When I was 22, I wrote my first personal essay on disability and media.1 The Hunger Games film had just come out, and I crafted an essay on Katniss’s hearing loss in the book, a loss brought on in the Arena and subsequently fixed by the Gamemakers at the conclusion of the book. I delved into the sinister motivations behind their actions to heal Katniss, and I wrote the sentence, “I would not want that ‘cure.’”
Every time I think of that essay, I wonder if I wrote a lie. I have very little memory of my mindset eight years ago; I must take my words on the page at face value, but it is hard for me to recall ever having such uncomplicated feelings regarding my hearing loss. Did I believe what I wrote, or was I merely conscious of what I should want as a burgeoning disability activist, and simply overwrote my doubts?
I rarely write publicly about my internalized ableism, or at least, not in its full, unsanitized form. I am so careful, always, because to be disabled is to constantly fight against the narrative that we are incomplete, that we are lesser, that we need to be “fixed.” I wrote a graphic novel with a hard-of-hearing protagonist who is allowed to simply be, whose disability is not a source of angst in her story. It gave me great joy to make her hearing loss and hearing aids an asset to her work as a witch. I consider myself an advocate, and the most gratifying part of releasing Mooncakes has been listening to disabled children and adults tell me how much Nova Huang means to them. It is important to me that people see a proud disabled creator, and I do not want them to see my own struggles with internalized ableism, for fear it may only add to their own.
So I cannot talk about the voices that whisper to me constantly, the ones that still wish so badly to be rid of my disability. I have done so much work, had so many therapy sessions, attempted every type of catharsis I know, and still, I’ll admit it here: I wish I wasn’t hard of hearing. I would take that cure.
I hate it, and I fight against the voices, because I know why they are there. I know that it is because we live in a world that glorifies ability and will not give an inch of accommodation unless there is a fight. I know it’s because even the people closest to me sigh impatiently when I ask them to repeat themselves, and I get glares when I sit in accessible seating because I don’t “look disabled.” And it’s because we still have shows like The Witcher.
In promos, The Witcher appeared so far up my alley that Netflix might as well have personally wrapped it in a bow and card labeled “For Suzanne.” I watched the first episode not knowing what to expect beyond “Henry Cavill, fantasy, muscles, and girls with swords,” and I was not disappointed. The plot was confusing and nonsensical, and I did not care, because the first episode gifted us with gorgeous fight choreography, multiple warrior women, and a horse named Roach. Although it featured an unfortunate fridging situation, it lacked the sexual violence of so many other fantasy shows, and it featured multiple characters of color in both principal and background roles. Despite its structural issues, I developed huge crushes on Renfri, Calanthe, and Tissaia (for all their complexities and flaws), and watching Geralt and Jaskier the Bard left me cackling with glee. I hadn’t enjoyed myself like this while watching a fantasy show in a long time, if ever, and I was excited to continue with it.
At some point between watching the first and second episodes, I was alerted to a massively ableist plotline that peaks in episode three, “Betrayer Moon.” I explicitly spoiled myself, because I saw disabled mutuals on Twitter who’d been caught massively off-guard, and I wanted to be ready. I’m not sure if preparing for it helped.
The viewer meets Yennefer in the second episode, a young woman with a physical disability who is bullied and abused by local villagers and her own family. Born with a curved spine and partial facial paralysis, we first see her attempting to return a flower lost by her neighbors, who immediately attack and belittle her. When her magical abilities are revealed, she is taken to Aretuza, a school for girl mages. There she continues to be abused by her teacher, Tissaia, but by the conclusion of the episode, she begins to exert some control over her magic, and by extension, a sense of agency over her own life.
I’m often frustrated with disabled characters constantly being given superpowers or magic to make their disability matter less, but in this case I found myself not minding that Yennefer was a mage. Over the course of episodes two and three, several years pass, and she gains confidence in herself and her abilities despite the disdain others heap upon her. But the third episode quickly devolves into Yennefer’s focus on her “ascension,” the ritual through which she becomes a full sorceress. As part of the ascension process, an enchanter offers to alter her appearance. As she contemplates this, staring at her disabled body, Tissaia tells her to “free the victim in the mirror,” and my stomach clenched in dread, because I knew exactly what was coming.
