At first glance, Yennefer of Vengerberg – the seductive sorceress from Netflix’s The Witcher – seems like a feminist icon.
Born poor, obscure, and deformed, she harnesses her magical abilities and becomes a powerful mage, magically trading in her ability to have children for sexual power and professional advancement. A poor, defenseless woman who takes control of her destiny and wields power over men - seems like a model modern-feminist woman.
All hail Yennefer.
Indeed, that’s how many people see her. Feminist fans of the show have adopted the character of Yennefer – played by Anya Chalotra – as a new addition to the feminist canon. On Twitter, for example, the praise flows freely. “Don’t forget that this is Yennefer of Vengerberg’s world and we just live in it,” wrote one Twitter user. “Yennefer baddest bitch of Vengerberg,” wrote another.
The ultimate feminist choice.
Critics also love the fact that Yennefer trades in her uterus – literally – in order to follow her ambition. “You get the sense that Yennefer will represent a lesson about how greatness can come from the people, women especially, who we overlook the most,” writes Alex Abad-Santos of Vox. Melissa Leon, of The Daily Beast, says Yennefer “relies on her trained magical abilities to get what she wants.”
This is a fairly typical modern-feminist refrain: it was the patriarchy that convinced you to stay home caring for your family, so get out there and get a job! This is exactly what Yennefer is trying to do. Her ambition and her desire to exact revenge on those who have mistreated her cause her to not think twice about doing whatever it takes to achieve what are essentially her career goals.
A fairly typical modern-feminist refrain.
This is a world that completely overlooks a poor, deformed farm drudge, but Yennefer refuses to be overlooked. She wants power, respect, sexual beauty, and authority. Which is fine, but in order to do this, she gives up her ability to ever become a mother. And fans and critics applaud this.
There’s only one problem: Yennefer regrets it.
“I believed it would be worth it,” she says. “That this would be my legacy, the greatest mage to ever grace court. Instead, I've spent the last three decades cleaning up stupid political messes.” Power and authority and sex appeal aren’t actually all they’re cracked up to be. And Yennefer realizes that the one thing that would give her life meaning – make her existence matter in some way – is motherhood. She suddenly wants the thing she gave up without a second thought: a baby.
Yennefer realizes that the one thing that would give her life meaning is motherhood.
It’s startling, actually – given the current trend of “empowered women” wielding swords and belittling men – to come across a character like Yennefer. A character who forcefully conveys what a loss it is to give up motherhood, but one who conveys too, the sacrifices inherent in being a woman. A character who shows that the idea of “having it all” – so beloved by feminists – is really a myth.
If we want hard-charging careers that take us out of the home, we sacrifice our time with our children – or the ability to have children at all. If we want to stay home full time with our children, we give up the accolades and intellectual stimulation of a career. Yennefer’s conviction that she made the wrong choice – and that motherhood is what brings true fulfillment – is a powerful battle cry for those of us who feel the same.
Feminist critics, of course, disagree.
Leon calls this change in Yennefer’s perspective “groan-worthy” and hopes that Yennefer’s shift away from sex and power “is clarified next season,” so we understand that she’s not just after a kid. Martin Holmes, of TV Insider, explains away Yennefer’s desire for motherhood by saying she was “never allowed to attain real power or influence because that's not the way the system is set up.” In other words, if this was a less patriarchal world, Yennefer would have been able to be as powerful as she’d wanted to be, and then she would have been content. As it is, Holmes’s critique implies, she’s still not powerful so she’s got to fall back on dreams of motherhood.
“We’re just vessels,” Yennefer says of women. “Even when we’re told we’re special … we’re still just vessels, for them to take and take until we’re empty and alone.” This, again, sounds like a modern-feminist talking point. You could even take this to mean that Yennefer is talking about women as mere vessels for childbearing. That’s all men think women are good for.
A seductive path to power and... pain.
But she’s talking about something else entirely. She’s talking about the way in which the transformation she thought would bring her power – becoming, as Abad-Santos calls her “a hot, booby witch” – has actually brought her only pain. It’s only in creating new life, in nurturing and caring for a child of her own creation, that Yennefer can find fulfillment. And she’s thrown that chance away to follow her ambition.
It’s only in creating new life, in nurturing and caring for a child of her own creation, that Yennefer can find fulfillment.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the things Yennefer does to wield her power – slaying a dragon, seducing men, making men do embarrassing things through magic – that have caused feminist fans to adopt her. But Yennefer’s character is very clear: none of those things are worth it. They all crumble to dust and are nothing but superficial pleasure. It’s motherhood – the thing modern-feminists have so gleefully scorned – that matters most. This isn’t a “groan-worthy” oversight on the part of the show’s creators. It’s the actual point.
We must acknowledge that each individual choice has consequences.
Characters like Yennefer ask us to take stock. If we wait too long to have children because we’re pursuing a career, we may find we’re too old to conceive. If we have children and leave them in the care of someone else so that we can go out and fulfill our professional goals, we may find that we regret missing pivotal moments in our children’s development.
It isn’t that we can’t have careers or lives outside the home or interests beyond our children. It’s simply that we must acknowledge that each individual choice has consequences. What’s so poignant about Yennefer’s story is the truth of these choices: you can’t take them back. So choose wisely.