We Need To Talk About The Witcher’s Yennefer: Magic, Disability, and Motherhood
Yennefer of Vengerberg, one of three main characters in Netflix’s Witcher series, is disabled. A main character in a prominent fantasy series with a visible disability! More than that, she’s a love interest! As a disabled person, I was really excited to see a disabled character whose storyline doesn’t revolve around her disability, and who’s allowed to have romantic and sexual relationships as part of her narrative. Sure, I knew she’d be played by an able-bodied actress, but I thought it could still be interesting representation if there were disabled creative consultants or writers on board.
Except, well, as soon as she appeared onscreen, I knew I was wrong.
Yennefer’s story begins when a young couple, stealing away to kiss behind an indeterminate farm building, catches her (apparently) spying on them. She’s berated and bullied, first by them and then by her father. Tissaia, the headmistress of the mage school Aretuza, shows up at her parents’ farm and buys Yennefer for four marks—less than the price of a pig. Upon arrival at Aretuza, she immediately smashes a mirror and attempts suicide.
It’s a much less dignified entrance into the show than either of the other two main characters—Geralt the Witcher and Cirilla the princess—are afforded. Yennefer is introduced a full episode later than they are, and we immediately see her at her lowest point. Geralt, as a Witcher, also has much of the show’s world pitted against him, but when some of the patrons at a bar take issue with his presence, another character comes to his defense. There is no such defense for Yennefer.
Yennefer spends her portion of the next episode training to hone her magic, with a crop of other young girls who’ve shown potential. Some of them excel at their lessons, while others struggle, and Yennefer generally seems to fall into the latter camp, earning consistent chastising and the nickname “piglet” from Tissaia. In her interludes with Istredd in the catacombs, she laments that she thought maybe this was something she could be good at.
At this point, it seems Yennefer might have narrowly avoided the trope of disability as superpower, in which a disabled character develops a special ability as a result of their disability—think Matt Murdock from Daredevil or Bran Stark from Game of Thrones. Almost immediately, though, Istredd offers to practice with her, and she gets the hang of it literally right away—no training montage necessary. After that, she excels at just about everything she tries.
Later, when she learns some old-school elven magic from Istredd and performs the spell successfully on her first try, we learn that she’s ¼ elf, which is presumably why she’s so good at magic but also apparently why she’s disabled. Oh well.
On top of that, there’s a lot of issues with the show’s treatment of elven characters, stemming mostly from the fact that the writers seem to want them to be allegorical for indigenous peoples without actually taking a strong stance on whether the kingdoms that slaughtered them and took their land are good or bad. (The show tries to argue that morals aren’t so cut and dried, but I think that’s pretty cut and dried.) This is made worse by the apparent revelation that if an elf and a human have a child, that child will be disabled and reviled by society.
Yennefer does well enough at the rest of magic school to “ascend” (those who don’t are turned into eels) and seems primed to return to her home kingdom of Aedirn as the court mage as she prepares to undergo a magical transformation sequence that will make her into her ideal self. It’s unclear, in the show, if the transformation procedure is given to all the newly appointed court mages, just the ones going to specific courts, or just the ones who “need” it (a fraught concept in and of itself).
Unfortunately, this brings us to the only other mention ever made of Yennefer’s elven blood. The Brotherhood finds out about it and votes to send Yennefer to Nilfgaard instead, as elves are illegal in Aedirn. It’s vaguely implied that because she’s going to Nilfgaard, she won’t be transformed—cue Istredd shouting tearfully that Yennefer is just angry because she “lost her chance to be beautiful”—but it’s also implied in an earlier scene that everyone gets a transformation, with Yennefer telling Istredd that her classmates all know what they want to change with their transformation, but she doesn’t know where to begin.
Devastated, Yennefer skips graduation, fights with Istredd, and bursts into the room of the mage that performs the transformation, demanding to receive the procedure behind the backs of the Brotherhood. This is the crux of her arc in the entire season—right before beginning the transformation, she’s told there’s a cost. If she goes through with it, she’ll never be able to have children, as she has to give up her physical womb to become her ideal self.
There’s a long and fraught history surrounding the forced or coerced sterilization of disabled people, particularly disabled women. In the United States, in the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to uphold a state’s right to forcibly sterilize people deemed “unfit to procreate”—people who fell into the arbitrary and unclear category of “feebleminded.” The belief, at the time, was that disabled people inherited their disabilities from their parents, and would pass them along to their children—and therefore, they shouldn’t be allowed to have children.
In the decades following Buck v. Bell, tens of thousands of disabled Americans were forcibly sterilized. Hitler took note, and the Third Reich often praised the American eugenics movement. Buck v. Bell was even cited by the defense at Nuremberg. Despite the fact that the U.N. now considers forced sterilization a form of torture, Buck v. Bell was never overturned, which means any legal protection from forced sterilization that disabled Americans have is at the state level.
