Netflix’s The Witcher – is ‘race-swapping’ necessary?

Following recent rumours that Netflix’s TV adaptation of a cherished video game series would cast a BAME actress in the role of a white-haired, white-skinned character, Ben discusses the complexities surrounding the controversy.

Discussions surrounding the merits (and demerits) of casting BAME actors in traditionally white roles are as heated as they are relevant. Certainly, the debate resurfaces with each and every case of ‘race-swapping’ in major media, whether that involves Idris Elba as Norse God Heimdall in the Thor franchise, or Amandla Stenberg’s casting as Rue in The Hunger Games.

“‘Whitewashing’ does little to incorporate examples of ‘race-swapping’ in the opposite direction”

For many, the idea of ‘race-swapping’ characters in popular media is more commonly associated with white actors being cast into ethnic roles. The phenomenon is so infamous that it has developed its own name: ‘Whitewashing’. Images of John Wayne as Genghis Khan or Johnny Depp as a Native American in The Lone Ranger regularly stoke fires of resentment directed at a film industry perceived to be dominated by Caucasian actors and producers. However, the term ‘Whitewashing’ does little to incorporate examples of ‘race-swapping’ in the opposite direction.

This, perhaps, leaves instances where white characters are ‘race-swapped’ with BAME actors vulnerable and, arguably, misunderstood when it comes to commentary from the average moviegoer. Indeed, as with many social issues of today, this has led to an incredibly polarised debate.

On the one-hand are supporters of inserting BAME actors into Caucasian roles in efforts to better represent minorities on the big and small screens. They have used these arguments to justify the casting of Idris Elba as a Norse God whilst attacking the likes of Gerard Butler in his role as an Egyptian deity in Gods of Egypt. The reverse of this position has vehemently opposed ‘race-swapping’ as an affront to their connection with established characters who, in existing texts and media, were imagined or described a certain way.

Which leads us to the character of Ciri in the upcoming adaptation in The Witcher and, more importantly, the license (or lack thereof) which producers have to alter the ethnicities and identities of established characters. With a historical setting and an established lore behind it, developed by both numerous novels and video games, how might this license apply?

The Witcher series, for those who don’t know, is heavily influenced by the folklore and mythology of medieval Eastern Europe. As such, the vast majority of its characters (and, yes, its monsters) are meant to have a European heritage. In such a case, it is inappropriate to impose modern social expectations, such as a wider diversity of actors, upon the show.

The rumoured casting of Ciri as a BAME actress would have changed the entire premise of The Witcher; Ciri would either stand apart from the white, Eastern European setting (a fact which would undoubtedly require addressing), or the world itself would need to be changed, with its inhabitants also filled with a racial mix of characters. In the latter instance, the show has stopped convincing the audience of its Eastern European setting entirely.

Some would refute this by pointing to the casting of Henry Cavill – an Englishman – as the show’s titular character, Geralt of Rivia. This suggestion ignores that, with a white wig and contact lenses, Cavill would actually look like existing depictions of the character he is playing. The world of The Witcher won’t have had to have been edited; the depiction will remain aesthetically faithful.

Many have challenged the sanctity of ‘immersion’ altogether. In a world full of werewolves and dragons, how is it a BAME actress will disrupt your investment?

This argument fully does away with the amazing capabilities of storytelling, whether in the format of video games, novels, or television. A sixteen-foot long fire-breathing lizard would of course break your immersion in the likes of Breaking Bad. That’s because it isn’t and can’t be a part of that world. In a historically-inspired monster-hunting fantasy, however, it isn’t the dragon that would be distracting.


“At some point, if you make enough changes to a character, they stop being that character.”

Characters mean a lot to the viewers and readers who envision them. So much so that minor changes to their origin and appearance, if poorly justified, can ruin that character’s depiction. The clearest example to me personally was during the BBC adaptation of Robin Hood, which aired from 2006 (and really is worth a watch for those who never saw it). In the show’s third and final season, the character of Friar Tuck was finally introduced. Except, he was nothing like the Friar Tuck of legend. To start with, he was slim and athletic – a capable fighter, not an overweight moral crutch for the merry men. He was also portrayed by black British actor David Harewood. At some point, if you make enough changes to a character, they stop being that character.

“[certain] changes are debilitating to an audience’s attachment to characters they know and expect”

It doesn’t have to come down to skin colour alone. Fans of the Harry Potter books were confused when the film depiction of Dudley, Harry’s childhood bully, was brown-haired rather than blonde. It may sound a minor alteration, but such changes are debilitating to an audience’s attachment to characters they know and expect.

As things stand, The Witcher’s upcoming cast has recently been released. This announcement has confirmed that Ciri will in fact be played by white English actress Freya Allan. However, controversies surrounding race-swapping have not desisted for the Netflix show, with another major character, the green-eyed sorceress Fringilla Vigo, being depicted by black actress Mimi Ndiweni.

Judging by this and the mass petition started by fans of The Witcher opposing rumours of Ciri’s casting process, it would seem that the debate surrounding race-swapping in visual media is far from over.

Ben Mallett

Featured image courtesy of crpgbook via Flickr.

Article images courtesy of Mohamed F. Abu Alia and Stefans02 via Flickr, and Netflix and Netflix US via Twitter. 

Image license here. 

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