Yennefer of ‘The Witcher’: A Study in Ableism and Power
For someone who has watched many a sex scene in movies and television, the sounds were unmistakable, yet unsurprising. Netflix’s “The Witcher,” based on a fantasy book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, pulls no punches when it comes to explicit imagery. Body horror, gore, nudity, and sex are displayed to serve the story and expose the true horrors of a patriarchal and discriminatory society.
What surprised me, though, was who was having sex — Yennefer of Vengerberg, a disabled woman with severe kyphoscoliosis and a facial deformity, and her rather attractive, nondisabled boyfriend, Istredd.
The second season is slated for release on Netflix on Dec. 17. To prepare myself for it, I thought I should revisit my thoughts on Yennefer.
I knew almost nothing about “The Witcher” universe when I hit play on the series. All I knew was that the books had been adapted into a critically acclaimed video game series, and that the protagonist was Geralt of Rivia, who had a daughter named Ciri and a bard friend named Jaskier, the composer of a popular earworm. And I knew that Yennefer of Vengerberg was a beautiful and powerful woman who was beloved by fans of the books, games, and the show.
No one told me that Yennefer wasn’t always conventionally beautiful or powerful, though. Whenever I scrolled past GIFs on Tumblr or articles about her on Twitter, the images were the disabled version of her. Why would they be? She is much more pleasant to look at with her lustrous black hair, straight spine, and symmetrical face enhanced by makeup. So, when she first appeared in the second episode, I was stunned by the image of Yennefer in a plain dress, with a deformed jaw and a spine like mine.
The images I’d seen of Yennefer in the media spoiled her arc for me. I knew she’d eventually be cured, and become beautiful and admired. That’s the way things are. But I was surprised that the “The Witcher” managed, nevertheless, to make her story a revolutionary one for disability narratives.
Disability is not powerlessness
The show acknowledges that Yennefer’s beauty costs her, and that she isn’t powerless because of her disability, but because of how others devalue her for it. She steps out of the infantilized stereotypes disabled characters are typically given, and she gets to be angry at the world for her mistreatment. She has a boyfriend who loves her and desires her while she’s disabled. She transforms from a frightened girl who’s assaulted and sold for next to nothing into an unstoppable force who demands what she believes she’s owed.
In the third episode, Yennefer and Istredd have a confrontation. They’d both betrayed each other to their scheming mentors, but only Yennefer lost the power she desired as a result. Istredd pleads with her to forget it all. Furious, Yennefer lays bare the reality of having a disability: “My world is cruel, unpredictable,” she spits. “You enter, you survive, you die.”
For many disabled women like myself, the show asks, “If the marginalized cannot have power, what is the alternative?”
“The Witcher” is a fantasy show that asks us what our fantasy truly is. Is it to be beautiful and powerful? Is it to live in a more equitable world? Is it to be comfortable in our own skin? Is it all of the above in a contradictory mess?
My life is significantly better than Yennefer’s. I have people who love me and shelter me. I’ve never had to suffer the trauma of an assault or a sterilization, as many people with a disability have. I’m not marginalized because of my race like Yennefer is with her elven blood. But there are days when I feel her shame and rage as I look at my twisted spine and the ableism in this world. I can never be conventionally beautiful and desirable, which likely means I’ll never be powerful or even fully valued in a society designed to keep people like me downtrodden.
God knows I want to be all of those things, yet I feel ashamed for wanting it. After all, “The Witcher” points out that beauty and power are meaningless without empathy and love. Thirty years after Yennefer is sterilized in exchange for her beauty, she regrets her decision. Contrary to what she believed, no one truly loved her. They merely wanted something from her power.
Istredd was the one exception. When they reunite 50 years after their breakup, he fondly tells her, “At least you kept your eyes,” a violet marker of her elven heritage and time as a hunchback. She eventually misses the girl she used to be, and urges the girls at her old academy to “think for themselves” rather than blindly pursue the path expected of them.
As a disability advocate, shouldn’t I believe that my worth comes from myself? Shouldn’t I be fighting against society’s beauty standards? I do, on most days. Sadly, the hardest fantasy to realize is being unshakably happy in my own skin. I’m only human.
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