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Hackneyed, Not History

by By Andrew Leibs.

As the film version of The Da Vinci Code opens, disability rights activists should stop to consider members of the disability community whose condition remains one of the most culturally maligned in the world.

I am speaking about albinism, the genetic inability to synthesize the dark pigment melanin -- the condition Brown misrepresents to make the villain of his bestselling book more sinister and appalling.

Every aspect of Dan Brown's book has been scrutinized -- except his abject ignorance about albinism.

Readers will no doubt recall the stalking Silas, who executes four people in one night doing God's work. Most of the stereotypes common to books and films that exploit albinism are present: red eyes, loyalty that leads to self mutilation and an abusive past that spawns a born-again brutality and proficiency in killing.

It is impossible for one with albinism (most of us detest the dehumanizing word "albino") to read Brown's book and not feel diminished. Knowing that Silas is the only experience most people will ever have with albinism is deeply troubling. Such characters take root in the imagination where there are no positive human images to balance them and thereby they assume great power.

In our age of political correctness and after decades of a disability movement I should not have to explain that persons with albinism do not have red eyes, are not skilled assassins, nor are they so eager to belong that they'll make brutality or banjo playing their life's purpose.

The trouble is, Brown's book -- and nearly every instance of albinism in popular culture -- reminds us that writers, even those who pride themselves on their research, cannot conceive of albinism in people without using its traits to tap and echo our deepest human fears.

What other disability is so relentlessly, so thoroughly maligned?

While advocacy and human decency have quietly ended the use of dehumanizing terms such as "idiot," "Mongoloid," "Negro," "Siamese twin" and "spastic," the word "albino" -- coined by a slave-trolling Portuguese explorer in the 17th Century -- is a one-word punchline on shows like The Simpsons, Mad TV, and Conan O'Brien.

It astounds me how every aspect of Brown's book can be scrutinized with virtually no mention of the abject ignorance exhibited by the author's use of albinism. What angers me most is the impunity that such writers still enjoy.

Brown is hardly the first writer to negatively portray albinism. Melville not only built Moby Dick around a maniacal quest for a white whale, but has Ishmael expound on peoples' varied reactions towards whiteness, calling albinism "the crowning attribute of the terrible," and the "colorless, all-color of atheism." Such idioms work for Melville, but gave succeeding writers, especially screenwriters, a convenient means to infuse villains with cruelty and superhuman strength.

Silas, his spiked cilice cinching his thigh, reminded me of Mr. Joshua, the assassin played by Gary Busey in the 1987 film Lethal Weapon. In one scene Joshua lets his arm be burned with a lighter to prove his loyalty -- a freakish act of self-mutilation that viewers are intended to link with his albinism.

Such characters take root in the imagination where there are no positive human images to balance them and there assume great power.

Such characterizations persist despite growing awareness and decades of family advocacy by the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation, or NOAH. NOAH has only recently stepped up its opposition to negative film portrayals, which is one reason such uses persist.

Now, with the release of The Da Vinci Code movie, I wonder what it will take to make people aware of a wrong we generally no longer tolerate in human discourse -- pop culture included?

People suggest this lack of consciousness is simply a matter of numbers: there are only 25,000 persons with albinism in the United States. But if we are so few, why are the misuses so many? What makes "albino" a word common enough for the AP Stylebook, while the condition of albinism remains misunderstood or unacknowledged in people, unless it's used negatively?

As audiences exit The Da Vinci Code, I wonder if they will be left with yet one more misimpression of albinism, and whether they will care. Will albinism continue to give writers carte blanche for over-the-top villainy, or will a growing awareness of the condition and its misuses prompt long overdue action that leads to change?

Albinism is uncommon in most people's lives, but common and even clichéd in culture. Navigating one's identity and esteem through this disconnect is the main challenge of living with albinism. I suspect the same is true for other disabilities that writers exploit solely for their dramatic value.

Andrew Leibs lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

From last night's Daily Show we also learned the NOAH spokesperson complained by using another disability stereotype ("fell on deaf ears"). See the story here. I'm not saying the two are morally equivalent, I'm just noting that unflattering images of disability are deeply embedded in our culture.

Yes, I just posted a blog entry of my own about the "deaf ears" comment -- over at Edge-Centric. Thanks for pointing this out!

In the "Da Vinci Code" film Sir Ian McKellen plays a character, Leigh Teabing, who has a pronounced disability and uses crutches to walk around. I don't know anything about the book, the film or about that character but I've read that Teabing is the only character in the film that is full of humour, intellect and insight. Watch it and judge for yourself.

On a related note - I really don't believe that a majority of reasonable, Western audiences will come away from the movie thinking that all albinos are evil. But consider that we live in a globalized economy where this movie will be seen in East European, Latin American and Asian nations where there are deep ingrained cultural and religious prejudices against albinos, the mentally ill and the mentally/physically disabled. This movie will only re-enforce their beliefs.

