When Nigerian film first appeared on the scene in 1992 with Keneth Nnuebe’s Living in Bondage, poor quality and obscurity threatened to overwhelm this tiny industry. Nigerian English-language film, or ‘Nollywood’ as it is commonly referred to, is now the world’s second most productive film industry, after Bollywood. Thanks to the easily accessible medium, the English language, Nollywood films are being watched not only throughout Nigeria, but also across Africa. According to Juliet Highet they even have a strong following in the Caribbean and among African-Americans. Nollywood films cover a range of real life issues which are not unique to Nigeria. The subject matter, however, is explored from a uniquely African perspective. “For the first time and in the purest, rawest form, Africa is representing and interpreting Africa,” states Zina Saro-Wiwa. This statement seems to ignore the pre-existence of African art, poetry and theatre which have played this role in the past, but certainly picks up on the fact that Nollywood makes African representations and interpretations of Africa more widely available for enjoyment and analysis. In addition, Nollywood’s representations of women are highly valuable windows for those who wish to gain more insights into African feminist discourses.
Feminism in African film and literature must be explored from an African perspective, but viewers of Nollywood films often feel that most of its producers and directors shirk this responsibility. Nollywood includes very strong moralising elements in most of its films which reinforce, rather than challenge, the patriarchal standards of longstanding African, Christian and Muslim narratives in Nigeria. Nollywood continues to portray Nigerian women as psychologically disempowered. Even when women are portrayed in positions of physical or economic power, this power is often displayed as corrupting and subverting the ‘natural order’. The portrayal of women in Nigerian films often works to cement patriarchal stereotypes of women. Two specific films are presented as case studies: Omata Women (2003) and More than a Woman (2005).
In her 2010 paper Conflicting framings of women in Nollywood videos, Agatha Ukata analyses two films: Omata Women (2003), produced by Okigwe Ekweh and directed by Ndubisi Okoh, and More than a Woman (2005), produced by Ossy Okeke and directed by Tarilla Thompson. Her conclusion is that the traditional roles of women are inverted in these films in order to reinforce traditional conceptions of power relations within families and society. This is most obvious in Omata Women, which tracks the lives of four Nigerian women – Chinasa, Ijiele, Ifeoma and Nkechi – in their bid to gain wealth and power, even at the expense of their husbands. In true Nollywood exaggerated style, everything from fraud and murder to black magic become part of these women’s repertoire. For a while, each appears somewhat successful in their greed. Yet, as expected, each eventually finds retribution through the destruction of her family, her beauty or even her own life.
How these ascents to and descents from power occur is crucial to understanding the moralising message of Omata Women. Chinasa, for example, kills both her husband and her lover to inherit their money. She then steals more money from a new young lover, before swearing an oath attesting to her innocence. Incredibly, divine retribution is meted out on her by the goddess Ogugwu, who literally strikes her dead. The other women’s ascents are similarly marred by negative and immoral elements: Ifeoma has an affair with a druglord and is rebellious towards her parents and Ogugwu; Ijiele resorts to black magic to control her husband; and Nkechi goes from being a lawyer to a prostitute and a drug addict. In each case, the women are portrayed as greedy, rebellious - characteristics that, along with the neglect of their families, bring about their downfall.
The inversion of traditional roles is most obvious in Ijiele’s story. Her real name, we are told, is Agnes. She however chooses the nickname ‘Ijiele’, a typically masculine name, symbolising both lions and masquerades. Although she insists on being called Ijiele, her husband refuses to call her anything but Agnes. In this way, he assumes the traditional role of a husband who disciplines his wife. Then, one day Ijiele bewitches her husband’s food and, with characteristic sound effects, we witness him being turned into her ‘houseboy’. From this point on, her husband performs typically feminine chores of going to the market, cooking dinner and cleaning the house. His ‘denigration’ is further ridiculed through the use of taunting music: “This woman go turn you to houseboy, this woman fit to kill you” (from the Omata Women soundtrack). Simultaneously, Ijiele claims she is a lesbian. Given the current attitude towards homosexuality in Africa in general and its association here with a general immoral trend, lesbianism is presented as an inversion of traditional power roles. Like Chinasa, Ijiele’s immoral power-grabbing comes to an abrupt end when Ifeoma’s (one of the other women characters in the film) anger and greed prompts her to throw acid onto Ijiele’s face, thus breaking the spell she had over her husband. The moralistic message of Omata Women is clear: any attempt by women to reject the patriarchal power structure is immoral and doomed – by their own psychological corruptedness.
In More than a Woman, the message is less clear. As Ukata points out, we may even be tempted to admire and to sympathise with the beautiful rogue, Trechia, as she disguises herself as a man and fleeces some of the most highly-guarded stores in town. Indeed, her ingenuity and her ability to evade some of the best law enforcers, coupled with her glamorous good looks make her an attractive heroine. Olowulfe Aje highlights that Trechia’s character is not alone among Nollywood’s female heroines – many others make use of the femme fatale in a glamorous light. Yet, as Ukata points out, Trechia’s power is malignant. She is a criminal and the film ends with her arrest, leaving the audience in no doubt of who is inevitably right. Again, we witness feminine power being represented as socially deviant. In fact, Ukata feels that Trechia serves as a bad, albeit attractive, role model for Nigeria’s young women in a climate of an increasing crime rate.
Although both films show woman gaining power, the viewer is left with no doubt as to what moral calibre this power has. The female characters may display ingenuity and determination in their quest for power, but they fail to become true heroines. Instead, their quest for power ironically reinforces the belief that a power belongs to men alone and that women should be subservient. Juliet Highet tells us that this portrayal of woman is a common trend in Nollywood, which is noted as either portraying traditional ‘good wives’, ‘Madonnas’, or glitzy and glamorous ‘Jezebels’.
It is easy to blame the directors and producers of these films for their questionable representations of women. One must consider, however, as Ikheloa points out, that art is often a reflection of the climate in which it is produced. Nollywood’s films are being produced in a context where civil servants reportedly still prefer male children over females. In many ways, Nollywood has chosen to play into the misogynistic atmosphere of Nigeria’s consumer market to ensure its viewership.
‘Money over morals’ has even been adopted by Nollywood’s female directors. Joke Jacobs, Director of Studies at Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts, recalls that she saw a film, scripted by a woman, which portrayed women in the same malignant light as Nollywood films. When she questioned the script writer, she was told that the movie had been scripted according to the wants of the public and “besides, the reflection of women was true to their real life character”. This statement reveals that many Nigerian women have internalised the misogynistic sentiments of Nigeria’s current climate. By acting as a medium through which such sentiments can be expressed uncritically, Nollywood regularly disseminates patriarchal values to its viewership, which consists largely of women and children, many of whom report enjoying Nollywood films.
Despite this bleak picture of Africa’s largest film industry, Nollywood remains situated in a unique position where it is able to challenge patriarchal stereotypes. If it did so, it would not be the voice of the West imposing feminism on Africa, but rather African men and women inciting change in their own communities. Fortunately, calls for such a change have already been made by Nigerian academics and activists. Perhaps, if Nigerian directors, producers and scriptwriters choose to produce accurate and challenging narratives about African women, it will contribute to a change in discourse and support feminist issues in Africa instead of giving feminists sleepless nights.
This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see www.consultancyafrica.com.