Benjamin Rose, Editor
Those who have been active in the Witcher fandom for awhile know that since the summer of 2018, at least, when a casting call leaked for BAME actresses to audition for the role of Ciri, the Netflix production of The Witcher has been plagued by what we once tactfully referred to as “racial controversy” (See: https://thepathwitcher.blog/2019/12/15/the-witchers-response-to-racial-controversy/ ). This had little (read: nothing) to do with a substantial discussion of the Slavic character of the Witcher at the time. Most people who chose to devote energy to the subject were more concerned with generating pornographic memes on reddit than engaging seriously with the question of whether a racially diverse cast drawn from Anglo-American actors could do justice to the Eastern roots of the franchise. It is one thing, a few argued, to diversify a monolithically white work of fantasy like The Lord of the Rings which is explicitly patterned on Northwestern European myth; its another thing to adapt an Eastern fantasy written in Polish by a Polish author whose nation was historically a victim of colonialism by other European powers, not a perpetrator. Yet, as in most things involving race, this room for nuance was almost immediately lost. Three years and some very credible work by the likes of actors such as Anya Chalotra, Royce Pierreson, Mimi Khayisa, and Mahesh Jadu have done, predictably, nothing to assuage much of the racist whining over “forced diversity” in the Witcher one still encounters on Rotten Tomatoes, reddit, IMDB, Twitter, or wherever the basement dweller crawls, creeps, flies, and swims. One imagines even the targets of such opprobrium have largely gotten over it. “God bless them” said Lenny Henry dismissively during the rollout of The Rings of Power. Or, as others put it, “Get a job.”
Yet the backlash over casting that has become a staple of every modern fantasy show shouldn’t obscure the fact that all representation isn’t created equal, especially when representation goes from being a novelty to the norm. There is some representation that gives the world fully-fledged three dimensional characters who allow audiences to identify with persons from marginalized groups as human beings, be they good or evil. There is some that doesn’t. This is important, as Neil de Grasse Tyson recently pointed out in a different context, for both the marginalized group and the dominant one (See: Neil DeGrasse Tyson Turns Tables on Chris Wallace Race Question: ‘How Important Is It For White People To See Me Where I Am?’ (msn.com)). If it’s important for black boys to see they can be astrophysicists, or for Pakistani girls to see they can be superheroes (i.e. Ms. Marvel), it’s equally if not more important for white boys and white girls to see that Jamal can do more than play football and Fatima isn’t a terrorist. This is best achieved when, as in shows like Ms. Marvel or The Last Of Us (particularly episode 3), “diverse” characters feel authentic and not mere props for political posturing. As Riz Ahmed described best in his article on racial profiling and the “three stages of representation” in film some years ago:
“Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace. Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace. And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.” (Typecast as a terrorist | Islam | The Guardian).”
These characters exist in the continuum between Stages Two and Three in his framework. They feel like someone you could have a beer (or, uh, chai) with and don’t come across as a mere prop thrown into the mix to yell at you about your unacknowledged systemic white supremacy and hegemonic toxic masculinity, even if they actually do mention those things at times. That sort of LGBT or BAME character who exists merely to shame white men into hating themselves is little more than an exercise in virtue signaling, a bizarro mirror of the Stage 1 stereotype who goes from portraying their group as monolithically evil to monolithically good, which is a nice fantasy, until it isn’t. All people are gray to a degree, and blind belief in you or your group’s own moral infallibility is the root of every mass atrocity ever enacted. It was the basis of the Holocaust and European colonialism. It is the basis of the Israeli settler movement and the colonization of the West Bank, as well as the Hindu supremacist shift in India under Narendra Modi.* For a character who falls outside the majoritarian boundaries of a culture to be compelling, they don’t have to be apolitical. They can certainly be some generically-named guy like “Dave” or “Ruben Stone” played by a British Pakistani Muslim named Riz Ahmed. But in The Last Of Us episode 3, we see an example of Stage 2 representation, namely queer representation, at its best that makes the efforts of many other shows look frankly embarrassing, The Witcher among them.
