Witcher 3 is not a sexist game. Witcher 3 is a game which depicts sexism. Unfortunately, these nuances appear to have been largely lost to modern culture. We crave endless wish-fulfillment; swathes of Whedonesque, quipping heroines who falter rarely and are always better, faster and cleverer than the crass boys they shepherd. And this desire may ultimately be more harmful to us than a simple acknowledgment of our past and current faults as a society.
The “Moral Universe” of a Fiction
Every item of fiction inhabits its own moral universe. It has to, by its very nature: it determines the reality of what is, which is developed and described by its writers – intentionally or unintentionally so. In Witcher 3, women are not stupider than men.
They aren’t even shown to be generally physically weaker than men. They’re certainly not seen to be any meaner, short-tempered or crass. The exceptional women are as commonplace as the exceptional men. The world of Witcher 3, the universe of it all, sees men and women as equal.
But that doesn’t mean the society in Witcher 3 does. The society, which is based on a historical time period, is still heavily tilted in the favor of men, and the common people follow this rule. Moreover, is there any value in white-washing this struggle and pretending that men and women have always been equal? Creating placating realms of fantasy in which everyone is an amorphous, genderless blob without interpersonal conflict?
No – in fact, there’s a danger to it. That is precisely how you end up with a generation of individuals who believe that gender roles are dead and that gender issues, both men’s rights and women’s rights, are insignificant.
So if Witcher 3 is a work that depicts sexism, what would a sexist work be? Take the Wheel of Time series – and this isn’t a value judgment on the series itself – in which men and women are inherently different, and women wield powers in a separate, alien and frightening way to the men who serve them.
The Role of Geralt as a Moral Center
A depiction of a sexist world can quickly become loathsome should the main character contribute to it – but, though Geralt prefers to stay out of things, his comments do reveal that he has a strong moral center. We can assume safely, as Geralt is the person we are to most identify with, that his value have some merit.
As an example, with the Baron and Anna – light spoilers – it’s discovered fairly early on in the game that the Baron was beating his wife. Many players forgive the Baron this trespass, because he becomes quite likable later on. But going down Geralt’s dialog lines, it’s clear that he still blames the Baron. Geralt may be a neutral party politically, but he’s always been moral on an individual capacity. Think: not true neutral, but neutral good.
The Great, Grand Sex Debate
We can’t fight sex. Better, more powerful people than us have tried. Entire governments and churches have tried. Interestingly, though, our culture is one of the few that appears to conflate sexuality with sexism. And, ironically, that’s largely because of our American, puritanical upbringing.
Geralt can have sex with a few characters in this game (or not at all, if you so choose). For the most part, when Geralt has sex it’s usually either a casual fling or he’s being used by someone. There’s rarely a power imbalance involved, and if there is, it’s never in Geralt’s favor.
Geralt is as sexualized as any of the women in the game. The game opens with him naked in a bath, he gets dressed in pretty clothes multiples times and he spends an entire sequence in a towel. He’s seen as, essentially, a sex toy to many women in the game. Is that a bit of fantasy? Of course it is. Is that a bad thing? Is it better to love playing a character that is really good at killing stuff, than a character that’s really good at sex?
Why does our culture believe violence is more acceptable?
It’s strange to have to say this in 2015, but here goes: sex is not an inherently bad thing. Sexy people are not inherently bad. If we are to consider women wanting sex to be sexist, then we have deeper problems we need to address. (And it isn’t just about sex, either — Geralt gets teary eyed at a song about Yennifer.)
Strong, Confident and Ruthless – the Men and Women of the World
Everyone in Geralt’s world sucks. With a few exceptions, absolutely everyone is an asshole in this game. Especially those in power. Even Geralt isn’t innocent of this; the whole reason Yennifer and his relationship is so toxic is because he wished to tie his fate to hers.
So when you see both men and women being assholes, you shouldn’t be surprised. But the interesting thing is that female characters undergo far more criticism than male characters – just as women in our culture often undergo more criticism than men.
If you write a female character who is bumbling and cruel, you’re sexist – if you write a male character who is bumbling and cruel, no one says a word. This higher elevation of standards for female characters is harmful in addition to being overly sensitive.
The major female characters tend to be powerful sorceresses, but of course they do. In the world of Witcher 3, the women have to work hard to obtain their power. It’s not a value judgment on women as a gender: it’s a reality of the society that they live in.
Let’s not forget that the core of Witcher 3 is the story of a mother and father trying to find their lost child – a daughter who is probably the most powerful being in the game.
Now, Playing Devil’s Advocate
The Witcher 3 could be seen as sexist in one major way, but it has nothing to do with its depiction of women and everything to do with its depiction of Geralt and Triss’ relationship. Triss’ relationship in Witcher 1 and Witcher 2 was essentially one long con on Geralt, and could be seen as rape by deception. She erased his memories and convinced him he was in love with her; it’s brutally amoral, and considered to be “redeemed” because she helped get his memories back.
Though referenced throughout Witcher 3, Yennifer treats it as Geralt’s fault and Geralt doesn’t particularly seem to blame Triss, even if he’s a bit punchy about it. In fact, he can even go back to her and forgive everything (he can also forgive her in Witcher 2). Imagine the genders changed on this situation, and you can almost feel the outcry. (And yes, we do see more women in sexual situations than men. But, well, that’s probably because Geralt is having sex with them, and he’s straight and male.)
Witcher 3 is not a perfect game. But we cannot achieve a better, more egalitarian world through the denial that sexism ever existed at all, through a rewriting of our own culture, fingers in our ears, going la la la la la. We can’t demand that every female character in existence is better than every male character at absolutely everything, in some weird form of fictional affirmative action. It’s not helpful and, frankly, it’s not interesting.
More importantly, we need to stop absolutely freaking out every time a new piece of media is released. As a culture, we’ve become so relentlessly uptight and addicted to argument that we can’t seem to enjoy our own achievements. Some level of consideration and criticism is always warranted, but absolute moral panic rarely is. If we continue down this path, we’ll end up with bland, reductionist media, only created to serve as a soothing, emotional hug box.