The Issue of Ethnic Hair in “Avatar”

February 22, 2010 — 7 Comments

So I watched the blockbuster film “Avatar for the second time tonight with my parents. Obviously there are many racial/cultural issues to upack with the movie, but for this post I wanted to focus on one thing: Neytiri’s hair.

Neytiri, the main female lead in Avatar, played by Zoe Saldana is the N’avi warrior-princess love interest of main character Jake Sully. For those that have not seen the movie, the N’avi are a tribe of 10 ft tall, blue colored humanoids that inhabit the moon-planet Pandora in the year 2154. Humans have traveled to Pandora from their barren Earth to mine an ore called “unobtainium” (+2 points for subtlety there) that is worth 20 million dollars a kilo. Too bad the blue people refuse to cooperate. So the humans have to bring in the big guns.

The N’avi people are uber-naturalists, living in harmony with their utopian Pandoran environment around them and worship an Earth goddess called Eywah.  The females of the tribe are warriors as well, and fight side by side with the males when the time comes to confront the humans, or, “skywalkers”.

I mean the representations are clear though. Blue N’avi people of Pandora = perceptions of colonized brown/black people of Earth.

Okay back to Neytiri. For most of the movie, she rocks braided hair. Braids are obviously worn by many black/African women. It is an “ethnic” hairstyle.

Neytiri is rockin' the braids!

I noticed Neytiri in braids for most of the movie. For a good part of the film, she was either fighting or teaching Jake about the N’avi people. She had a decidedly masculine role in educating Jake in the beginning and fighting alongside him later in the movie.

Howevever there are some moments where she is more feminine. I noticed during the traditional ceremonies she wore her hair like this:

Neytiri's got that good hair!

A follower on twitter mentioned to me that Neytiri wore her hair loose during the love scene between her and Jake. I can’t remember that scene specifically. Anyway, some may not understand why hair is an issue, but to those women in the African/African American community, hair is a BIG DEAL. Many black women feel societal pressure to straighten their naturally curly hair, in order to conform to a white/caucasian standard of beauty. Even the N’avi men wore braided hair.

In sum:

In Avatar, braided hair = masculine, warrior. Loose, straight hair = feminine, pretty, a touch of passivity.

I don’t expect James Cameron or the boy’s club at 20th Century Fox to understand the subtle societal message that is being sent about beauty aesthetics in Avatar. I get that. But I can’t deny there is a message being sent about the the relationship between the hairstyles of ethnic women and the way the hairstyles are perceived by males of white society.


(Full disclosure: I proudly wear my hair natural. Afros, twists, braids, the whole shebang!)

7 responses to The Issue of Ethnic Hair in “Avatar”


    I noticed that too! I was like “Where did her braids go?!!! But I then I thought..okay you’re thinking way too much into it. I don’t know. I was kinda bummed her hair changed for that scene.


    You know, a friend of mine on facebook said, “Maybe she puts her hair in braids to keep them out of her face in battle…” Could be…. And yes, sometimes I think I’m also reading too much into it too lol.


    Funny you should mention that black women feel pressure to straighten their naturally curly hair…I think a lot of white women do, too. My hair is naturally curly and if I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me why I don’t ever straighten it, I could probably buy a pack of gum or something.

    You mentioned the non-braided hair being “passivity” in Avatar….I was watching the TV show Castle the other night and one of the characters was supposed to be a call girl at night/law student by day. When she’s a law student, her hair is straight. When she’s a call girl, it’s curly. And this girl was white. So I think the standard of “curly = sexy, straight = business” isn’t just about ethnic women, I think it gets applied to all of us. And I agree with you, I think it’s crap!!!!


    One reason that I didn’t want to watch this movie was because of the whole great white savior angle, because of course the N’avi can’t defend themselves unless white dude in disguise comes to save the day. But then the hair thing was something that I saw mentioned on another hair blog and it was like damn, really? Once again, loose, wavy or straight = beautiful, soft, desirable whereas a purely ethnic style (other than Bo Derek in 10) gets to be a sign of androgynous strength. YAY!


    Wow the navi people rep the native americans obviously not black people people are really dumb like this SAME thing happend in world history with the whites coming to takeover america from the natives…get some education

    Just trying to be objective November 19, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    One often reacts, and make comments based on feelings, that usually mirror our own personas, often being insecurity.
    Here’s another angle, just keep an open mind please. So the lady with the braided hair, and native population in the film for that matter, sport a hair style representative of an ethnic culture.
    Considering that at the end of the film the natives basically win, and restore balance in the nature of their planet, wouldn’t you be able to say that they are empowering those ethnic groups represented by this hair style, instead of just looking at the negative connotation?

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