Note: Contains spoilers about The Witcher and some graphic content.
For many decades (centuries, really), writers, media commentators, and social actors have used disability, illness, and pain as metaphors, literary devices, and even as plot or storyline advancers. There is great debate about how such deployments fare ethically. Dissenters, critics, insiders, and accomplices ask wherein lie the differences between empathy and appropriation, or between respectful creativity and strategic (as compared with unasked-for) censorship.
Whether hinged in the context of a mainstream film, a popular streaming television show, a comic book hero, or a novel, debates about disability representation rage on. As has long been argued by disability studies activist-scholars, futurism—in fiction and quite practically—doesn’t just need what are arguably “better” and more realistic representations of disability, it needs more nuanced, scrupulous, and imaginative ones.
One illustration or “case example” is the recent writing by nondisabled and disabled critics on the very new Netflix series, The Witcher (adapted from books by Andrzej Sapkowski). The show exemplifies the fraught and trenchant ableism in our cultural past, present, and, it seems, future—at least the fictive one (?).
As Disabled writer Kristen Lopez asserts in her (spoiler-forewarned) popular piece published in late December 2019 on Gizmodo, “What The Witcher Gets Wrong (and Right) about Disability Narratives,” in the show’s world’s fantasied past, co-protagonist, Yennefer of Vengerberg (played by nondisabled actress Anya Chalotra), begins her narrative arc as a “hunchback” with a facial disfigurement. Particularly important is how the streaming show is read-able as an alternative future, and what such a reading denotes—or could.
Yennefer’s storyline epitomizes what sociologist Erving Goffman famously termed a “spoiled identity,” owing to her apparent physical disabilities, until she is literally purchased by, shamed by, and then lifted up as an especially gifted sorcery apprentice. Lopez argues effectively how sexually autonomous and assertive Yennefer defies a classic representation of disabled people—particularly women (as incapable of sensuality or sexuality), but later falls decidedly and disappointingly into the classic disability-must-be-cured trope.
As Yennefer succumbs to her desire and need—however “understandable”—to be stereotypically beautiful, the feat is accomplished through violent sorcery and brutal surgeries depicted on-screen. Her suffering and pain are graphic and so is her transformation. In order to make this so-called choice, she willingly relinquishes her reproductive freedom—a decision she later regrets and seeks to reverse. The story is a vivid commentary on disability rights and ableism, civil liberties, and feminism, as 2020 commences.
Further complicating Yennefer’s representation, her presumably eventually liberated character, who is situated (especially pre-surgery and pre-magical intervention) as both racialized and classed, has her gender and disability impacted differently before her difficult choices and after. This process calls into question what defines choice, by whom, and under what circumstances, for doubly and triply marginalized people in fictive and quite real presents and futures.