I’ve realised recently that a surprisingly large number of things are both gay and homophobic at the same time. There are things that only make sense to me in the context of queer life, but that are also compelled to disavow their participation in queerness. The result is that they feel haunted by the lives that they refuse to animate. A lot of these uncomfortable politics can be encapsulated by an item of clothing worn by Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, usually at the behest of one of his girlfriends.
Content warning: discussion of homophobia, queerphobia, and ableism; portrayal of transmisogynistic images and tropes.
Doublets came to prominence in Europe in the 15th to 17th centuries, and incorporated a number of different technologies at different times to shape the male body and signal one’s belonging to a collective identity. Some doublets used whale bone to flatten the torso and straighten the posture, and they were often worn with heeled boots to further modify the gait. Other trends represented in the doublets available in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt include the ornamental use of metal buttons and leather to subtly signal elite status without standing out by wearing anything too garish (Hayeur-Smith et al. 2018), and the “skimpy doublet”, which was intentionally worn short to reveal the undershirt layer, a subject of some scandal from moralists at the time.
The specifics of how doublets signalled both group belonging and elevated status in different contexts at different times are not important to The Witcher 3, but the cultural politics of dress, masculinity, and austerity are noticeable. There are certain events in the game where clothing is associated with social feelings, such as shame and pride, and this association stands out in particular in those moments where Geralt is asked to wear a doublet.
We recognise shame as the opposite of pride. But the goal or outcome of Pride as a public event is not the same as the personal feeling of pride; the collective outcome is more like visibility, truth, and having space in society. Similarly, the public, collective result of a society that treats our identities with shame is not reducible only to the subjective feeling of shame; it is invisibility, speculation, and having to haunt the spaces that we would have otherwise had.
In Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher writes “What should haunt us is not the no-longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not-yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised.” In Time Binds, Elizabeth Freeman writes about “queer hauntology” in relation to artworks that project the present into the past, or Derrida’s hauntology as the sense that the present is haunted by the past’s unfulfilled promise. I understand this hauntology as a grief for the worlds we didn’t get to create, and the selves that we didn’t get to be. On top of that meaning of the term, works like The Witcher 3 make me feel personally alien or ghost-like, as though it were me and my actually-existing community that was haunting the worlds that dare not imagine us into being.
When I think about how The Witcher 3 makes me feel, as though I were a ghost lurking in the background of other people’s stories, I think about Sarah the Godling, one of the many beings in the Witcher universe who is misunderstood as a monster until Geralt pays closer attention to them. Sarah has been intentionally giving people the impression that a house is haunted, in part because she enjoys the mischief, and in part because it is one of the few strategies available that allow her to ensure a place to live. Haunting is how she is able to have space in a world that disavows her kind.
Lurking in the background of The Witcher 3 is the fact that Geralt, as a witcher, does not fit in or belong to mainstream society. People yell insults at him, including “freak” and even “gray boy”??? The not-very-hidden subtext is that Geralt too is misread as a monster, and his kind are now almost gone from this hostile world. Witchers were produced out of the attempt to rid the world of things that people considered “other”, and then they themselves became part of the “other” that people fear and do not understand. Sometimes what I want to say about this game is that it refuses to understand what it’s really like to live on the margins, but sometimes I think that it actually shows a disturbing level of insight into that marginalisation by turning diversities of gender and sexuality into little more than half-remembered daydreams.
To move between the highest levels of society and its haunted corners, Geralt needs to mask, and doublets are a key tool in doing this. Mages also mask, but the affective imaginaries attached to masking differ along gendered lines. Changing your appearance to fit in with beauty norms is seen as a desirable perk of being a mage, one for which they are willing to suffer terribly. Geralt, however, could hardly be less enthusiastic about wearing a single slightly-uncomfortable garment in order to look appropriate in a formal setting. He is usually cajoled into it by his mage girlfriends. Both boundary-crossing identities use personal presentation in order to create a way of conditionally fitting in, just for a little while, despite the widespread threats against them from normative society. Geralt complains that doublets make him uncomfortable, which seems in slightly poor taste when talking to someone literally wearing a corset and heels, but as mentioned above, doublets were a similar technology for straightening the body. On the surface, this begrudging attitude looks like an expression of a certain kind of rugged masculinity, even though by making him more attractive to the women in his life the doublet might be expected to enhance his performance of desirable manliness.
