CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt has more ambitious women than beautifully animated hairs on Geralt’s head. Women win brawls, hunt witches, and even travel through space and time. But neither the game’s men nor its designers themselves treat in-game women as equally capable, despite their accomplishments – and no group demonstrates that dynamic better than the Lodge of Sorceresses. Whether CD Projekt Red realized it or not, they created a secretive gang of badass beauty queens who get dissed by everyone around them – and who have more than a few parallels to powerful women in the real world.
Geralt of Rivia, the main character, is a man who would rather deal with ogres than politics but that doesn’t stop Geralt’s life from constantly intersecting with political wheeling and dealing. Among his closest companions are several members of the Lodge of Sorceresses, a secretive, all-female alliance that influences rulers from Nilfgaard to Redania. In The Witcher 3, the Lodge is essential to Geralt’s quest: defeating the Wild Hunt and saving Ciri, Geralt’s foster daughter.
Geralt is a cool dude with even cooler hair. But this article is not about Geralt. This article is about the Lodge, and how The Witcher 3 portrays women who aren’t afraid to seek and wield power. After all, we don’t need Geralt’s Witcher senses to tell us that women in modern leadership positions are still considered suspicious or unseemly. They’re mocked and assaulted. Their critics tear them down by saying they’re too feminine or not feminine enough.
Does this sound familiar? It should. In the world of The Witcher series, two facts about women who use magic make the Lodge of Sorceresses so compelling. First, magic users are incredibly powerful. They’re rare, and people born with magical abilities must either train or go mad. Most mages attend Ban Ard (if they’re boys) or Aretuza (if they’re girls), which are like Hogwarts, but Polish and more metal. Second, the Continent is not a progressive place when it comes to gender roles. Women aren’t supposed to be witchers, make armor, or rule countries. When specific characters (Ciri, Yoanna, and Cerys, respectively) break these rules, they get dismissed or ridiculed.
Combine rare abilities with social power and you’ve got an explosive combination. Before The Witcher 3 begins, not one but two kings bite the bullet, and the Lodge is charged with the deaths of Foltest and Demavend. Although a few of its members did actually want to kill the kings, most of them weren’t involved in the assassinations…but all of them pay the price.
I picked up The Witcher 3 without knowing any of this. However, as I trudged deeper and deeper into The Witcher 3’s labyrinthine quests, I became obsessed – but not with Bleach Blonde Fabio. I was obsessed with the Lodge. First there was Yennefer of Vengerberg, with her ability to get shit done, her tempestuous past with Geralt, and hair that looked like she’d just strode out of Fantasy Drybar. Then there was Keira Metz, who was bitingly clever and never hid what she wanted: power, security, and – openly – a booty call. When Triss Merigold appeared in Novigrad, I was hooked again. A flame-throwing sorceress who put her life on the line for her fellow mages? I ate her storyline up.
And yet, few people – within the game and outside of it – seemed to share my view, including the game developers themselves. The way the sorceress characters look in The Witcher 3 takes away from their power rather than adding to it. To a one, the sorceresses wear clothing that’s more ostentatious and revealing than any other characters, except maybe the unnamed ‘strumpets’ who wander the streets of Novigrad in packs. Keira’s dress invites the player to stare at her breasts, and Triss’s cleavage is so impressive I always worried she would throw out her back. Whenever a cutscene with Yennefer plays, the camera follows her butt and boobs like a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon. Even poor Margarita Laux-Antille gets sexed up: Geralt finds her in prison wearing rags that barely cover her breasts, and she never gets a wardrobe change in subsequent scenes. According to canon, the sorceresses can cosmetically enhance themselves with magic, but did they all sign a blood oath to change their cup size to DDD?
If you think I’m being nitpicky, I am. But that’s because the things these characters say and do contrast with the way they are perceived and represented.
