between magical men and women in fantasy literature. Here’s a passage from his novel Equal Rites, about a girl trying to get into a university for wizards:
“Now you listen to me, Gordo Smith!” she said…“It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?…
“There’s witches,” said the smith uncertainly. “And enchantresses too, I’ve heard.”
“Witches is a different thing altogether,” snapped Granny Weatherwax. “It’s magic out of the ground, not the sky, and men never could get the hang of it.”
There’s also this Prachett quote, from The Shepherd’s Crown, about witch versus wizard magic and how it’s perceived by society:
“Then she wondered, not for the first time, about the differences between wizards and witches. The main difference, she thought, was that wizards used books and staffs to create spells, big spells about big stuff, and they were men. While witches—always women—dealt with everyday stuff. Big stuff too, she reminded herself firmly. What could be bigger than births and deaths?”
To me, Sapkowski uses The Witcher saga to play with the standard ideas of what magic means for men and women. Groups of powerful, magical women are part of the landscape in The Witcher series—and they’re much closer to the idea of wizards or mages in fantasy novels than to traditional witches in folklore. I think having them look physically different helps make this distinction. The sorceresses here are active players in society and culture, and are thus different from the conventional witch in fantasy, who tend to keep to themselves. Prachett’s Granny Weatherwax was actually envious of another witch’s warts.
The other book I thought of, in regards to how witches are seen in fantasy and legends, is Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue. It’s a retelling of fairy tales with lesbian twists to them. Here’s a woman describing the process of becoming the village witch, and how she treated people who approached her cave home:
“And only then, when they were sweating cold as dew, would I emerge, step by slow step, a black scarf over my head to hide the fact of my youth. Not that they ever looked at me properly; they seemed to think my eyes would scald them.”
There’s also this observation, which ties into the perception of a witch’s desirability directly to her magic:
“On the whole I am inclined to think that a witch should not kiss. Perhaps it is the not being kissed that makes her a witch; perhaps the source of her power is the breath of loneliness around her. She who takes a kiss can also die of it, can wake into something unimaginable, having turned herself into some new species.”
Acknowledging that women are judged by their appearance, and women are judged harsher than men, is an unfortunate truth. While I’d prefer it to be different, I don’t think that ignoring the double standard does anything to change it. And the sorceresses in the story are powerful women. Not only do they command magical power, they also have political sway as well. The difference in how age is perceived between men and women is clear in the second Witcher book, Sword of Destiny:
“He [Geralt] knew that the more talented among them were capable of curbing the aging process permanently and at any age they chose. Men preferred a mature age, suggesting knowledge and experience, for reasons of reputation and prestige. Women, like Yennifer, were concerned less with prestige and more with attractiveness. Istredd looked no older than a well earned, robust forty. He had straight, slightly grizzled, shoulder-length hair and numerous wrinkles on his eyelids. Geralt did not know whether the profundity and wisdom in his benign, grey eyes were natural or brought on by charms. A moment later he concluded that it made no difference.”
In the books, it seems that a sorceress’ appearance is as much about her own magical skill at potions and spells as it is about an actual physical change. While the world of The Witcher isn’t a perfect feminist utopia, to me, it does challenge many traditional conventions and tropes in fantasy worlds about powerful, magical women.
Circling back to the TV show: now I want to talk about the infertility of witchers and sorceresses, and how that relates to sorceress’ appearance.. I like storylines that have women musing about not having children and reflecting on that loss; however, not having the plot magically “fix” their issues by giving them a child. Another example of this is Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones.
Giving up something to practice magic is standard in a lot of fantasy lore—the more powerful the spell, the harder it is, the more energy it requires, etc. So it really fits that sorceresses and witchers are sterile in this world—a price to pay for wielding magical power.
“There is no conjuring something from nothing. There is a give, and a take.”
But I do have a complaint about Netfilx’s adaptation of The Witcher, specifically episode 3, Betrayer Moon. This is after Yennifer’s magical training at Aretuza, when she gets to choose her appearance when she graduates.
Imagine the most powerful woman in the world. Her hair, the color of her eyes, the strength of her posture. Do you see her? -Tissaia de Vries
While the books just hint at spells that change looks, in the show, we get to see the grisly details of how this is performed. One thing I dislike about Netflix’s version is that it’s not the women themselves who perform the magic— rather, a male enchanter is brought in to perform the procedure. The price for her physical beauty will come at the cost of her ability to bear children.