The reading of these moments through disability studies takes this into a different direction. Disability consultant for tabletop games Sara Thompson has argued that Geralt is disabled, because the novels repeatedly state that he is living with a chronic pain condition. This should make us read his expressions of physical discomfort differently. In addition to this, Geralt is repeatedly called out for being affectively different to humans, who perceive him as not experiencing emotion at all. It is clear that this is not true – he clearly responds emotionally to events around him, and extends empathy to creatures that do not receive it from human society. In our own world, this “double empathy problem” (others cannot empathise with him, and thus he is read as lacking empathy) is closely connected to neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is also connected to diversity in sensory processing, which is easy to read onto witchers given that they are literally able to sense things that others cannot.
As one counts the various taxes that the body-mind pays for admission into these spaces, the act of masking seems to bind queerness and disability together. In Authoring Autism, Neuroqueer scholar Remi Yergeau makes a strong case for such a connection.
What [the clinical construction of] autism provides is a backdoor pathologization of queerness, one in which clinicians and lay publics alike seek out deviant behaviors and affectations and attempt to straighten them […] in its past and present clinical formations, autism is contextually situated within societal responses to and of gay panic.Remi Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 2017
Queerness haunts The Witcher 3 because it is not able to rise above the conditions of its production. It is a conservative product made to generate capital for bosses in a country with escalating restrictions on expressions of LGBTQ+ identity. At the same time, every sufficiently large AAA studio has queer developers, often finding ways to allow queerness to hide out in the shadows of its narrative. AAA games overwhelmingly keep it subtextual, while piling on enough normativity to allow them to pass as nonthreatening – there is a lot of masking happening on all levels. The fact that, according to a teleological view of “progress”, LGBTQ+ representation in one of the largest media franchises of recent years probably should not be such a difficult act of threading the needle, makes it all the more haunting. Queerness is not fully absent, but present to those who can sense it, as the ghost of the future that did not happen.
Like every ghost story, divergence is explained away with a more palatable narrative. Geralt’s discomfort in doublets is easily explained away as a masculine displeasure at being pushed into unmasculine activities such as dressing up and being diplomatic. Dandelion’s queerness is disavowed in a way that reads as particularly homophobic, as his queer-coded dress sense seems primarily used to signal ineptitude and weakness. When shopping for a doublet, Geralt ends up in an unnecessarily uncomfortable situation, in which even the most polite dialogue options involve clarifying that Dandelion had not had sex with a gender-non-conforming person who Geralt seems to consider as a man, and tersely rejecting the opportunity to share in the joy this person gets from wearing a dress. It is difficult to read the tone here as anything other than a homophobic concern that Dandelion might have deviated from heterosexuality, and a transmisogynistic discomfort around someone who presents themself in a genderfluid way.
The awkward effort put into this disavowal is a serious weakness of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling. This is a game that constantly shows you alternative families made up of ragtag groups of outsiders, and yet it always has to reaffirm that these alternative families are not queer. Geralt is a father-by-destiny with his nonreproductive non-exclusive partner, and his child has two other parents, plus a number of close family-like relationships with Geralt’s extended chosen family. And yet, we must be reminded before the game wraps up that Geralt’s family is still heterosexual and monogamous. Non-monogamy is not considered possible except by deception. So, despite the gameplay actively encouraging you to have Geralt get emotionally and physically entangled with multiple partners, with no indication that there might be friction or misgivings from Geralt’s side about having a polyfocal romantic life, he will still be punished if you have him pursue multiple relationships. Megan Blythe-Adams and Nathan Rambukkhana have argued that “in The Witcher series, the player cannot make this fruitful transgression into queer discovery […] the game’s array of sexual partners acts as a kind of buffer against queer possibility,” going on to point out that such narratives “force players to be either monogamous, cheaters, or creeps because they deny them alternative choices.”