First, let’s tackle how they’re perceived. Despite the sorceresses’ stereotypical attractiveness, male characters throw their femininity in their faces whenever these men feel threatened or upset. When Yennefer becomes part of the court at Kaer Trolde, a disgruntled Skelliger tells Geralt, “She was dressed all in black and white. If not for her tits, you’d think she was a beached orca.” No need to connect any dots here: the villager is freaked out by a woman looking and acting differently than he’s used to, so he says she’s ugly.
Later, the spymaster Dijkstra unleashes Philippa, the founder of the Lodge of Sorceresses, after she’s been trapped in her owl form. Part of Philippa’s escape from Dijkstra’s bathhouse involves convincing Geralt that he needs her for her political savvy. “Fat fucking chance, Geralt,” snarls Dijkstra, “I wouldn’t trust this cunt to hard-boil my eggs!”
Charming, isn’t it? The line is played for laughs, but all it does is remind me of another politician. This man, when backed into a corner by a talented female journalist during a debate, tried to brush the woman off later by saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.”
Now for how the sorceresses are represented. At one point, after Yennefer orders the witchers of Kaer Morhen to bring her supplies for a project she won’t discuss, Vesemir tells Geralt, “I understand she’s a – well, how do I put this? Emancipated, strong-willed woman…but do manners count for nothing?” Yennefer’s every action drips ‘emancipated’ and ‘strong-willed.’ She seizes the position of court sorceress for Emperor Emhyr, then uses her newfound power to help find Ciri. When the Wild Hunt attacks Kaer Morhen, she defends the castle with a massive shield that she sustains with nothing but willpower. To Vesemir however, her perceived brusqueness is almost enough to tip the scales on all of that. And who can blame him? It’s hard to take her über-languid stride and high-heeled boots seriously sometimes. Her words seem to command us, but her character model suggests that we pay attention to… well, other things.
Remember that someone took care to design that stride and those heels. The game designers who made Yennefer and the rest of the Lodge created their character models in the image of our greatest fantasies.
Back to our world – you know, the place where a bevy of talented, ambitious, powerful women just admitted that Harvey Weinstein, that sentient bucket of nekker poo, assaulted or raped them over multiple decades of target abuse. Now let’s imagine that our world plays host to a secret society of the globe’s most powerful women. Angela Merkel’s in it. Oprah is a member. Hillary Clinton? You better believe. Christine Lagarde and Sheryl Sandberg are part of this secret society, and so are Beyoncé and Anna Wintour. This society’s goal: to keep women relevant in entertainment, politics, and business. Maybe this theoretical society isn’t 100% legal, but it has a noble goal, at least in principle.
Finally, imagine that the society’s existence gets leaked and everyone finds out. The internet might actually break. Newscasters would rip into these women, and Twitter would call for their arrest. A government investigation digs into the group’s communication. Maybe the investigation brings charges. Maybe some of these women lose their jobs, or their houses, or their families.
The Lodge of Sorceresses doesn’t seem so fantastical now, does it?
Triss, Yennefer, Keira, and the rest are each smart, fiery, and beautiful. Each of them gets a compelling storyline. What makes these characters truly compelling, though, is that they’re not in charge of those stories. We hear about the Lodge constantly, and the sorceresses play a crucial role in defeating the Wild Hunt, but when the women get screen time, their powerful status is downplayed in favor of their breasts. Sounds like a lot of real women we all know.CD Projekt Red had the chance to create nuanced portraits of these characters. They could have critiqued the power men hold in our own world by pointing out all the times that misogyny prevents the sorceresses from achieving their goals. Sometimes, though principally with other characters, the game even succeeds in doing that. For the most part, though, it upholds an old and boring balance of power.
That’s not to say I disliked the game. I loved it, actually. As bored as I sometimes was by Bleach Blonde Fabio and his too-realistic nipples, I smiled like an idiot every time he and Ciri had a father-daughter bonding scene. In my heart of hearts, I wished that the game had let me inhabit the minds of Yennefer and Triss instead of undressing them.
Maybe then I would have found what I was looking for.