I do find it interesting that the basis for the magical spell was the remains of Yennifer’s uterus and fallopian tubes, ground into a powder before being spread as a paint on the parts of her body she wished to change— her hunchback and her crooked jaw. How the scene was edited, spliced together with Geralt’s fight with the striga, was interesting as well— about the idea of rebirth, pain, and change. We can also see the intense pain she’s undergoing as her spine forcibly straightens.
As I said earlier, I get why they made this scene as painful and visceral as they did. In some ways, this is more effective than an extended conversation explaining what’s happening. Still, there were some things that bothered me. One, I’ve just gotta say it: you can’t pull a uterus out through a cervix. That’s not how women’s bodies work.
And I was disappointed that this was something done to Yennifer, as opposed to something she did to herself. After reading the books, I assumed it was just exposure to magic that made sorceresses and witchers sterile. I mean, do Witchers get vasectomies as part of their training of the Trial of Grasss?
Again, having her infertility be a physical reason, rather than a magical one, to me, undoes the idea of giving up something in exchange for power. And in this scene, this is something someone does to her— not a spell she performs on herself.
It’s also disappointing that in the show, Geralt doesn’t know what she looked like before— while in the books, he chooses to forget and doesn’t let her past or her former appearance change his feelings for her.
But Aretuza fixed you up nicely. What was your ailment before? Clubbed foot? Split ends?
Bottled Appetites, Geralt
Still, I like the sorceresses in the Witcher— they’re an excellent reminder that you don’t have to be masculine to be powerful, and that femininity is not itself a weakness.
Honestly, they’re a great compromise for the struggle of my queer brain, which wants to see sexy woman in low cut tops being badasses, and the feminist part of my brain that wants to see women as people. In the Witcher series, you get both. I know I’m not the only queer woman who struggles with this, as I’m reminded of that old tumblr reblog, made into a TikTok by recycled tumblr.
Like Yennifer’s dress in the last episode: the colors are good and somber for a serious scene, but there’s also cleavage. I like this— it’s sexy without being over the top. I know a lot of the sorceresses look different than how they do in the video games, and I think this has more to do with not wanting to look like a costume or cosplay than anything. What works in video games doesn’t always translate well to the screen. Take Jaskier’s feathered hat, for example. I know I’m in the minority It just doesn’t work in real life.
As much as I’d like to see the sorceress Margarita stride into battle in a plunging neckline, as someone with breasts, dealing with lowcut tops while doing physical activity is not the easier thing.
The sorceresses get to be sexy— and sexual— and still retain their agency. I love to see this onscreen.
I also feel ok with the objectifying and beauty standards, because hey, all the main characters deal with that. Remember Cavill not drinking water for the shirtless scenes?
Both the male and female gaze gets catered to in this show. With Geralt, we get a long haired, ripped man who can brood in the corner, kick serious ass, remember the kind of perfume his lover wears, all the while contemplating good and evil. Damn. Ok, maybe I’m straight now. Or maybe this is the only couple I’d be a unicorn for?
I understand why the sorcerersess chose to be beautiful. I’m all for body positivity, and not trying to waste time living up to an impossible societal beauty standard. But, having said that… if my aging process was slowed down, and I could choose to appear as any age… I probably wouldn’t go for 60.
Also, I found Yennifer’s mixed feeling about not having children to be an interesting storyline. I also chose not to have children, but I do sometimes wonder what if… and it’s great to see that idea onscreen without it being “solved” by the woman having a child.
Here’s another defense of The Witcher books. In the same scene in The Time of Contempt that takes place in the Lodge of Sorceresses, we get not only catty side-eye at a frumpy sorceress, but a couple of searing quotes about men, from two of the women present:
“Men are psychologically unstable, too prone to emotions; not to be relied upon in moments of crisis.”
“Ambition is the undoing of men. They always want what they know to be impossible and unattainable. And they are unaware of the attainable.”
Sapkowski, Andrzej, and Danusia Stok, translator. 2008. The last wish: introducing the Witcher.
Sapkowski, Andrzej, and David French, translator. 2015. Baptism of fire. London: Gollancz.
Sapkowski, Andrzej, and David French, translator. 2015. Sword of destiny. Orbit Books, London.
Quotes from: Pratchett, Terry. 2008. Equal Rites. Paw Prints.
Pratchett, Terry. The Shepherd’s Crown. New York : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.
Donoghue, Emma. 1997. Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins. Joanna Cotler Books.
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