Yennefer’s disability was exploited as a plot-point to further her emotional and physical journey as the writers saw fit.
This essay mentions r/pe, suicide, and contains spoilers for The Witcher television series and books.
By Laila Manack
With The Witcher on its way to becoming Netflix’s biggest original series debut, there is no doubt the book-to-game-to-screen adaptation is satisfying a fantasy-shaped void left by the Game of Thrones finale. The show, which creators have sourced predominantly from the books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, manages to stay true enough to its source material to please avid fans and introduces the Continent in ways that entertain new ones. Geralt’s healthy display of emotion is a joy to watch, subverting the typical masculinity one would expect of a man like him in a show of this genre. However, show-runners have also ventured into creative liberties, to which people have expressed disappointment and even concern, especially given the show’s widespread impact.
Yennefer’s origin story, which the books had not mapped out in quite so much detail, begins with her adoptive father selling her for less than the price of a pig — on account of her noticeable hunchback and speech impediment. The violet-eyed young woman is also part-elf, which proves an asset in her magical ability but only creates further obstacles in her journey and is another reason she’s shunned by her adoptive family. The show has taken a colour-blind approach to casting, choosing in lieu to draw parallels to racism through interspecies interactions. This is especially jarring in how the Elven people were colonised, raped and murdered by humans for seemingly no reason.
Despite this, her teacher Tissaia — though curt and insensitive at times — treats Yen as she would any other student. The Rectress even favours the young sorceress, not out of pity, but because she senses Yen’s potential. It’s clear from the start that Yen is a woman of agency. Brash and brimming with chaotic energy, she takes active strides to enact that magic as soon as she discovers it and in whichever ways she deems appropriate. Istredd, who is the first to witness her raw display of power, shows desire for Yen before her transformation. However manipulative and riddled with secrets on both sides, this is a refreshing relationship to watch unfold because often people with disabilities are not viewed as sexual beings with romantic desires, further dehumanising them. Even still, Istredd throws her disability in her face when they argue. “You’re just angry ‘cos you lost your chance to be beautiful!” he yells.
Yennefer’s ascension into a fully-fledged sorceress requires her to — rather painfully — remove her uterus and undergo an agonising transformation into a conventionally beautiful version of herself, one she has always dreamt of. The show’s sudden erasure of Yen’s disability is so blatantly ableist and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Her first entrance into court as a Sorceress was meant to strike the same awe in the show’s audience as it did in the guests in the ballroom. However, as a disabled woman, my thoughts were with other disabled viewers and the negative impact this could have in the minds of the disabled community. Clearly, Yen’s condition and physical impairment were written as undesirable, as illustrated when the man performing the procedure told her, “You are a first draft of what nature intended.” Thus, she is rid of her impairments at the show’s earliest convenience, like a snake shedding its skin, to make space for a more desirable physical body. This butterfly to her previous self’s caterpillar is one without physical handicaps, therefore the message this sends to viewers — that disabilities can and should be cast off — is harmful and unacceptable. This further asserts the harmful trope that disabled people would willingly choose to subject themselves to extreme discomfort if it means they could be able-bodied. The way this scene was shot almost reflected a phoenix rising from the ashes of her broken and discarded body. Her assertion to endure this operation while awake (instead of being put to sleep as the surgeon suggested) also lays the foundation to her character’s determination and free-will without acknowledging this is built upon her disability being discarded.
Amongst female mages, femininity and hyper-sexuality is idealised as it’s viewed as an advantage in The Witcher’s cutthroat political landscape. Aptly so, because female mages are expected to use their beauty to sway the male monarchs they advise. “We’re just vessels,” she muses during a particularly emotional scene. When the council finds out she has Elven blood, she is discriminated against and even demoted, reminiscent of many POC experiences in non-fictional workplaces. Yennefer, after decades of her worth being reduced to her appearance, grows quickly tired of this vapid lifestyle. Despite the council’s discovery of her Elven ancestry, without her transformation, she would never have secured employment due to her visible disability and the discomfort it brought others. Tissaia’s words to her, “even if you were beautiful” implies that she isn’t. When Tissaia asks Yen to “‘imagine the most beautiful woman in the world” that woman is able-bodied. Upon discussion, someone told me they were surprised when Yennefer first introduced herself because “Yennefer in the games was hot.” Her disability is not what most consider desirable, because to most, beauty and disability are mutually exclusive.
Before her ascension, Tissaia tells Yennefer to “kill the victim in the mirror”. This single line of dialogue highlights the way able-bodied people view disabled people. Tissaia victimises her because she thinks Yennefer has victimised herself. In her eyes, Yennefer is inherently infantile because of her physical impairments, despite her being a grown woman capable of making her own decisions. The ways in which disabled people are viewed by wider society is often very similar. There are countless incidents where disabled people are offered assistance when they haven’t asked, sometimes even after they’ve refused it. This removes our agency and strips away our choice, forcing disabled people to feel grateful for assistance even if it is unwarranted or makes us feel uncomfortable. It stirs a hero mentality in able-bodied people, as is further portrayed with Tissaia and Yennefer.
Yennefer’s attempted suicide is another overplayed and destructive depiction. While disabled people are no less susceptible to mental illness, Yen’s attempt to end her life unfolds as a result of her disability. This idealises suicide as an escape from her disability – a way to break free from the damaged body which has brought her hardship and shame. This idea is extremely inaccurate and detrimental to the images able-bodied people have of disabled people.
There are yet more instances where Yen grapples with disability. Her struggle with infertility – left by her initiation procedure — is an arguably relevant take. Perhaps this is a commentary on the unwavering pressure and stigma which follows women unable to bear children, but it seems to be the only well-developed aspect of her character’s interactions with disability.
The show has a long way to go in terms of well-developed disabled representation. Its ableism is evident and impactful, and it’s no question Yennefer’s disability was exploited as a plot-point to further her emotional and physical journey as the writers saw fit. With season 2 on the way, I sincerely hope the creators consider hiring disabled writers when addressing such heavy topics, so as to ensure disabled people are represented fairly and accurately as possible. Maybe hire us, period. And if not, it’s important to remember, no representation is better than harmful representation.
Laila Manack (she/her) is a South African Muslim writer who enjoys reviewing movies and media from an intersectionally feminist lense. When she’s not writing she can be found teaching English, hopping planes or shaking tables. Her work can also be found on her blog. Follow her twitter @lailamanack for socialist rants and unapologetic raving over whatever she’s obsessed with this week.