Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Not Ghosts but People: Albinism in Pop Culture

How people with albinism are often represented in negative or dehumanising ways.
 by Fadzai Nova

International Albinism Day was commemorated on June 13th, bringing greater awareness to what albinism is and how it affects those who are born with it. Albinism is a genetic condition whereby the human body has the inability to produce a sufficient amount of melanin, which is the pigment responsible for providing skin, hair and the iris of the eye with colour. Stigma and discrimination are prevalent in the daily lives of people with albinism, which proves that society is still in its adolescence when it comes to education, tolerance and equality.

"I want there eventually to be a day when I am known not as 
someone with albinism, but just as Thando” 
– Thando Hopa, model and prosecutor.
In pop culture , there is a trend of the "evil albino" trope, a villain depicted as being albinistic or displaying physical traits typically related with albinism. Albinism is also represented as unhuman or ‘other’, even if the term is not specifically used. This unique trait has been depicted in ways which perpetuate dehumanising stereotypes of people with albinism, making it seem as if they are not real people with life experiences, emotions and aspirations but merely symbolic beings which embody ideas of otherness. In film, examples of albinism being depicted as malevolent can be seen in Passion of the Christ (the devil) and The Da Vinci Code (Silas, a murderous monk). These are but a few examples from a long list of negative depictions.

Lana Del Rey’s short film "Tropico" expresses themes of good, evil, religion, sex and violence. The singer is depicted as Eve and her Adam (played by model Shaun Ross) has albinism, again constructing the person with albinism as otherworldly, different, and ill-at-ease with the rest of society. Together they live in the Garden of Eden with guidance from deceased iconic celebrities and a range of white animals, until they are cast out into Los Angeles for eating the fruit of knowledge. In the city they live their lives as fallen angels, unable to fit in until their redemption.The person with albiminsm here is presented as pure and as seemingly corrupted by the rest of the world, but even these depictions construct him as an outsider.

In Katy Perry’s music video E.T, we again see albinism being classified as ‘other’. Katy Perry is depicted as a celestial being, an alien walking on a deserted planet which is polluted and desolate. She finds a sleeping man (again played by Shaun Ross) in a robotic suit. She awakens him with a kiss and his robotic armour falls away; he stands naked, and the viewer is aware of his albinism as they walk away. The imagery in this music video, as the title of the song suggests, is concerned with being outside of what is normal; being an other or an extra terrestrial. An animal-like alien woman and a man with albinism are depicted in this music video as a suitable pairing.

This predominantly negative or dehumanising representation of albinism has severe effects for people living with the condition, as it encourages stigma, discrimination and alienation. Organisations such as the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) have raised concerns that such depictions reinforce social prejudice. To counter negative effects, there has been some positive exposure in media for people with albinism, but the results are few in comparison.

Do you think albinism in pop culture negatively influences society’s perceptions? I would like to read your comments.