THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR NETFLIX’S THE WITCHER
On the one hand, Netflix’s The Witcher looks like a feminist dream come true. It’s wide array of “powerful” women — a queen leading her troops into battle, sorceresses guiding the fate of history, a young girl fighting back against men who want to harm her — all seem to embody the “empowered badass” trope feminists so dearly love. On the other hand, its protagonist is an impossibly strong and powerful man chopping things (and people) up with his sword. It features all kinds of gratuitous (mostly female) nudity, and the whole thing’s about how this guy needs to save this girl before something awful happens to her. All of that should ring some modern-feminist alarm bells. So, which is it? Is The Witcher a boon to the feminist agenda? Or just more toxic masculinity? My answer: it’s neither. The Witcher, believe it or not, is simply about reality.
Okay, sure, I can see how a show about a guy with a mutation that allows him to fight monsters wouldn’t necessarily be anyone’s first pick when it comes to representing real life. But it’s not the actual events of the plot that make me say this, it’s the show’s themes. The show, very clearly I think, is trying to tell us that men and women are different (but equally valuable), and that power comes with sacrifice. Two things which are obviously true, but which the modern feminist movement seems to have lost track of.
Take, for example, the character of Yennefer. A hunchbacked drudge who learns that she can do magic. For power and revenge she undergoes a magical procedure which removes her deformity, allowing her to wield the power of her sexuality as well as her growing magic. But magic, in this narrative, comes with a price. In order to enact this change, Yennefer must give up her ability to bear children. If you want to be ruled by your ambition — reach every height you’re capable of reaching — you necessarily give up the ability to fully care for your children. Or, in some instances, to have children at all.
This idea shouldn’t be controversial. True, we’re not all mages who can magically change our form to get what we want, but we are all confined by the same basic premise as Yennefer: we can’t be in two places at once. We can’t be out pursuing our careers with all our mental energy and strength, and be home caring for our children full time. One or the other has got to give. We can’t have it all.
Yennefer’s reaction to the choice she’s made is even more controversial still — but really shouldn’t be. She regrets it. After lifetimes of wielding her power and sleeping around she’s got nothing to show for it. No legacy. No child. She spends the latter half of the show’s season looking for a magical cure for the ailment she brought on herself. In real-life terms, she went out and had her career and now she’s too old to have children. And — and this is the surprising part, in modern feminist terms — she wishes she could take it all back. Take back all the power and the fame and the skill in exchange for the care of one helpless child.
But it’s true, isn’t it? Power demands sacrifice. And giving up on motherhood — even entrusting your child to another caregiver so you can pursue your career — is a sacrifice. And if Yennefer’s story is any indication, this particular sacrifice may not be worth making.
And then we have Geralt. The witcher. Forced against his will to become a mutant monster hunter, he keeps to himself and tries not to get involved with anyone. He does his job, earns his money, eats, sleeps, takes a girl to bed when he can, and moves on. But when he learns that — through a magical oath — he is responsible for the welfare of a young girl who is in danger, he drops everything to go to her. He didn’t ask for his power, but he’s got it nonetheless. And power demands sacrifice. In Geralt’s case, he must defend the defenseless. Because he can.
Geralt really only has two choices: use his immense strength and power for good, or use it for evil. He has the ability to kill monsters, to know when they are nearby, and to know when something that looks monstrous isn’t really. He can either let the monsters devour everyone or he can kill them. He can kill anything that looks ugly and frightening, or can seek to help those who are not monsters but simply cursed. No matter how much he may want to care about no one, the fact that he has power means he has to make a choice: sacrifice his soul and become evil, or sacrifice his anonymity and protect the innocent. He chooses protection.
Yennefer, a woman, longs for a child. Geralt, a man, finds the child he must protect a burden. Yennefer’s choice to pursue power ends up depriving her of something fundamental that she can’t get back. Geralt’s obligation to protect a child he doesn’t want elevates his physical power and gives it a higher purpose.
So too with men and women. A woman’s body automatically gives her the ability to bear and sustain life. A man’s body automatically gives him the ability to protect the woman, and the child who begins life defenseless. We don’t have to choose to fulfill those purposes. We have free will and the ability to act in all sorts of ways — particularly in the modern age — that have nothing to do with childbearing or protecting the weak. But making those choices — choosing a different path — comes with sacrifice. Something is always lost. It’s up to us to decide whether it’s worth it.