A new Witcher 3 trailer has been released recently, and it’s rather lovely.
Personally, I rather enjoyed the trailer. It’s bog-standard “gritty” heroic fantasy, but it still stirs the teenage boy in me.
That aside, there was a short discussion online about whether it’s “sexist” or not.
Now, before going any further, I will say that one of the most aggravating aspects of these debates is the lack of nuance involved. People want it black and white. Either it’s good or it’s bad. Totally acceptable or monstrous and contemptible. People struggle with the idea that something might be a little bit problematic. Like, 5%. And, that it’s ok to enjoy something while still being critical of some aspects of it. Holding both the thoughts “I found this enjoyable” and “I see it manifesting a problematic pattern worth discussing” at the same time, about the same subject. It’s a real problem, this lack of nuance, and it taints these discussions. Discuss critically anything that someone somewhere enjoyed and you’re sure to see defensiveness.
Let’s try not to do that, in general, please.
That out the way, let’s examine the video. It’s a fairly straightforward damsel in distress scenario. Being a trailer, it’s got to communicate its context quickly, and generally writers achieve that by relying on cliches.
The Witcher is the morally conflicted, gritty anti-hero, the woman is the innocent victim, her persecutors are evil dudes.
Examine how you know this. The woman in the video is accused of “murder of the wounded, looting, cannibalism.” Now, those are nasty things to have done. If we thought it was true we might be convinced that we’re seeing a righteous punishment of the wicked. Which is what you see at the end of the trailer. Notice how you don’t feel sympathy for the dude about to be executed, whose crimes, that you can see, are punching a lady and almost executing her. Yet we don’t for a second entertain the notion that the woman is a monster being righteously punished for her wickedness. You don’t feel that same “Yes! The monster is getting its just deserts!” even though you don’t know for sure that she didn’t do those horrible things. We’re happy she escaped in the end, even though she may actually be a cannibal.
Why? It’s because we’re offered cliches, framing elements to guide our understanding of the context, and we easily latch onto them. Our minds slide into the comfortable, familiar grooves painted by the “language” of the scene.
The order comes from a distant Emperor, an Authority figure. We’ve instantly got the little guy vs The Man narrative to ground us in, reinforced by how it’s a group of dudes vs one defenseless person. The guards sound sneering and mean, so we definitely know they are bad people. And they are also beating her, which is a sure sign they are the evil ones. Because guards on the side of righteousness are upstanding, noble, and never take pleasure in pain.
Also, the woman is…a woman. Woman are generally seen to be more innocent than men, especially youthful, attractive women, and she’s crying for help (who wouldn’t cry for help?) Without any other cues at all, if you just had a young attractive woman in distress, the instinctive side to fall on is the woman as the victim. A crying woman, like a crying child, is a lazy writing shorthand. It tells you, the viewer, who you are supposed to sympathize with, without establishing via a proper narrative which character is actually most deserving of sympathy or justice. The cliche is a shortcut to character building.
So, in this case, the woman isn’t a character at all, she’s a symbolic representation of victimhood. Really, besides Geralt, none of the players in that scene is anything but an iconic representation of an idea. Which is fine…except that it’s problematic that the symbol of victimhood usually has one particular gender.
The problem comes back to the lazy shorthand, of using “woman” as a placeholder for “victim.” Yes, of course, women are often the victims of violence. It’s a scenario that can and does happen, in the past and in the present. But storytelling involves conscious choices. And the conscious choice being made, over and over, by writers, is to use “female” to mean “victim.”
Geralt is a locked character, from the narrative perspective. It has to be him in the role of the hero for it to be a Witcher game. The nature and roles of the rest of the characters are not. The victim could have been any gender. A male, wrongly accused by thuggish louts, beaten and about to be executed fits the scene as well as a quivering female. An old, fat woman also fits. You can slot just about any character in there and have them be sympathetic for the viewer, in that situation. But the choice was made to make it a young female.
And that one choice, alone, doesn’t mean anything. If the choice is random, and you happen to choose a young woman once, it means nothing. However, if you take a sample of 100 such trailers, sample them, and 70% or 80% or even 90% of the time, that victim role is filled by one particular variation of the many choices available, you know there is a bias at work, pulling the results away from pure randomness. This is how you evaluate the more subtle forms of bias, not by single anecdotes but by the pattern formed by all the anecdotes examined together as a group.
Now, I liked the Witcher trailer, as I said. But I can also see how it does fit into the damsel in distress trope, how the storytelling relies on lazy cliche, and how that trope fits into a greater pattern of sexism, which generally manifests in gaming as a bias toward certain cliches, certain narratives, repeated treatment of certain groups of characters in certain ways. There IS sexism there, even if unintended by the devs, and I say that even though I enjoyed the video overall.