Disabled children were still occasionally sterilized in the U.S. as recently as 2007, and it isn’t the only country to have ongoing issues surrounding sterilization. No less than 47 disabled Australians were subjected to forced sterilization by court order in the years spanning 2004-2014, and Britain has faced criticism for funding forced sterilization procedures in India.
An argument could certainly be made that Yennefer knew the risks and pushed forward anyway—she was verbally told what the procedure would cost her and agreed to continue. There are a couple issues with that argument. If the Brotherhood had voted to send her to Aedirn as originally planned, would she have been given the opportunity to opt out if she thought she would want children at some point in the future? Would she even have been told the cost, or would she have been sedated? lso, at the point that she’s informed of the cost, she’s already naked on a table with her feet in fantasy stirrups—not really the most conducive place for reflection about the future of your fertility.
This is also the first time any mention of Yennefer’s fertility or desire to be a mother is made, and there’s no indication that giving it up will be a decision she regrets, because it’s literally never mentioned before, even in passing. She herself has nothing to say about it other than a curt nod, an agreement to the terms of her transformation.
After her transformation is complete, Yennefer immediately crashes a ball that the King of Aedirn and his newly appointed mage, Fringilla, are attending (the ball seems to be just beginning, but was also going on the entire time Yennefer was being transformed, but that’s neither here nor there). The King of Aedirn determines that Yennefer is hot enough to overrule the decision of the Brotherhood of Mages and hires her on the spot, which somehow no one can do anything about, and Fringilla goes to Nilfgaard instead.
The next time we see Yennefer, she’s escorting Queen Kalis back to her kingdom of Lyria. On the way, the two lament their respective posts and argue over who has it worse—Kalis, a “fleshy contraption for squeezing out heirs” (ew), and Yennefer, a “glorified royal arse-wiper” (also ew). When they’re interrupted by a man with a big weird shrimp-spider thing who kills all their guards, Yennefer takes advantage of the situation and steals Kalis’ infant daughter.
Shrimp-spider-man’s dagger follows them through a portal and kills the baby, and Yennefer, distraught, soliloquizes on a glum-looking beach. Women are just “vessels” for men to take advantage of, she laments, so the baby is lucky to be dead. It’s hard to interpret this as the words of someone who has any desire to have a child—it’s clear she’s disappointed with her lot in life, but she seems ambivalent, at best, about the prospect of bringing new life into the world … except she also just stole a baby, which seems at odds with her fatalistic view of things.
And then her story for episodes five and six revolves almost exclusively around her desire to have a child and her attempts to get her womb back.
She goes to a mage who specializes in fertility problems, tries to capture a Djinn, and goes so far as to hunt down a dragon and try to get it to use its special dragon magic to restore her fertility. In episode seven, she visits Istredd, looking to settle down, but he rejects her. She returns to Aretuza, shows the new crop of students how to make fantasy drugs, and warns them about the danger of ascending, essentially telling them that the ability to have a child is more magical and more important than their actual magic. Disconcertingly, the only girl who wants to listen is the one with facial scarring. In the last episode, the fertility storyline is dropped altogether in favor of Yennefer being a magic militia commander.
It’s hard to map Yennefer’s trajectory from seemingly neutral about children, to stealing a baby, to telling that same baby she’s lucky to be dead, to being desperate to restore her fertility at all costs. It’s also never clear how we, as the audience, should feel towards her quest for motherhood. Other characters range from neutral-confused (Tissaia’s question of “Why do you want a baby, anyway?” is never answered) to negative (Geralt telling her that the lifestyle of a mage is not suited to being a parent). It’s possible her desire for motherhood is merely a narrative device priming her to take on a maternal role for Cirilla, but that wouldn’t necessitate the laser-focus on her biology.
Yennefer’s storyline could have been an interesting commentary on the bodily autonomy of disabled women, but instead, it gives us another disabled character who is magically “fixed,” at a cost. The show reproaches her for wanting more than what she has already, and for being cutthroat in her attempts to get it. When she’s visibly disabled, she’s the butt of jokes about how hideous or incompetent she is, but when she’s no longer visibly disabled, she’s the butt of jokes about how sexy she is.
The Netflix series is based on series of books, which I admit I haven’t read, but that I hope treat Yennefer better than the show does—whether or not they do is beside the point here, especially considering the show’s reach. The Witcher was the most watched show in the world last month, and I can’t imagine that everyone who watched it will sit down and read all eight books.
We can hope that she’s treated better in season two, which has already been greenlit, but for that to happen, I imagine they’d need to spend some of their 10-million-an-episode budget on consulting with actual disabled people. In the meantime, I’ll look elsewhere for representation.
(featured image: Katalin Vermes)
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