As I write this, I imagine that my very blurry framing of queerness as neurodivergent and non-monogamous might meet objections from people whose queerness is not non-monogamous, or whose neurodivergence is not queer. But what I hope is that by following events connected to Geralt’s discomfort with doublets, it’s possible to see that despite the myriad specifities of our own individual experiences, The Witcher 3‘s discomfort with queerness cannot be separated from its discomfort with disability or non-monogamy. And of course, I haven’t even touched on the bizarre whiteness of this game’s imagined society. Given that these axes of oppression are bound together in the cultural production of difference, we have every reason to treat the issues themselves as intrinsically connected to one another.
The Witcher 3 feels to me like a conservative game haunted by disavowed queer possibility, because it cannot imagine difference and vulnerability as something that connects people. Instead, it is invested in always mitigating one axis of difference with several other axes of aggressive normativity. Homonormativity does this too of course. Corporate Pride often fails to recognise the axes of difference that all bind together in common the acts of haunting and masking. The easy-mode version of Pride is making visible that which can mask up effectively – not the nonmonogamous families, or the neuroqueer resistance to capitalist production, or the kinky or the otherwise strange and estranged. It is too easy for Pride to only recognise the pragmatic version of queerness that shows up to a polite occasion in order to do necessary work with people in power. The rest of queerness and its intersections haunts Pride as the ghost of futures deferred.
I think it is a mistake to reduce affect to a single rhetorical meaning, as though our discomforts only had one cause. It is a mistake to think that emotions such as pride or shame are the big thing at stake in the politics of representation and visiblity. Metaphors of masking and haunting reveal the strategies that we use to navigate a hostile world, and provide an alternative to either rejecting something like The Witcher 3 entirely for its obvious homophobia and misogyny, or inadvertently showering it with false praise in the course of reclaiming it as “feminist and queer, actually”. The masking and haunting that surround Geralt are at work in the production of this kind of high-budget media commodity, and in the day-to-day strategies of queer visibility.
Other writing about The Witcher:
Megan Blythe-Adams, Nathan Rambukkana (2018) “’Why do I have to make a choice? Maybe the three of us could, uh…’: Non-Monogamy in Videogame Narratives” http://gamestudies.org/1802/articles/adams_rambukkana
Elizabeth Ballou (2018) “Where The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt Goes Wrong in Depicting Women (and Why it Matters)” http://www.nymgamer.com/?p=17486
Khee Hoon Chan (2018) “Geralt of Rivia, Anthropologist” https://unwinnable.com/2018/05/08/geralt-of-rivia-anthropologist/
Tauriq Moosa (2015) “Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and gaming’s race problem” https://www.polygon.com/2015/6/3/8719389/colorblind-on-witcher-3-rust-and-gamings-race-problem
Megan Patterson (2016) “How Inconsistent, Sexist Fashion Hurts Worldbuilding in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” https://www.themarysue.com/pixelthreads-worldbuilding-witcher-3-wild-hunt/
Sara Thompson (2020), “Geralt of Rivia: A Disabled Protagonist” https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2020-11-24-geralt-of-rivia-a-disabled-protagonist
Ben Berman Ghan (2020) “Queer Time Machines: Hauntologies of Literature” Terse Journal https://tersejournal.com/2020/01/01/queer-time-machines-hauntologies-of-literature-by-ben-berman-ghan/
Mark Fisher (2013) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures Zero Books
Elizabeth Freeman (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories Duke University Press
Hayeur-Smith, M., Lucas, G., & Mould, Q. (2019). Men in Black: Performing masculinity in 17th- and 18th-century Iceland. Journal of Social Archaeology, 19(2), 229–254. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469605318793798
Sam MacBean (2016) “The Gal Pal Epidemic” Celebrity Studies 7(2) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19392397.2016.1165005?journalCode=rcel20&
Mitchell et al. (2021) Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health Developmental Psychology 39:1 https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjdp.12350
Eve Ng (2017), “Between text, paratext, and context: Queerbaiting and the contemporary media landscape” Transformative Works 24 https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/917
Remi Yergeau (2017) Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness Duke University Press