The world of fantasy has been one of the few genres to regularly include disabled characters, though this inclusion has always come with the concept of disfigurement and grotesquerie. One of the most famous disabled fantasy characters, George R.R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister, is described in the first volume of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series as walking on “stunted legs” with “a head too large for his body” and “a brute’s squashed-in face beneath a swollen shelf of brow.” The casting of Peter Dinklage helped to rectify this overly exaggerated description of a disabled character, but it speaks to how the disabled often find themselves in fantasy: as a source of terror and pity, with their strength often presented as a vengeful outlet for their bitterness.
Dinklage’s casting offered up possibilities of doing more, not just with disabled characters, but disabled actors. As a disabled writer who regularly discusses the need for representation, fantasy is a landscape with the ability to tip the scales toward a more inclusive landscape. But in watching Netflix’s new series, The Witcher (itself based on a series of books), it’s hard not to see the heavy ableism that the likes of Martin and other fantasy writers fall into. More importantly, The Witcher is another in a long string of media that seeks to touch on disability through the lens of able-bodied criticism.
[Note: Some spoilers for Yennefer’s storyline in The Witcher to follow.]
The Witcher follows Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia, a mutant monster hunter who is feared as often as he’s brought in to serve villagers who need his help. Running parallel to Geralt’s story is that of Yennefer (Anya Chalotra). Yennefer is a young village woman with a hunchback and severe jaw deformities. She’s considered an outcast in her small town, regularly mocked and bullied by everyone around her. When a sorceress/teacher discovers Yennefer has the ability to create portals, it’s believed she has the makings to be a powerful mage and the girl is easily sold for four marks. Almost immediately, Yennefer’s life is situated as being that of a diamond in the rough.
Yennefer holds power that can be exploited by others more powerful than her. It would have been easy for series showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to make Yennefer a conduit for others, but the girl has agency of her own. She’s challenged by her teacher and proves that, while she is emotional – years of bullying and torment will do that – she has power that should be feared.
Even more interesting, she falls into an illicit relationship with a young man also being schooled in magic. In disability narratives involving women, physical deformity is standard which often situates these characters as non-sexual beings. It’s the misguided belief that a woman could see beyond a disabled man’s challenges, but a man can’t see a woman past her looks. In this case, Yennefer does engage in a sexual relationship while she is physically disabled. She can be a sexual being who feels comfortable enough sharing that part of herself with another and be disabled, the two are not at odds.
This is a trope that transcends the world of fantasy and is just a disabled trope: that, when given the option between disabled or abled, a person will always choose the former even if they’ve been disabled their whole life.
That’s not to say that Yennefer is a massive step forward for disabled representation. Despite being a sexual woman with power, she’s played by an able-bodied actress who is aesthetically gorgeous. The audience inherently knows that, at best, she’s either going to transform into her beautiful self over the course of the show or, at worst, imitate a disabled person. Halfway through the series, Yennefer sacrifices her womb to become powerful and aesthetically beautiful. Despite knowing she already owns power while being disabled, she still believes she is nothing without the added enhancement of beauty.
This is a fiction trope that transcends the world of fantasy and is just a disabled trope: that, when given the option between disabled or abled, a person will always choose the former even if they’ve been disabled their whole life. Because most authors, screenwriters, or other creatives are able-bodied they are thinking of their privileged position, first and foremost. Never mind how a person, who has only ever known a disabled lifestyle, might feel.
It’s hard enough to tell stories of physically disabled women with this belief that they’re not sexy enough to follow. Watching Yennefer go through a physically traumatic process in order to “cure” her disability presents this idea that any pain is worth enduring to be physically beautiful, that a person already enduring trauma will do more if it can cure them of their problems. Because remember, disability is always seen in the media as a problem that shouldn’t exist in a perfect world. It isn’t enough that Yennefer is powerful and that she accomplished much on her own as a woman. Those features don’t mean much if she is physically imperfect. Once again, perfection only goes as far as her surface appearance.
Yennefer’s transformation is just one of several media performances wherein a disabled person is magically cured to promote the idea that normality equals physically abled. Earlier this year, in the DC superhero feature Shazam, physically disabled character Freddie Freeman (played by able-bodied actor Jack Dylan Grazer) is gifted superpowers that let him reach his “full potential.” When he transforms, it’s into a grown man who doesn’t need the crutches he uses as a child. The movie presents this as the ultimate get, that he can be disabled by day and “perfect” by night, ignoring how a disabled person would feel about having to transform into a body that is physically perfect one day only to return to their standard one the next. Regardless, Shazam says that to be a superhero, one must be physically perfect.
Similarly, other films like Detective Pikachu and the upcoming Spies in Disguise position villains, who have become disabled later in life, railing against society. In Detective Pikachu, corporate baddie Howard Clifford wants to turn himself and humanity into Pokémon so that everyone has the same abilities. Characters like these are bittered by their disabled circumstances and seek to create a world where everyone is the same. No matter what, disability is something to be avoided, bemoaned, and cured by any means necessary.
The Witcher does this same thing when it didn’t need to. This isn’t to say the series can’t delve into this subject more as the series progresses (it’s been greenlit for a second season), but right now it’s just a facet of genre fantasy we have to deal with. Tyrion Lannister can be physically disabled and showcase his power while wielding it effectively; disabled women aren’t afforded the same luxuries. Disabled women’s personalities in popular culture are too often tied into their looks and in order to have a beautiful heart, they must have a beautiful face. It would have been nice for The Witcher to explore this troubled history. For right now, it’s another example of a magical cure-all that says those of us with disabilities just wish we could be normal while ignoring that our normal works just fine.
Kristen Lopez is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, MTV, and The Hollywood Reporter.
Featured image: Netflix