Beyond the pale:

Hollywood's unwritten rules for characters with albinism



Time traveler Pierce...

...meets the villain of the future.

As usual with characters with albinism, violence ensues. 

Explosive sounds and a pounding soundtrack, the remake of the science fiction classic "The Time Machine" catches the attention of the audience. Chameleon actor Guy Pierce portrays the Victorian inventor who creates a device to carry him to the future. Quick shots of futuristic locales are followed by scenes of threatening monsters. Finally, the villain of the future reveals himself with vicious passion. White haired, skin a gleaming alabaster, his pupils nearly colorless, he turns out to be albino. After terrorizing our hero, the colorless creep grabs Pierce even as the Machine departs for another era. His arms are torn off--a violent end which appears typical of characters with albinism.

In Episode II of the Star Wars series, "Clones R Us," we are treated to brief glimpses of this hairless, pigment-free alien. Hailing from a dark planet, she also appears albino. Naturally, rather than being cast as a heroic Jedi, she is in cahoots with the villainous Republic and evil Chancellor Palpatine. Yes, another villainess with albinism. It makes our eyes roll, too. Bad guys with albinism--Again? It turns out that showing malevolence by giving characters colorless skin is in no way novel. How did Hollywood develop such a distaste for albinism?

Skin conditions have long been used to illustrate evil characters in movies. A scar, a bald scalp, multiple tattoos, these are visual shorthand for cinematic bad guys. Given budget constraints, albinism is an inexpensive condition to recreate: white makeup, an alabaster wig, some red contact lenses--and voila! Instant adversary. It also seems to not be coincidental that albino bad guys began to appear in movies in the 1960's. This was the period that tanning was considered healthy, and the pre-leathered look thought to be glamorous. The opposite of the bronzed visage: pale skin. And fair skin taken to the extreme? Albinism. What might seem more abnormal than someone for whom tanning is impossible?

Increasingly since the 1960's characters that are explicitly said to be albino, or just have very fair skin and hair, crop up nearly yearly on-screen. Though we at skinema are not usually susceptible to conspiracy theories, in this case we suspect that film makers have actually devised a list of rules governing roles with albinism. Not a believer? Just take a gander at:

Hollywood's unwritten rules for characters with albinism.
In general, movie characters with albinism...

1. Are evil and violent, and make excellent assassins.

 Characters with albinism never play a normal leading man or ingenue. Only rarely do they represent comic relief. Usually, they are merciless hit men, torturers, and thugs. Moki, the ruthless criminal from Stick gets his kicks by shooting partners in the back, and punching and cutting women. Because folks who genetically lack the ability to produce skin pigment look so different than pigmented people, film makers tend to dehumanize albino characters. So these characters routinely act in a repellent fashion. Moki is not alone:

Lethal Weapon

The Firm

 Foul Play

Cold Mountain
These guys don't look so tough...




 Until they aim and fire...




If one assumes that characters with albinism have no morals, then why not hire them to kill people? Many albino roles are evil assassins. Not only are they typically portrayed as remorseless, ruthless, and coldhearted, but they have great aim when it comes to doing in pathetic movie sidekicks. The irony is that many people with albinism have vision problems, so it is unlikely that these characters would make the best sharpshooters.


2. Are scary




 Omega Man

 Free Fall

End of Days

Even when not firing off a shotgun, characters with albinism are portrayed as threatening, menacing spooks. The Omega Man stars a whole race of ghostly ghouls. In Free Fall, this fellow called "The Albino," drugs the film's heroine. In End of Days, this dred-locked character makes frightening comments and then shatters into pieces. The number of intimidating albino roles is scary itself.


3. Have silly nicknames


Buster & Billie


Me, Myself & Irene




Disturbing Behavior

Often, these characters are listed in movie credits merely as "The Albino." But when film makers make a small effort to give them names, usually it is a label reinforcing their condition. "Whitey" is by far the most popular nickname for on-screen characters with albinism. In Buster and Billie, young actor Robert Englund (the future Freddy Kreuger!) portrays a goofy sidekick. Though he dyes his hair black, he has the name "Whitey" emblazoned on a cheesy Robin Hood hat so there is no confusion. "Whitey"s also pop up in Me, Myself & Irene, Nobody's Fool and Foul Play. A film arguably sympathetic to those with this condition still was titled Powder. The smarmy 1980's era horror comedy Vamp at least shows some originality by calling its deviant albino "Snow." Not only is he a thug, but a pathetic one at that, and ends up viciously bitten by a preteen blood sucking school girl wearing patent leather shoes.

The teen thriller Disturbing Behavior is the most original of the bunch. One of the heroic adolescents is nick-named "U-Vee," a joke about the UV light that fair-skinned individuals need to avoid. If not well sun protected, ultraviolet radiation can result in skin cancers at a young age. "U-Vee" was allowed a cheeky sense of humor, and was befriended by his teen compatriots. This character showed audience's that not all people with albinism are evil incarnate. He is hardly a role model, however: throughout the flick he appears stoned on cannabis.


4. Dress entirely in white


 Foul Play

What's the Worst that Could Happen?

Attack of the Clones

The Matrix Reloaded

The killer in Foul Play not only is named "Whitey" but can't resist a sassy white leisure suit that cries out '70's era albinism. In What's the Worst that Can Happen? a fair-skinned detective apparently shares the same tailor. The Sci-Fi set also dares to wear white after Labor Day. The previously mentioned Clones creature invests in bleach for her formal wear. The "Twins" from The Matrix: Reloaded also share a fondness for white business attire in stark contrast to the black leather worn by their adversary Keanu Reeves. In real life, people with albinism are no more likely adopt alabaster attire than the rest of us.


5. Have health problems beyond their albinism


In movies, it doesn't seem enough for an unsavory character just to have albinism. To really stand out from the crowd, they have to have other health problems as well. In the far-from-PC Clint Eastwood thriller The Eiger Sanction, actor/director Clint is given assassination orders by the albino character "Dragon." Dragon cannot leave a red lit room, because he says his skin immediately burns. He is obsessed with hygiene and very prone to infection. He tells Eastwood he needs his blood "changed" twice a year and is actually shown having a prolonged blood transfusion.

The pre-"Shrek" fairy tale spoof, The Princess Bride stars an evil executioner called the "Albino." While salaciously smiling about his plans to torture the film's hero, the camera zooms in on an obvious herpes lesion at the corner of the mouth. Herpes is common, causing painful cold sores or fever blisters. We are not aware of albinism increasing the risk for lip herpes.

In oddball Italian auteur Federico Fellini's Satyricon, there is a brief view of a character with pale skin, hair, and eyes. You've got it--another case of albinism. Unlike the other examples featured on this page (or the rest of the skinema site) this guy/girl has both female breasts and a decidedly male penis. He/she is a hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodites show both of these gender characteristics because of abnormal chromosomes. Again, this director, wanting to show an abnormal character, felt that one medical condition was clearly too few.

Though easily prone to sun burn (and eventually to skin cancer), people with albinism usually have normal immune systems, aren't any greater risk for herpes, and certainly do not show increased tendency toward hermaphroditism. These characters mistakenly suggest that in addition to moral badness, albinism is associated with systemic weakness or disease.

Yes, there's more: Book two of Hollywood's rules of albinism...

© 1996-2008 Vail Reese M.D.

Dr. Reese's office