The sequence in which Yennefer transforms is frankly nauseating in its implications. The show alternates between shots of Yennefer’s enchantment and Geralt of Rivia’s fight against a striga, a girl who has been cursed and turned into a monster. The fight is ugly and bloody, a mirror to Yennefer’s excruciating pain as her body is reshaped and molded. At the end, Yennefer has become a paragon of able-bodied beauty, while the striga has been turned back into a woman. The message could not be more clear: you are a monster, you are not human, unless you are what we consider to be “whole.”
I’ve already seen so many defenses of this plotline, and let me tell you, I do not care. I do not care if Yennefer, in the story, chose it. I know. I’d choose it too, because there has been so much pressure, all my life, for me to want that choice. When I was a child and cried about having to wear hearing aids, fearful of being teased, my mother’s response was to tell me she wished she could take my hearing loss away for me. Family members, authors, writers, showrunners, everyone in the world tells me that my body is not whole. That being unable to hear is something I have to fix, rather than anyone remotely trying to meet me at my level. And when these are the stories that continue to be told, rather than a story of a disabled mage making her way through the world, on her own terms, what else are we supposed to think?
What stings the most about this entire plot is that Yennefer is played by a mixed-race actress, in one of the rare cases where a woman of color plays a lead role in a fantasy show, unhampered by any of the white saviorism rampant in, e.g., Game of Thrones. Disability and race are intersections rarely explored in media, and POC disabled characters are even rarer. As a half-Lebanese disabled woman, I wanted so badly to find Yennefer empowering the way I have so many other white and WOC abled heroines. But every time I saw her on screen, all I could think of was how she’d gotten there and how much more meaningful she could have been, had the writers gone in a different direction.
There is so much missed opportunity in this character: she could have rejected the choice to change her body, and continued life as a disabled mage. Or, if the writers were set on her making that choice, she could have wrestled with regrets later in life, as she finds that being fully abled does not lead to the complete or satisfying life she hoped for. Instead, the writers tie all her regrets into her inability to have biological children (the ascension ritual involves a magical hysterectomy). She spends the next several episodes on a dogged quest to regain her fertility, an obsession that carries a whole set of exhausting, sexist implications separate from the ableism issue. It’s tiresome, it’s lazy, and it’s a jarring contrast from the rest of the show, which features some of the most nuanced, complex, realistic depictions of women and their relationships with each other that I’ve ever seen in fantasy TV.
It’s because of these relationships that I kept watching the show. The majority of the showrunners are women, and it has none of the sexual violence that permeates nearly every costume drama. Henry Cavill is a delight as Geralt, and Jaskier the Bard fills every one of my favorite tropes in fantasy media. The banquet episode is the most delighted I’ve been with a fantasy show in a long time. Between Geralt’s deadpan commentary, Jaskier’s snark, and Queen Calanthe in all her horrible, beer-and-battle-loving glory, it displayed everything I love about the fantasy genre and did it with female characters front and center alongside Geralt’s dour glare. Despite the ableism, despite the fertility plotline, despite the structural issues, it’s just plain fun.
It’s unfair that it’s so fun.
I’m tired of having to choose. I am half Arab, I am queer, I am disabled, and it’s not too much to ask for representation of the whole. I’m tired of seeing parts of myself in fiction while being told the other parts aren’t worthy. I’m tired of fighting against the voices that tell me my disability is an annoyance at best. I am tired of wanting a cure, when I know in my bones there is nothing to cure. I want to say I would not make Yennefer’s choice, and I want to be telling the truth.
I want narratives that help me realize that truth.
“Disability, the Lure of Escapism, and Making the Invisible Visible,” by Suzanne Walker. Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability. Temple University Press (2017).
© 2020 Suzanne Walker