‘One minute you’re a star student and the next, you feel like you
failed at some life exam.’
In her directorial debut, Osiberu explores the trouble with socio-cultural expectations and loving as one chooses. Dakore Akande plays Isoken, a successful 34-year old woman, who happens to be unmarried; much to her mother’s chagrin. Isoken’s marital status seems unlikely to change soon, until she meets Kevin (Marc Rhys) and Osaze (Joseph Benjamin).
Isoken screams chick-flick with its bright colours and great picture quality, and the costume director deserves an award for the most consistent element of brilliance in this film. I have an instinctive contempt for shabby work and here, the acting is often cringe-inducing. Funke Akindele however, shines brightly – as the best moments in this film more often than not; had her in it. Despite this, this film is quietly charming because it is relatable. Most, if not all Nigerian women of a certain age can attest to the pressure of familial and societal expectations regarding marriage. In many parts of Nigeria, and indeed, the world over, marriage is seen as a woman’s ultimate accomplishment – and children are the crowning glory. Girls, like chattel, are exchanged between male owners, moving from their fathers’ houses to their husbands’. This, according to large swathes of the population, is the natural progression of things. It is impossible not to feel vulnerable, in the face of such normalised gender expectations.
In the spirit of these outdated and sexist attitudes, Isoken’s mother berates, taunts and belittles her throughout the film; because despite Isoken’s personal achievements, her singlehood is a disgrace her mother has taken upon herself to rectify. In one particular scene, Isoken receives an earful from her mother for deigning to discuss politics and a prospective MBA with the men, rather than assisting in the kitchen. Her mother’s gripe is that girls today want to be “created like men” and instead of building homes, want to “act like men”. And much like Isoken’s mother, otherwise well-educated Nigerians will careen into intolerance at the barest threat to status quo. So I knew, watching this film, that Isoken’s mother symbolised these realities and was not simply a comic piece reflecting generations long past. In her pride at what she sees as her forthright manner, Isoken’s mother reminds me of the folly of two types of women: she struggling with internalised misogyny who knows no better, and the pseudo-progressive who – unwittingly or not,- perpetuates patriarchal ideals whilst claiming to be liberated.
My immediate reaction these days is a general lack of forgiveness toward those who are unable to grasp that men are not the standard of human to aspire to, or be measured by. I am exasperated by the number of times I have needed to point out that the biological differences between men and women do not make any jobs or tasks better suited to performance by any specific sex; – and I have learned the hard way, not to take for granted how difficult it is to unlearn behaviours and ideas that millennia of oppression have ingrained in men and women both. Still, we are slowly progressing to a place and time when gender roles are dismantled; when we do not conform to the limitations that society tries to impose on us; when building a home and cooking and cleaning are not a woman’s role, simply because she is a woman.
This film’s lifeline is the comedy, which provides some relief from the occasional bad acting. However, the fact that the conversations between Isoken and her girlfriends revolved around men and their availability or absence, is grating. Yet, even I cannot deny the truth in that portrayal. We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what men think of them; and whether they can be submissive, virtuous or good enough. In essence, Isoken fails the Bechdel-Wallace test completely. The test measures whether a work of fiction contains two female characters who talk to each other about things other than men. For all its’ supposedly empowered and intelligent female characters, Osiberu ensures that even at work; men are the topic. The trouble with this sort of thing is, – intentionally or not; – it perpetuates a preconceived idea about women based on their sex; one that stereotypes us as superficial and lacking depth or any ability to hold conversations beyond the purported needful (men, kids, shoes and bags). It behoves on writers and directors to do better for the women they choose to cast. We must move beyond these unthinking, lazy plotlines and we need people like Osiberu to take their responsibility in this regard more seriously.
