Fans of The Witcher books and games railed against Netflix following reports that Ciri would likely be played by a non-white actress in its adaptation of the fantasy series. They should tone down their outrage and withhold judgement: the best storytelling balances respect for source material with scope for creative licence, reinterpretation and minority representation.
An unconfirmed casting notice for the show reads, “Looking for a 16 or 15 year old BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] girl who can play down to 13/14. Must not be older than 18 years old.” Showrunner Lauren Hissrich effectively confirmed the rumour by tweeting, “You guys. You KNOW I don’t comment on casting. I never have. I never will. Except... One very special lady, who I saw several options for today.” Other reports suggest Ciri will be portrayed by a white actress, but the initial reaction is still worth analysing. It’s understandable that fans anticipated a white actor: Ciri, the adopted daughter of protagonists Geralt and Yennefer, is described as “white” and “pale” in The Witcher books and her video game avatar is white with ashen hair and green eyes. The series, which draws from Eastern-European folklore, also features predominantly white characters, and a non-white Ciri would find it harder to hide or evade capture as she often does in the books. Still, altering the ethnicity of a fictional character in a fantasy setting – where suspension of disbelief is expected – is hardly cause for fury.
Critics have argued the show’s writers could introduce new minority characters rather than changing the race of an existing one. Others have taken umbrage at the explicit call for non-white actors, arguing it discriminates against white actors in pursuit of diversity and bowing to political correctness. They’re right that the casting notice should have invited actors of all races to audition, that the show’s creators want to avoid hiring an exclusively white cast – out of genuine desire for more equal representation or fear of criticism – and that minorities deserve original characters written specifically for them that embody their cultures and identities. Nonetheless, a black or Asian Ciri isn’t a poop in the pool that ruins the experience for everyone; viewers should be able to overlook the actor’s colour and judge her performance on its merits, and skilled writers can ensure her ethnicity makes sense within the context of the show.
Fierce, immediate backlash to a change in the race of a fictional character, or the mere presence of minority characters in certain films and TV shows, is nothing new. The casting of a black actor as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the prominent roles of Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the predominantly black cast of Black Panther all irked a subsection of fans, most of whom welcome divergence from the source material when it doesn’t increase diversity. This group of mostly young white men are prone to insulting and harassing minorities that dare to touch their beloved sci-fi and fantasy franchises. Targets have included Leslie Jones, who was bullied off of Twitter after her casting in the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, and Anita Sarkeesian, who received rape and death threats after criticizing sexism in video games.
When most writers, directors and producers are straight white men, their storytelling, casting choices and funding and distribution decisions naturally reflect their interests, cultures and backgrounds. As a result, minorities have few opportunities to reach positions of power where they can push for better representation. Diversity won’t happen automatically; projects such as Black Panther, Hamilton and Crazy Rich Asians need to succeed for the situation to improve. Handled carefully, a black or Asian Ciri can enrich The Witcher series, broaden its appeal and contribute to minority advancement. A change in her skin tone is a small price to pay.