The Problem with Men and Feminism, as Illustrated by Two Conversations in The Witcher 3

— SPOILERS FOR THE WITCHER 3: HEARTS OF STONE 

I have Geralt visit his long-time friend Shani at her home in Oxenfurt. He encounters her in the middle of a business conversation with a group of Redanian soldiers, who have enlisted her help to brew a potent antivenom. When she leaves the room to prepare the medicine, the soldiers immediately begin to make rowdy remarks about Shani’s stunning looks and ask Geralt whether he has any romantic feelings for her. I’m annoyed at their behaviour and opt to have Geralt tell them it’s none of their business what he thinks of her. However, the soldiers are persistent, and the dialogue interface leaves me with two options: tell them Shani is indeed very beautiful, or tell them he has no feelings for her at all.

“Hang on,” I say to myself, “why can’t I tell them to *fuck off*? Where is the option to make clear to these men that this isn’t how anyone should talk about the doctor who’s making a life-saving antivenom for their troops as we speak?” 

Reluctantly, I let Geralt confirm Shani’s beauty–the other option would have been a lie on his part (and mine). When Shani returns, the soldiers act completely professional and leave without further incident.

Before I continue, allow me a brief but ultimately relevant digression into ‘real-life’ feminist theory. In Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017), Jessa Crispin interrupts her fantastically fierce critique of contemporary feminism to directly address those men who have dared to pick up her book. In this passage, she makes it quite clear that she, as a woman, a feminist and an author, does not want to be made responsible for men’s engagement with feminist ideas. This sentiment (“It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you,” she writes) is justifiable because, indeed: is it not that man’s own responsibility to develop his own understanding of the movement, instead of asking women to present their struggle for equality in such a way that requires as little thought and effort as possible on his part? The answer to that is, of course, a loud ‘yes’. In Crispin’s argument I sense a deep frustration with men’s attitude towards feminism, one which I myself have begun to feel quite strongly in the past year and which was recently exacerbated by the scene I describe above.

While it is easy to criticise women and feminists for not sufficiently facilitating men when presenting their ideas, it is far less easy–and far less commonplace–to spark an actual conversation about the position of men within feminist movements. And even when I do see such conversations, they go in either of two directions: ‘men cannot be feminists’ or ‘all men should be feminists’. At first glance, Crispin runs the risk of siding with the former; after all, stating, “Do not e-mail me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once” does not encourage any kind of positive dialogue, and therefore does not help to win men for the cause of gender equality. The question that underlies this stance, however, is not ‘can/should men be feminists?’ but rather ‘who bears the burden for men’s engagement with feminism?’. I believe Crispin’s harsh words are not an expression of misandry (as this write-up in the LA Review would argue) but of a genuine and acute exasperation with the fact that it is almost always up to women to convey their feminist wishes and ideals to men. In this situation, women are doing the hard work required to achieve emancipation; they face resistance and backlash, make sacrifices, and willingly go against the grain of society. Meanwhile, men stand idly by, occasionally shouting some words of encouragement–though not too loudly, lest any other men hear them.

Having spent the entire evening together at a wedding, Shani and Geralt find that they are still attracted to each other. For me, the wedding itself was awful, as we were forced to spend it with an exquisitely irritating former bandit called Vlodimir, who insisted on constantly making romantic advances towards Shani despite her telling him that nothing would happen between them. Perhaps even more irritating were the game’s obvious efforts to make Vlodimir a likeable character: he was given a lot of dialogue, filled to the brim with flowery language and crude jokes; Shani would respond with glee to his flirting; and Geralt was, again, hardly ever able to rebuke Vlodimir’s antics–not even when he forcefully kissed Shani after a dance. Everyone else at the wedding had thoroughly been enjoying themselves; I had spent most of the time groaning at the screen.

vlodimir screencap
God, I hate this guy.

I am therefore quite surprised at the conversations between Shani and Geralt in the moments after that wedding, the moments leading up to them taking a boat out to the middle of the nearby lake and making love in the light of the moon. Shani explains to Geralt that her mother wanted her to find a husband at the Oxenfurt Academy, but she found no one who was “even slightly amusing.” She fears her mother must think there’s something wrong with her because she’s still unmarried. Geralt, unprompted by me, then says: “Oh please, Shani. It’s the thirteenth century. Women don’t go to the Academy to find a husband. They go to learn, pursue their passion. You did that. I’m sure your mother appreciates it. You got a doctorate, have your own practice, been at the front line many times. You’re a good person. Not a thing wrong with you.”

I’m delighted and frustrated at the same time. Clearly, Geralt knows Shani well and values her deeply as a person. Clearly, Geralt has some idea of progressive values and women’s emancipation. Talking to myself again: “Why do I only get to see this side of Geralt now, when he’s wooing Shani? Where was ‘it’s-the-thirteenth-century’ Geralt when those men were being disrespectful towards his dear friend?”

I believe men can be feminists. I also believe not all men should be feminists, for the same reason that I do not believe all women should be feminists: if everyone living right now would identify as a ‘feminist’, the word would lose its meaning, its power, its danger.

That said, we need more feminist men. By that I do not mean the ‘feminist men’ as I often see them today, who write heartwarming Facebook posts about their wives and mothers on International Women’s Day, who believe inviting a privileged group of women into a hierarchy built by and for men is true emancipation, who think that women can achieve gender equality without any effort or help from their male companions. I do not mean men like Geralt, who holds progressive ideas but only articulates them when it’s convenient (and will get him laid) and not when it’s hard (and might get him into a fight). I mean the men who will refuse to partake in systems that exclude women and force men into narrowly defined forms of masculinity. I mean the men who will critically examine how they themselves contribute to those systems’ continued existence, and how they can help to expand the range of socially accepted ‘masculine’ behaviours. I mean the version of Geralt who would have been able to tell those Redanian soldiers to get some respect for the best combat medic in the North instead of going along with their game, regardless of the potential risks to his safety or status.

I realise, of course, that this may be too much to ask from a triple-A game studio. While men holding progressive beliefs are (thankfully) not so rare anymore, men calling out other men for sexist behaviour remain an uncommon phenomenon. It must simply not have occurred to the writers at CD Projekt Red that this would be an equally valid and effective way of demonstrating his love for Shani, rather than saying “Shani’s a beautiful woman.” It would go against my argument here to not hold the (mostly male) writers of The Witcher 3 accountable for this missed opportunity, but it seems to me they also did not have many examples to draw inspiration from. The inability to play Geralt as a feminist, in my view, is only a symptom of a broader problem: when it comes to their participation in feminist movements, men have been far too passive and not self-reflexive enough. The feminist man who smashes the patriarchy alongside his female fellows and willingly sacrifices his own social status in favour of a better world is an image that even I sometimes find hard to conjure (though John Oliver recently set a good example).

It is high time for men to start taking responsibility for their own participation in the feminist struggle instead of staying quiet at the sidelines, lazily waiting for women to change society for the better. They should acknowledge that they have more of a role to play in this movement than being enthusiastic-but-uncritical cheerleaders. Geralt should be able to tell those Redanian soldiers to *fuck off*.

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