One scene between Isoken and her friends, in particular, strikes me as important. We find out that Isoken enjoys wearing her natural hair and considers showcasing her quirkiness as being true to herself. When asked out on a date however, her friends want her to “do something about [her] hair” and make more of an effort to be glamorous; to do something softer, a bit more feminine, with it. The assumption of course, is that natural hair cannot be glamorous, cannot be soft – cannot even be feminine. This is the painful reality for many black people and our natural hair sisters. We have long been subjected to Eurocentric standards of beauty: on TV, in the media, in the workplace, by our own love interests; – that we have internalised, and hold ourselves and others to said standards. What sort of existence is it; where the hair that grows from your head, is not good enough to love? That even your real self isn’t? Isoken complains that it feels dishonest – this need to be untrue to herself. We learn from her friends though, that truthfulness to oneself is not appreciated on first dates, and not, in fact until marriage.
We need to ask ourselves if the damage to ourselves brought on by all of these external pressures; is at all worth it. What does it say about us that we hold ourselves and each other to such contrived standards of perfection, that our love interests feel the need to be something other, for us?
One thing Isoken does well, is capture the folly that is typical of many a Nigerian wedding; preparations which tend to overwhelm – whilst the couple and their wellbeing are relegated to the background. Isoken specifically notes how much like a guest she feels;- at her own wedding. Today, the craze is flashy weddings: expensive rental cars, artificially enhanced settings and uber cool hashtags. I begrudge no one these things, but the fact is love, relationships, roles, marriage and the concept of self in Nigerian society have needed re-evaluation for some time now. Furthermore, we have no place encouraging others into a life of pretense and will find no happiness, real or imagined; doing so.
After a wedding, many couples find that they are emotionally ill-equipped to make such a journey together. Others find another side to their spouses that they are shamed into enduring, and still others emerge from wedding celebrations in financial straits. The one common theme amongst these, is that the couples find themselves alone. The same pressure that forced them together, disappears when the troubles begin. We are taught that every marriage will have its’ challenges, but what no one says is how much of these could be avoided if the new couple had only waited to figure themselves out first – alone.
As it turns out, one of the two the moments in this film with any real depth, is a very late scene with Isoken’s sister. Osiberu briefly captures the danger with cleaving to another before knowing and loving yourself first, even whilst acknowledging that those who harbour regrets still dutifully love their husbands and kids. Through Isoken’s sister, we are given a brief look behind the scenes on this marriage thing; a late exposé, that this official coupling isn’t all it’s made out to be. Remembering the conflict Isoken faces and my own ideals, I am forced to ask myself; is it courage not to settle for less than one desires? Or, as a friend once implied; an idealism that has no place in a world that rewards pragmatism?
Wholly unexplained and unexplored in any depth, is why dating a white man is problematic or “disgraceful” and this absence of any real reason, makes the entire conflict seem contrived. Isoken’s friend ventures her opinion that Nigerian women who date white men must be suffering from post-colonial blues, and in truth, we Africans share the same curse of a quickness to dismiss our own selves in favour or honour of our white-skinned counterparts. We often tend to treat white-skinned people better in our own countries and defer to them in theirs. Almost as if black people can never be as good, or as wise or as worthy of respect. However, we must needs remember, that in “other-ing” people, on the basis of race or ethnicity or tribe or which god they pray to or which direction they face to pray; we reinforce harmful stereotypes and prejudices. More importantly, there is something dangerously reductive in basing a woman’s identity or worth, on the race, ethnicity or religion of the man she decides to be with. By failing to discuss any of this at all, Osiberu seems to share in the sentiment expressed by Isoken’s friend. As if Isoken, in her love for Kevin, is something of an oddity.
I may protest and refuse when faced with injustice done on the basis of gender, or each time I feel like I’m made to prove my worth – but it is wearisome. Ultimately, for me and for many others, Osiberu could have done more towards explaining the importance of dismantling the culture of expectations that unduly burdens women; a culture that tells women that we are not enough – that we need a man to complete us. In Isoken, it almost seems that the satirical elements that could have been explored, were sacrificed for a superficial love story. In doing so, this film stands out as little more than two hours of comic relief.