Did You Know the Word “Albino” is Offensive?

Copyright 2011 Kelsey Hough.  All rights reserved.

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When it comes to representing minorities in film, Hollywood doesn’t exactly have a progressive record.  One trend that’s been bothering me a bit lately is how individuals with rare genetic defects like dwarfism, among others, are presented in films as the token oddity, the comic relief, and sometimes even as something inhuman or mythical.  It seems essentially like a twenty-first century style freak show.   

One common “freak show” theme in movies is the “evil” or “magical” albino—the strange, ghostly-white character with poor health and bad hygiene.  The word “albino,” by the way, is very offensive (“someone with albinism” is preferable if you must specify their lack of pigmentation).  

Dr. Vail Reese, a dermatologist and creator of Skinema.com (a website dedicated to examining Hollywood’s portrayal of skin conditions in film) says audience members have learned “that if you see a character with albinism in the movie, it’s going to be an evil character. It’s become part of the film language…” (Dotinga par 5).

This “evil albino” plot device or “albino bias,” as it is sometimes called, is illustrated in movies like the 1987 cult classic, “The Princess Bride,” where the creepy albino with a raspy cough and crazed smile makes his living working in The Depths of Despair as the local torturer for the ruthless prince Humperdinck.  The albino character, complete with poor hygiene and bad teeth, is clearly not someone the general public would like to run into while shopping at their grocery store if the meeting could possibly be avoided.

The Albino Bias in Film:

Other modern movies illustrating an albino bias include “The Time Machine,” where the time-traveler discovers the shocking reality that in Earth’s future the planet is completely overrun with an entire race of evil albinos. In “Matrix Reloaded” two of the characters dubbed “The Twins” are henchmen of the film’s villain, Merovingian. The Twins are never directly identified as having albinism, but between the fact they appear to lack pigmentation and both characters are never seen without a pair of back shades (people with albinism are extremely sensitive to the sun, so sunglasses are a necessity) it’s not hard to guess what genetic mutation the characters are based on. 

Again in 2006, “The Da Vinci Code” followed suit by having its single albino character be an evil monk who, because of his self-destructive and abusive tendencies, was even a danger to his own physical wellbeing. Despite the fact these characters may make entertaining villains, they make for pitiful lone ambassadors for the men, women, and children living with albinism.

Dr. Jim Haefemeyer, who has albinism himself, said, “To be honest, we don’t get it.  Why are people with albinism used as villains in movies over and over?” (Dontinga par 15).  The first time Dr. Haefemeyer saw a character that had a skin condition like his own on the silver screen it was while watching the 1971 movie “The Omega Man” where a plague breaks out and people lose their pigmentation, become sensitive to the light, and end up acting like crazed zombies (Dontinga par 16-17).  Sadly, the first tine he saw people who looked like him in a movie, they were the film’s monsters.

Albinism (a genetic defect which prevents the body from making melanin, the substance that gives color to hair, skin and the iris of the eye) only affects one in 17,000 people in the United States, so many Americans can go their entire lives without encountering an individual with albinism (Donaldson James par 11).  As a result of the rarity of this condition, the media is usually the sole voice shaping the general population’s view of albinism.

Albinism Around the World:

The fact Hollywood only portrays people with albinism as being either supernatural or wicked adds fuel to age-old prejudices and superstitions, which in many cultures still surround this unusual skin condition. In some African countries, living with albinism is a near death sentence. In Tanzania alone, 54 people with albinism have been murdered since 2007. The victims’ limbs were brutally hacked off and sold on the black market to be used as potions sold by witchdoctors as a result of many of the locals’ unfortunate belief that the blood, bones, and skin of a person with albinism have magical properties (Donaldson James par 8). 

In Zimbabwe it’s believed if you have sexual intercourse with someone with albinism it will cure you of HIV/AIDS (“How to Help” par 1). The rapist is not cured, but their victim—in addition to suffering the emotional, mental, and physical traumas of such a violent crime being committed against them—can also become HIV positive, themselves, and eventually die from AIDS.

Even without being murdered for their organs and contracting AIDS through rape, having albinism in Africa would still result in shortened life spans. Many of the men and women with this genetic defect can’t afford the proper sun protection—heavy-duty sunscreen and sunglasses—that they need in order to protect their extremely sensitive skin from harmful rays. They can end up developing and dying from skin cancer as a result.

Time to Leave the Myths Behind:

Albinism strongly affects real people in every corner of the globe, not just because of their sensitivity to the sun and poor eyesight, but even more so, because of the myths and stereotypes that still continue to surround this rare skin disorder. Even though albinism may be more common in movies than in real life, the people living with albinism still feel the ramifications of Hollywood’s caricatures.

However, neither albinism supporters nor the people with albinism themselves are advocating the removal of all characters with this genetic mutation in film.  Instead, in order to help portray a positive view of albinism, Hollywood needs to break from the old albino biases.  It’s time films painted a more realist and relatable portrait and left the medieval folklore behind.


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4 thoughts on “Did You Know the Word “Albino” is Offensive?

  1. I read this the other day and meant to comment! You are right on with this blog ,for it is definitely offensive and they should not be portrayed this way in movies,etc. I watched something about this on tv , awhile back and especially the children in countries… and how hard it is for them to be accepted ! Keep on writing woman, you rule!! Sincerely,carla

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