The Last of Us episode 3’s plot has been discussed elsewhere, namely here (https://thepathwitcher.blog/2023/02/02/bill-and-franks-excellent-adventure-the-last-of-us-episode-3-review/ ) and in our upcoming podcast. What sets it apart from hamfisted exercises like The Witcher: Blood Origin and its nonsensical queering of Eredin, for example, is craft. As this rather odious article (The Witcher Showrunner Explains Blood Origin’s Different Take on Eredin and The Wild Hunt – Redanian Intelligence) points out (complete with the usual “quote the actor and pretend his uniformed commentary is relevant” nonsense), the decision to rewrite canon and make Eredin gay was not driven by serious character analysis. Eredin is a notoriously one-dimensional, sociopathic character to whom the word “love” would strike any reader of The Lady of the Lake or player of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as anathema. Eredin does not “love” anything but power. His sexuality is irrelevant. It simply has never been portrayed up to this point. Yet the writers of Blood Origin found it necessary to invent for him a sexuality and a lover named “Brían” simply to plug a hole in the script. They needed Merwyn to have a source of leverage over him. Add in a bullshit accent mark over the ‘I’ to make a pedestrian name sound “exotic” and Bob’s yer uncle. I have no respect for this sort of writing and neither should you.
Contrast this with Bill and Frank. They are three dimensional characters embodying all the romance and complications of a multi-decade relationship. We are not beaten over the head with their sexuality, nor are we allowed to ignore it, because it is portrayed as as much a function of their lifestyle and culture as what’s in their pants. When Frank initially seduces Bill, he doesn’t have to ask if “there’s a girl” because he knows there isn’t. He’s simply already inferred Bill’s sexuality from various qualities Bill’s demonstrated that cut against the grain of his Ron Swanson macho prepper shtick (okay, and that hesitation by the shower). Likewise, when Frank demands they renovate the stores in town, but just the boutique, the furniture store, and the winery, not “the stupid ones”, the dialogue is tossed off like an inside joke. The terminology of contemporary LGBT and anti-LGBT discourse, even in self-identification, is entirely absent, reflecting a world in which queer life has been so thoroughly depoliticized by civilizational collapse and the lack of organized persecution by the religious right that “Pride” has become irrelevant. It is not an aspirational slogan. It is simply these two men’s day-to-day experience. The word “Gay” is never used in the entire 45 minute sequence. It would be like pointing out that grass is green. Yet the episode is not apolitical. At a time when Congress recently codified Gay marriage in law out of fears that the 2015 Obergefell V. Hodges decision would be overturned by SCOTUS, and when demagogues like Ron DeSantis are waging intellectual war on the trans community through slanderous comparisons of gender fluidity to pedophilia, the choice to devote nearly an hour of prime time to the romance of two middle aged Gay men was an inherently political act, all the more so considering that they choose to marry before committing suicide, an act that wasn’t possible in the pre-Cordyceps universe of The Last Of Us. Even their deaths’ quiet dignity (inevitable, given the characters never reappear in the game narrative) is pointed, an intentional subversion of the infamous “bury your gays” trope that has plagued queer characters for decades. This is representation done right: neither pedantic nor assimilationist (I.e. colorblind, to use a simile), intellectually unabstruse, and more concerned with the radical assertion of human dignity through normalcy than the radical assertion of arcane sociology through politics. It’s not simply better aesthetically than the box-checking performance of what I’ve dubbed “bizzaro” Stage One, or idealizing, representation above. It also, ultimately, the more realistic method, the more honest, and the more likely to generate the social progress diversity and inclusion efforts aim at in the first place.
*The political opinions expressed in this article are the Editor’s alone and do not represent those of his colleagues nor The Path as a whole. They reflect his analysis of foreign affairs and are not prejudicial (for better or worse) towards any group.