A couple of years ago my husband got very into The Witcher video game, books, and the card game Gwent. Eventually, he convinced me to play The Witcher video game with him, which I enjoyed very much even if all of the different monsters and provinces started to blur. So when Netflix spent millions on a TV series starring Henry Cavill, of course my husband was incredibly excited, and we watched it all in one weekend during our winter vacation.
The show is an adaptation of the first book, which predates the action in the game by quite a bit. It’s an origin story of sorts for several of the main characters and describes how they are connected with each other, including the Socercess Yennefer (pictured below). If you haven’t watched it and want to avoid all spoilers, save this until you watch it and stop reading now.
Going into it I didn’t know much about Yennefer’s background and how she became a sorceress. I was only familiar with her as an important sorceress who uses her powers to keep yourself permanently young and beautiful. The Netflix show reveals that she comes from an abusive family who abuses her because she has a twisted spine that gives her a hump in her upper back.
That was honestly a shock to me. It was hard watching her degraded and discriminated against by her family and then her new community at the school for sorceresses.
However, the hardest part was when she trades her womb in order to transform herself: she straightens her spine and her jaw and becomes classically “beautiful.” The transformation is physically painful and was incredibly emotionally painful for me to watch. Because it was Netflix, my husband did not realize that they were going to demonstrate her transformation, let alone so graphically. It came out of left field for me and it really bothered me to see her transform so painfully and to make herself fit others’ beliefs regarding what a beautiful woman looks like and should be. It felt like a huge loss and not just because the character also had to give up her ability to reproduce.
As a result, of the transformation, she is tall and slender with long hair (previously she had short hair). She impresses and amazes everyone, especially those who had dismissed or abused her previously. She gains power and prestige due to her beauty: literally convincing a royal that she be his court’s sorceress because she is NOW gorgeous.
I was hurt and disappointed that she had to go through that to feel worthy and loved (even though she had a loving partner before the transformation).
At the same time, I also had my own transformation. It was driven by medical necessity. Without surgery, I would have died, so it was not an actual choice. I’m not sure what I would have done if the surgery was optional, especially if I would have only had it to straighten my spine for aesthetic reasons. I was lucky—because of my S-curve, I only had a mild hump. At the time, the pain I was in was much more pressing for me than how I looked.
However, I would hope that I wouldn’t have been convinced that having surgery would have been necessary to be loved and valued.
I especially found it sad that although Yennefer makes this choice, she eventually comes to regret her loss of fertility—I would have been curious to know if she regretted the whole transformation or only that she had to sacrifice her fertility for it.
Seven months later I’m still thinking about this and wondering, especially because there are so few mentions of scoliosis or spinal deformation (much as I hate that word) in popular culture. I hope the next time I come across one it’s not just a hindrance to the character before they make themselves traditionally attractive especially not if it costs them their fertility (which conveniently means that they cannot pass on any genetic predisposition for spinal deformations).
I wonder if that is something that the makers of the show thought was preferable. Do they want people with disabilities to not reproduce if there’s a chance they might pass on their disabilities? If so, where would we draw the line? Any disabilities or any genetic predisposition for disabilities even if they themselves don’t have a disability?
I hope to have children someday despite my disabilities—part of the difficulty is that there is little information on scoliosis’s genetic link and how it can be passed on through generations. There is even less evidence on what type or extent of scoliosis a child might have – it could be barely discernable or require extensive and life-saving surgery like mine. How do you make a decision with information (or lack of information) like that?
However, I wonder if people will judge me for wanting children even though millions (perhaps even billions) of people reproduce every year without knowing about the likelihood of their future children having a disability.
Do they think that people like me are less worthy?
I wonder and worry about this: so when I see a show like The Witcher, it’s like a gut punch. I’d rather watch all the gory monster fights than that one transformation scene.