Nothing Bewitching about Ableism

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.

Published by:

Diane R. Wiener

Diane R. Wiener is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. Diane is the Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, housed at Syracuse University.

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