Picofarad #27

Fall 2012

Notes From a Pale Writer

There's a lot of effort these days being put into making sf and fandom more conscious of diversity and inclusion. More and more attention is being paid to the treatment of women, non-Caucasians, and sexual minorities in print, on screen, and at conventions. With all this going on, could there be any group of human beings left which cannot be treated as normal within some part of the literature?

Would I be bringing it up here if the answer were "no"?

All right, you newly educated, sensitive, aware fans of the 21st century, let's talk albinism. Full or partial, your choice. Can you think of one character you've ever read about or seen who has pigmentation issues that do not signify a status as either evil, magical, cursed, or marked as the Chosen One? I can think of exactly one myself, which I'll name at the end of this column.

It's everywhere once you start noticing it. Just in the last few books I've read, there's been the necromancer in Honeyed Words, who has white streaks in his hair ever since rubbing the blood of a dragon in it, and the Sauron-equivalent in The Unremembered, who was turned into an albino by the gods as punishment so that everyone could see his evilness at a glance.

TV Tropes traces the Evil Albino in literature back to Moby-Dick, though unnatural paleness has a long mythical tradition before that. In these enlightened times, of course, we have good albinos as well: most of you have probably heard of Elric of Melniboné, or seen the ads for Powder. Just last year I was reading the Belgariad and Malloreon, where one character has a white lock which is described over and over again as a mark of sorcery, even though none of the other sorcerors appear to have one.

So much for the English-speaking world. What about anime, with its tons of white-haired characters? Yes, it's got that, but also hair of every other color in existence. When a show goes for a more realistic-looking style, brown or black hair is code for a character who is relatively normal and trustworthy, and white hair naturally means the opposite. As a current example, Last Exile and its present sequel, Fam: The Silver Wing both feature white-haired villains, and low pigmentation in general appears to be linked to semi-mystical abilities inherited from some past advanced civilization. Last year we had Tiger & Bunny with a very pale character who serves as an anti-hero. Mushishi is my favorite manga of all time, and I heartily recommend it to everyone, but the recurring protagonist does have white hair and one green eye (the other is missing) as scars from an attack by a powerful magical creature.

Looking forward, are there any signs of improvement? Well, the latest high-profile albino in sf is the heroine of Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch and possible sequels. Sunny is an albino of African descent, who has magical powers-ah, but her non-albino friends also have them. Good so far. However, on reading the reviews, it turns out she also has extra-special bonus abilities due to her freakish genetics. Aaaaargh.

You're probably wondering by now if this is some kind of personal issue for me, so yes. I'm a partial one myself, lucky to have such a mild case that it's rarely recognized for what it is. The white hairs just get taken to be old age; the minimal ability to tan just confirms the impression that I'm a geek who never goes outside; the eye color may vary more than most people's, but at least at any given moment it's almost always a color that looks appropriate for a human. (Note to all the fanfic authors out there who write about everyone being in awe of their self-insertion character's fantastic sparkly color-changing eyes: Seriously, in real life, no one notices that sort of thing. Just as well, really.)

So who's the one character in all of fantastic literature who can go through life with absolutely no one making a big deal about their albinism? Can't guess? It's Rogue, from the various versions of the X-Men. Yes, she's a mutant with superpowers, but that white hair is not linked to the X-gene. (What about Storm, then, I hear you ask? She's descended from a long line of witches with white hair. Sorry!)

So there you go: the whitewashed, often misogynistic world of American superhero comics is the one place I can name that has managed to get over albinism at least once. Can you name any others?

Next: The Encounter Log

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