A casting call has popped up in the United Kingdom for Ciri, the young ward of Geralt of Rivia, played by Henry Cavill, and the details of the call have garnered a huge controversy in the fandom.
Posted on the website for the National Youth Theatre in the United Kingdom, the casting call, for the upcoming Netflix Witcher TV series based on the books by Andrzej Sapkowski, is reportedly seeking a teenager to play Cirilla, a young orphan whose actually fate involves royalty and potent magic. Ciri’s story here seems immensely similar to other versions of the character, with one difference. According to the casting call, which may or may not be legitimate, Netflix is looking for a “BAME” actress, which stands for “Black, Asian, and other non-white minority ethnic” actress. If this is accurate, Netflix is looking to cast Ciri as a young person of color. io9 has reached out to the purported casting director and will update if we hear back.
News of this hit the fandom yesterday, and it has become a bit of a mess. The Witcher subreddit has been buzzing with posts about the call, with prominent posts calling the decision to cast Ciri as non-white “racist” and overly political, and suggesting that it contradicts earlier statements from the showrunner, Lauren S. Hissrich, who once said that she wouldn’t change character’s background or gender because she was, quote, “feeling ‘liberal’ that day.” The backlash amongst the community has been so bad that today moderators consolidated it into a single, contentious mega-thread.
This isn’t the first time The Witcher has encountered controversy due to issues related to race. After the release of The Witcher 3 video game, many audience members noticed that there were very few, if any, people of color among the cast and the various world non-player characters. It became a notable concern regarding the game, with many critics calling the decision whitewashing, citing broad representation concerns as well the presence of people of color in the historical Middle Ages the series’ fantasy world is based on and the existence of Middle-Eastern-analogue nations in the Continent of the game’s fiction.
Questions of representation in The Witcher are somewhat more gnarled than in purely American-made media. Detractors of including people of color in the universe, particularly if it involves changing the ethnicity of main characters, cite the origins of the books as Polish cultural output, with distinctly Polish features, and as such should reflect the largely (though not entirely) ethnically homogeneous demographics of Poland itself.
Those in favor of being more inclusive of people of color point out that The Witcher’s Continent, while based on Northern Europe in the Middle Ages, is a fantasy realm, and breaks from reality are thus acceptable, especially if they make the work more accessible to a broader range of viewers who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented in fantasy media. Besides, as has been well documented, people of color did exist in Europe during the Middle Ages, even if their presence has been historically downplayed. And it’s worth noting that Hissrich herself has discussed and acknowledged this as an important context for the show’s existence.
The decision to diversely cast genre television is increasingly popular, and increasingly demanded by audiences, though that hasn’t made it easy. Elements of fandom hostile to diversity often respond with vitriol to minorities in their favorite things, driving them off social media and generally saying horrible things about them.
Diversity is generally a win. It allows people to see themselves in the media they like, and that has demonstrable positive effects on people’s lives. But casting diversely still comes with a cost, and will, as this and every other example shows, be a challenge for the creators and cast who have to deal with angry fans over it.
Personally, I think casting Ciri as a young woman of color is exciting, and doesn’t change anything about the substance of the character. I also hope that Netflix and the show’s creators are prepared to support whoever they cast in that role, because they’re going to have a very rough time.