Gender treatment in The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone

So let’s kick this off. One thing that anyone who reads my blog will quickly come to notice is that I’m all about gender equality. It’s an issue that’s become important to me over the past six months or so, and now that I’m aware of it I can’t unsee it (and nor do I want to). It’s incredibly deeply ingrained into every part of society and upending that is going to take massive social and cultural effort. I’m still investigating how I can play a part in this.

I’m a big Witcher fan. I’ve played all three games and own eight of the books, though I haven’t read them all as I bought them in an effort to step up my Polish skills (the language they’re originally in). As I’m a Pole living in Australia, and as my first language is English, usage of Polish in conversation with my family and family friends is often casual and not all that frequent. Anyway, not the point.

I played The Witcher 3 when it first came out and haven’t really touched it since. Only just now have I gotten around to getting the expansion pass and am working my way through Hearts of Stone. It’s here where I noticed some gender issues that jarred me a little.

Spoilers for The Witcher 3, Hearts of Stone, and the other two games follow.

Now, I’ll be honest and say that I don’t remember how the base game was with regards to portrayal of gender. I remember the important characters, of course, and I’ll get to their portrayal later, but I don’t remember the more subtle stuff, the “everyday” interactions in the setting and how women are portrayed in that. This is important, for reasons I’ll also get to a little later. I just wanted to state up front that I’ve been away from the world of The Witcher for a while, so that’s going to affect my perspective.

To the details: Vlodimir’s character and his possession of Geralt. While controlling Geralt’s body, Vlodimir was pretty crass about wanting to get with practically any woman he could lay his eyes on, and this was reiterated over and over again during the wedding, and it was pretty evident he didn’t really care about the women themselves. He only cared about having sex with them. Particularly the bit where he lunges at Shani and forces her to kiss him struck me as not okay.

Now, this sort of thing can be done intentionally in order to make us dislike a character, make us see him as a crude person, and Geralt does disapprove of Vlodimir’s actions, but it all comes down to the extent these character traits are used and what for.

Imagine if a character is a racist. If only a passing character, racism can be used to paint a character in a negative light, but if it’s a major or important character then there needs to be a story behind the racism. It needs in-character justification (even if misguided). Rarely will racism be used to define a character without some attention being given as to why the character is like this.

We’re at the point in awareness of gender inequality that the same standards need to apply to portrayal of women. The setting of The Witcher has always featured cultural issues, particularly racism. The unrest between humans and non-humans (elves and dwarves, mainly) was a major plot point in both the first and second games, though it shrinks a little in The Witcher 3. We see that unrest reflected in the setting: in Vizima, there’s a part of the city where non-humans tend to congregate to try and find safety in numbers.

The same in-universe justification is not given to why women are frequently objectified and made second-best to men. It’s not outright, by the way, but look at the gender spread of characters and it’ll become evident that this is a male-dominated setting, and nowhere is this issue confronted like the racial divide is.

The Witcher has some strong female characters, in the likes of Triss, Ves, Yennefer, Sile and of course Ciri, who’s pretty much the main focus of the third game. The games do well in this regard, but there’s still definitely a gender gap in the setting, and women are often only connected with the context of household work and sex. In Hearts of Stone, we see this when Olgierd and Geralt come down to talk with The Wild Ones, and Olgierd says to a woman “Go and fetch us food and drink.” (I don’t remember the exact words.) The woman comes back and one of the other men slaps her on the butt, and Olgierd reprimands him, and we then learn she’s the daughter of the owner of the manor. Olgierd’s words are “Is that any way to treat the owner’s daughter?” (Again, not sure of the exact wording.) Notice it’s not about whether it’s okay to treat a woman in this way, it’s only because of her “status” that he speaks out.

Vlodimir takes the issue much further, basically wanting to seduce women just to have sex with them. It’s evident in pretty much anything he says. The forced kiss with Shani is the pinnacle of it, and her reaction is pretty muted. She reprimands him, and he concedes and says “next time, I shall ask”, but again only because she’s said something to him. His attitude is that sex is something for the taking from women.

As mentioned before, The Witcher has some strong female characters, but it also had the sex cards in the first game (ugh), so it’s got a pretty mixed portrayal of women overall, and that’s why this comes back down to the setting. How does Vlodimir’s behaviour fit into the setting? How does the setting treat these issues? For me, Vlodimir’s conduct stuck out a lot, and I don’t think enough in-character justification was given for it. I also don’t think the writing did a good enough job of painting this behaviour as unacceptable.

Don’t get me wrong: The Witcher 3 is a stellar game. This is the first major blip against it that has come up on my radar, but I’m hoping that the rest of Hearts of Stone, and the Blood and Wine expansion after that, lives up to the quality of writing that we’re all used to.

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