Fantasy movies, shows, video games, and books that are geared toward an adult audience tend to repeat the same mistakes when it comes to how they portray sexuality—exploiting female bodies while adhering to archaic notions of what sex was like in the Middle Ages in Europe. (Hello, Game of Thrones.) But the latest fantasy saga, The Witcher, has given us a show that approaches fantasy sex in a more nuanced and, well, human way.
When I watched the first season of The Witcher, the biggest surprise (other than the timey-wimey stuff) was how it handled sex and nude scenes. They were...pretty good. Not perfect, mind you, but better than we’ve seen in the past. It was refreshing because not only are we used to sexuality and exploitation going hand-in-hand in adult-focused fantasy sagas, but this was based on a book series and video game franchise that’s had its share of issues—whether it was author Andrzej Sapkowski’s love of describing female breasts or how Geralt’s sexual conquests were collectible cards in the first game.
Fantasy stories based on European lore, epitomized by Lord of the Rings, take heavy inspiration from the medieval period. The problem with this is sometimes that means creators feel the need to hold onto the outdated standards of the time instead of...creating whatever world they want. Even though these are stories where elves, dwarves, and magic exist, European-inspired fantasy sagas lean into this notion that they have to be “historically accurate.” Oftentimes this means making women subservient and removing people of colour from the narrative entirely. And when it comes to adult stories, this often results in mishandling marginalised characters by featuring instances of sexual violence, exploitation of sex workers, and systemic discrimination.
The Witcher isn’t free of those issues, the first episode being the most egregious. Not only does Renfri share that she was raped by Stregobor’s man as part of a prophecy, we get a bunch of nude women as “living” works of art in his tower for Stregobor to gawk at whenever he pleases. It made me concerned that we were, indeed, getting another Game of Thrones because it came across like another adult-focused fantasy where women’s bodies are treated as set dressing. On the whole, there are far more naked women than men in the series, which includes full-frontal nudity for female extras, although that’s par for the course for Hollywood.
We don’t actually see a man’s arse until episode five, which I would consider the best episode in the series so far in how it represents sexuality. Here we get a positive example of representative sexuality. In “Bottled Appetites,” which was directed by a woman (Charlotte Brändström), we meet a Doppler (a shapeshifter) who’s taken on the form of a young man. We see them shed their clothes and marvel at their body in a mirror. It’s rare in fiction to see men admiring their naked bodies, or even to showcase them at all outside of a sexual context. Usually, a film or show’s “gaze” of men’s bodies is limited to watching them perform physical feats, like working out (as we infamously saw in 50 Shades Darker).
In the same episode, Yennefer uses her magic to help a couple with erectile dysfunction as part of her efforts to “heal the town” of its sexual repression. As part of her quest (and also for revenge), she later casts a spell to create an orgy-like fête for the people of the town. It’s a little funny to watch, as a lot of it involves mimed hand motions and fluid repetitive movements—almost like a dance—but it definitely feels different than say, Westworld. No one is having penetrative sex, at least not explicitly. It’s a group of people enjoying each other’s bodies, slowly and sensually. That said, it is still problematic to be magically influencing others to engage in sexual practices.
In The Witcher, intercourse serves a purpose. We weren’t visiting brothels to watch side characters bang random sex workers, like in Game of Thrones or Westworld. It didn’t feel like sex was there to titillate or serve the male gaze. This was something showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich previously said was a priority for her in making the series. “From the beginning, I said that The Witcher’s sex scenes would always be shown for a reason, we wouldn’t show sex as a means of exploitation, power or shock. It’s something I’m very proud of,” the showrunner told Hobby Consolas (translated from Spanish via Redanian Intelligence).
There are only a couple of sex scenes in the first season of The Witcher. The first is between Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) and Istredd (Royce Pierreson) in the third episode (I’m not including the scene between Geralt and Renfri as that was implied, not shown). This scene served to represent Yennefer’s desire for power, control, and validation, right down to her ignoring Istredd’s request to dismiss the vision of sorcerers watching their act. And as Kristen Lopez noted in her piece about how The Witcher approaches disability narratives, it was powerful because it bucked traditional storylines that depict women with disabilities as non-sexual beings (though Lopez had other concerns about the series).
“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,” Lopez wrote for Gizmodo. “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.”
The other major sex scene is the moment Yennefer and Geralt make love after surviving the djinn encounter in “Bottled Appetites.” The music was fun and the mood was silly, with Jaskier and Chireadan watching through the window. However, much like the earlier orgy scene, it disguised a larger problem in that Geralt and Yennefer’s sexual chemistry was (possibly) under an influence. It was implied that their connection had been manufactured by Geralt’s final djinn wish—the assumption of which by Yennefer eventually breaks their relationship apart.
The Witcher handles fantasy sex and sexuality in a refreshing way, bucking tropes that shows like Game of Thrones have long played into. Sex feels human and natural, (mostly) serving the story and characters instead of just being a way to earn that NSFW rating. Much like The Magicians, it treats sex as an experience and (more often than not) eschews the male gaze in favour of something better. That said, there are ways the series can continue to grow and improve in how it shows sexuality in season two and beyond. The amount of nudity between men and women ought to be equalised and there should be space for non-heterosexual relationships (like we saw in American Gods).
Also, can we please see the Witcher’s arse? I’m sure Henry Cavill has a clause in his contract or something, but I don’t care if it’s a butt double. That’s what Joey Tribbiani is for.
The Witcher’s first season is currently available on Netflix, and it’s already been renewed for season two.