Malikah Maryam Atoyebi
There is no doubt that imagery and themes in film, music and TV inform what becomes popular culture in any country. For instance, Aki and Pawpaw ( Osita Iheme and Chinedu Ikedieze) went from Nollywood comedy legends to viral internet memes and pop culture icons if I dare say- with Nigerian culture writers with working laptops dedicating mile-long think pieces describing the actors’ sudden take over of the internet through their hilarious movie clips. Another example of this is how daring alternative musician, Santi references vintage Nollywood horror movies in his music videos, from the gothic themes to the graphic visuals. Although these apocalypse-themed Nollywood films of the late 90s and early 2000s allegedly fuelled dangerous trends such as Helen Ukpabio’s child-witch-themed films which resulted in the deaths of many children in Eastern Nigeria, young Nigerians like Santi grew up consuming these movies which became cult classics. At a recent protest against church-instituted sexual abuse in Lagos, a man was spotted wearing a shirt with the words “Feminists are the children of disobedience” — a manifestation of the common belief women must choose obedience and submission over their collective agency and to go against this is a manifestation evil, as written in the movies.
In our hyper-patriarchal society, women are not allowed to take adequate space, to have agency or live undefined by men’s rules. So even in a fictional universe, the aspirational women exist as forgettable, empty projections of Nigeria’s regressive society and its shallow expectations of women. They are intentionally created to juxtapose the designated bad woman, as a lesson on how good women should behave. The lesson is simple: be basic, subservient, aspire only to marriage, shirk your ambitions, bear abuse and violence and live to serve a basic, cheating husband in a tired adire boubou or be subjected to sexual violence, shunned or worse, murdered by men. It is an undeniable fact that Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and this is evident in many Yoruba films, where rape is still portrayed as a teaching point rather than a violent and unacceptable crime.
However, many young women today have rejected this norm, and so, it is no surprise that no-one remembers much about the many ‘good girl’ roles Nkiru Silvanus, Stella Damasus and others were typecast to play while we still reference Karashika and other supposed female villains decades after the characters graced our screens. Domitilla was one of the first local movies I ever heard of – which my parents refused to let us watch due to its seeming adult content. The film was probably our movie industry’s first opportunity to address the nuances of sex work. While the sex workers in the film were powerful, complicated women driven by different circumstances, the writers punished them violently for daring to monetize their bodies — something that is still heavily policed within our conservative society. With the resurgence of social media accounts dedicated to curating the yore days Nollywood nostalgia, many young Nigerians triggered by nostalgia, revisit their childhood flicks, where they quickly learn that most of the female villains they had demonized were simply misunderstood, bad bitches..
In Women’s Cot, the writers quickly discarded the strong feminist themes in the third act, labelling women’s empowerment as a motive for witchcraft. In Emotional Crack, the female lead chose to return to her abusive husband after finding love with another woman — because according to Nollywood, it’s better to be with a violent man than to love freely or be queer. As someone who sees bits of herself in fictional characters, I love to watch them make irrational decisions and then call them out on Twitter, as though they could take human form from the words of the writers who crafted them and be alive enough to read my angry tweets. As such, I see myself in Insecure’s Issa Dee, who is a walking trash bag struggling to make that big career break with a sprinkling of her BFF Molly, a smart AF baddie who can dress for the gods. On my better days, I am Elektra Wintour from Pose, the shady queen with legs for days or even Blanca Evangelista, the house mother with a heart bigger than Jevinik’s plate of hot rice and stew.
While these women are flawed and complex, they all share two things in common, one of which is authenticity- an attribute that stems from the fact that they are all written by women who understand what it means to live and breathe as a woman — straight or otherwise. Talented women like Issa Rae, Janet Mock, and Ava Duvernay who all share African-American origins created characters as much more than hollow projections of real-life women – they filled them up with relatable stories and realities that depict how complex yet fascinating women can be and that there is no right or wrong way to be feminine.
One might think we have it better given how our industry is the third-largest in the world. We could even consider the fact that women like Genevieve Nnaji, Omoni Oboli, Mo Abudu, Nadine Ibrahim and other women have created seats at the table as an indication of progress. In 2018, Ms. Nnaji crafted an aspirational character in the ambitious Ada in her directorial debut Lionheart. Kemi Adetiba also delivered the iconic Eniola Salami, a philanthropic but feared politician with a dark past in King Of Boys, a depiction of the multilayered woman we all need. Ifeoma Chukwuogo and her peers are also doing the work — a testament of what progress and female inclusivity looks like. Essentially, as the women are taking control of Nollywood, the representation has improved.
Taking a cue from Nigerians’ innate interest in Telenovelas and soapy dramas, Multichoice’s TV giant, Africa Magic was also able to craft multilayered characters while keeping their audience attached to shows like Hotel Majestic, Hush and many more. The fantastic Hotel Majestic took us away from Lagos to Edo state while Jemeji showed an insight into the rich cultural heritage of Badagry people from their deities to the language. Fatimah Gimsay, a screenwriter who works primarily in the TV industry with credits in Battleground, Jemeji, and Hush believes that Nigerian TV is moving in the right direction. From her perspective, old films were one-dimensional not only because men were primarily the sole writers and runners of the industry, but because the preferred selling point was to pass a message across with each film, however unrealistic. This resonates in real life where our society holds women to a higher standard, offering unending life lessons, tips and rules as opposed to fixing the barriers stacked against them. “There’s inclusivity somewhere but it might not be reaching the right market. I work for TV and not film, there’s huge inclusivity from the crew to the characters. We’re able to achieve this because you can’t write a 260-episode show and not include everyone, that’s shitty storytelling”, Gimsay opines.
However, all of this raises important questions on the invisible women in our film since the TV scene seems to be moving in the right direction and Africa Magic’s TV shows have proven that Nigerians can enjoy inclusive and compelling content when done right. Where are the women living with disabilities? In a country with so many Muslims, why is the token Muslim character written as the unintelligent comic relief? When will we see the Hausa woman who isn’t in an arranged marriage? Will only respectable women keep getting screen time? Will we stop seeing Ms Etomi play her sweet, cheerful self in almost every movie?
References to the ‘#MeToo era’ are getting tedious in the media, but with sexual abuse still strife in our institutions, one would think the creatives behind-the-scenes would give some thought to educating themselves on how to properly portray such a sensitive topic. If film truly is a representation of our world, when will our movies tackle something other than the lives of rich Nigerians and their long drives across the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge? When will I ever see a woman like myself — a non-IJGB-Non- bougie accent- having- broke-millennial-‘ Alhaja To Ta Lenu-working-class-social-media-savvy-tired-razz-woman in movies seemingly created for me? Women like me are looking outside for representation and while we see bits of ourselves in other women, fictional and otherwise, is it too much to ask that charity starts from home this time? Nigeria is home to over 200 ethnic groups, each with its own peculiar culture and history. We have an advantage because some of our stories have fortunately remained untouched by colonialism. We have a vast history of powerful women whose tales remain untold, and there are also talented female writers out there who are willing to retell their stories.
You can keep those dry Lagos cheating stories.
Maryam is an Entertainment writer and editor based in Abuja. Her work has been published in Zikoko, MTV Shuga and many more.