I remember reading an interview with actor who played the evil albino in "Cold Mountain." The actor said that at the end of the day on the movie set he would go out on the town in Romania (where the movie was shot) dressed in his albino makeup. He said that Romanians responded in horror upon seeing him and called him "Drac" meaning "Devil" in Romanian. The actor was very upset about the prejudice that he faced on the streets, but his comments made me wonder -- If he had first hand experience with the prejudice that people with albinism face and he was deeply troubled buy it, then why did he continue to participate in a movie that perpetuates the "evil albino" stereotype? Very odd!

I don't know what Hollywood's problem is. They have one single success demonizing a group of people - e.g. disabled, gays, Sicilian-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans - and they just keep doing it over and over. However, without sounding culturally snobby, I really do think that Western audiences are sophisticated enough to come away from movies and know that not all albinos and disabled people are evil. I worry more about the audiences in nations where a blend of religious narrow-mindness and Communist ideology still dominate their views of the disabled and of people with albinism.

Okay, I sent in a comment earlier egging MJ on, thinking I alone had discovered the gravity of the "deaf ears" quote in the London Free Press article, and then saw that she beat me to it. She's asked me to post another comment expanding on the point instead, but it seems she's ripped it up fairly thoroughly. So I'm left with my smart-aleck commentary (Evil albinos. Always picking on deaf folks, the torturous red-eyed bastards!).

But seriously, I did notice that there was something just short of palpable in the article itself, something that smelled faintly derogatory, about the use of "albinos", "an albino" in describing NOAH's reactions to the film. I'm not sure if I would have noticed it had I not first read Leibs's post. I like to think I would have, but it would’ve been fainter and impossible to articulate. (Not that I’m having much success articulating it now . . . ) Something about the sense of “them” that the article creates when it refers to people with albinism is creepy, almost cinematically creepy.

I agree with Catherine; the reasonable public will not come away from this film or another film thinking that people with albinism are inherently evil, but the stereotype of a pale torturous character (and here I could argue, “Dude, if people with albinism don’t have red eyes, then why do you think that all these characters are “albino”? Maybe they’re just pale guys with red eyes who happen to be evil . . . you don’t think the pale guys on Star Trek are supposed to be albino, do you?” – but that would be silly) compounded with the evidently pre-existing tendency (as evidenced by the little twinge I get from the article) to place people with albinism into a category of “other” – “an albino”, “one of their own” – almost as though referring to another race, nay, SPECIES of humanoid, seems to reinforce the implied anomaly. Can anybody back me up on this? Was there something in the article that felt derisive?

I also promised Mary I’d defend the dungeon-keeper in The Princess Bride. It never occurred to me until today that this character was supposed to be “an albino”. I just thought he was pale – you know, from being in the dungeon. (Stop me if I’m confusing his character with someone else’s.) But I didn’t find him terribly evil; he was actually ironically civil and reasonable. That’s why I defend him – because his first lines break the stereotype, hilariously: (hissing menacingly) “The pit of desssspaaaaair! Don’t even -- ” (coughing, clearing throat, continuing in “normal”, non-evil voice) “Don’t even think about trying to escape.” Hilarious. He really wasn’t scary at all – but you thought he was gonna be!

Okay – that’s the best I got.

Oh, and anybody think the author of the article saw the irony of the “fell on deaf ears” quote, since (s)he stuck it at the momentous end?


Carolyn Anne Anderson wrote this review of the Da Vinci Code book a couple years ago, but it's worth a new read with the movie coming out. Says Anderson: "The tale is told, filled with adjectives of a hobbling, gimping, lurching, hulking, staggering, reeling cripple paired with a ghostly, ghastly, disgusting, fearful, anguished and pityful albino."

Well, at least Ian McKellen took accessibility into consideration when he crafted the movie version of the disabled character Leigh Teabing in the Da Vinci Code. Ha,Ha,Ha!

Read the following:

"However, one element remains and that is Teabing's reliance, due to childhood polio, on leg braces and crutches in the book or "sticks" or canes in the film."

"I use sticks, actually." explains McKellen. "He has to do a little bit too much to be stuck with crutches, up and down stairs in medieval buildings and so on. You'll see in the film, his house and his plane are adapted for someone who's disabled, so it all seems to be part of the story."

Source: The Albuquerque Tribune, Barbara Vancheri, May 18, 2006

Actually, Christina Papamichael at BBC's Ouch! website seems to imply that Silas (the character with Albinism) and Teabing (the character with polio) are the only thrilling people in an otherwise very dull movie.

First of all, it seems unfortunate we need a movie to spawn discussion about such topics. Secondly, albinism can result in a pinkish almost red appearch of the eyes. Third, I think people are smart enough to understand the meaning of the idiom "fall on deaf ears". Last, RELAX, this is purely fiction and for entertainment purposes. Watching a movie or TV show is not going to result in someone becoming more/less prejudice, bigotted nor will the disability movement be set back. Have some open mindedness until you can prove your claims.

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