Re-imagining ourselves: music, film and the representation of Nigerian women

With the increasing popularity of Nigerian pop music, and the astoundingly productive Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, Nigeria's creative industries are attracting worldwide attention. Saratu Abiola looks at the problematic representations of women in the Nigerian media

Saratu Abiola
17 March 2013

On the surface, sexism in much of popular hip-hop culture has influenced Nigerian youth culture today, and has redefined the images of Nigerian women in film and music. If you grew up in the 1990s in Nigeria, you remember Onyeka Onwenu, all closely-cropped hair and wholesome elegance, with her songs of lost love and unity. You will also remember Christy Essien-Igbokwe’s gentle mien, and her impressive Yoruba showcased in her hit song “Seun Rere”, or even her tears in her music video for “See the children”. Evi-Edna Ogholi had her hits as well; you probably blew out candles on a cake to her “Happy Birthday” song. These women, along with a few others, were pop-stars, and earned plaudits and renown alongside the many male artists that dominated Nigerian music in the 1990s. But the Mama Africa imagery that prevailed in that cultural moment meant these pop-stars did not roam too far off from cultural expectations. Today's young female artists are different. They dress more sexily than those who came before them and quietly acknowledge their sexuality, albeit not flaunting it as strongly in their music as their American counterparts. The warm, maternal images that ruled the 1990s would look ungainly on contemporary performers such as Waje, or Tiwa Savage, or Omawunmi, or just about any of the young women who now take the stage to the applause of fans all over the country.

That is not to say that expectations of sexiness and fashion that come with the Nigerian youthful affinity to hip-hop have completely overridden what has been for years the more demure Nigerian ideal. Still, what popular music and film projects as an image of Nigerian womanhood does not in the end reflect the realities of Nigeria's diverse population of women. Even with the superficial differences in outlook, Nigerian pop music, just as popular film, depict women in the same stereotypical way, which leaves little room for representing the full diversity of Nigerian women, or for exploring the realities of the many gendered exclusions and double-standards in Nigerian society. This continuity in stereotypical cultural depictions does not bode well for any improvement in the representation of women in the popular imagination.

Women on the screen

Nigerian film and television shows have been around longer than the more youth-driven popular music industry, but the parallels between the representations of women in the more liberal youth culture and the conservative mores being advocated for in Nigerian film are striking. Having internalized much of commercial American hip-hop’s excesses in music videos, popular music videos often feature overt displays of wealth alongside depictions of women as money-hungry and easily bought. Arachie, in her paper Crossing Over: The Influence of Black American Female Representation on Nigerian Films and Music Videos observes Nigerian star duo P-Square’s video for ‘E No Easy’ (which became a popular hit across Africa):

“The video girls are either inside of these forms of vehicles or sitting on top of them, while of course fanning themselves with large amounts of cash and dancing. All of the women in this music video represented the gold-digger image.  By what the lyrics of this song suggests, it seems as if the true success of a man is measured by materialistic items – especially money, automobiles and women.  The amount of money and luxury cars he has, the expensive Champaign he is drinking, and of course having different shades of beautiful women by his side (whether they are there for love or just for the money) were things that were valued in this video.  According to the lyrics these three things is what is “supposed to” make a man happy, successful and make him praise God”.

On the other side of the representational spectrum, women in much of the film industry are framed within a limiting ‘good/bad’ woman paradigm, with the ‘bad woman’ motif resting on the image of the woman-witch. The lack of nuance in the representation of women is a reflection of Nigerian society’s inclination towards shame and condemnation in its moral policing. What television programmes like the popular drama Superstory, or the hugely popular Yoruba-language human interest shows L’Abe Orun

(Under the Sky) and now-discontinued Nkan Mbe (Strange Things Abound) that uncover witch covens and instances of sorcery have in common, is stunning moral clarity in the adherence to religiously-derived edicts of good behavior. As professor Akin Adesokan writes in Nollywood and the Idea of Nigerian Cinema, exhortation to moral character “calculated to advance larger arguments about morally consequential conduct,” is even observable in pre-Nollywood era Nigerian films of the 1970s and 1980s, “as part of a broad cultural-nationalist discourse, the use of film to project specific ideas about the country, and it took the form of aggregating the expressive forms of diverse cultural traditions for a collective narrative.” For the Nigerian woman, more vulnerable to such exhortations by virtue of socioeconomic position, this means enduring the gaze of a society quicker to flatten her personhood and judge her than it would the man at her side.

The damage of stereotypes

From creationist stories to conspiracy theories, it is humanity’s inclination to look to stories to explain our world. This in turn underscores the power of art and culture in shaping perceptions of marginalized groups. These stereotypes of women’s behavior as either Mama Africa or femme fatale - as Agatha Ukata argues in her analysis of Nollywood - serve to validate and rationalize why and how women are marginalized in their roles. Yet, everywhere you look, there are women who buck these stereotypes in their everyday lives, but have to contend with being measured against myth.

Gaye Tuchman coined the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the ignoring or stereotyping of women in mass media in America, in favor of representations of a forced, repressive ideal. As she notes in her book Symbolic Annihilation, individuals must not only be familiar with the past for a society to survive, but they must also be willing to meet changing conditions. “Nowhere is this need more as readily identifiable as in the area of sex roles – sex roles are social guidelines for sex-appropriate appearance, interests, skills, behaviors, and self-perceptions.” This makes the way that the  mischaracterization of women seeps into  youth culture all the more destructive.

Manufacturing representations of women

The images of the "sexy”, the economically independent young woman and the woman witch, representations of women in Nigerian popular culture remain out of sync with the social realities we live. Even though women are increasingly taking part in Nigerian society, women are still very much a minority in socioeconomic terms. The economic development among women, while welcome and impressive in recent years, has been uneven. According to the Gender in Nigeria report released by The British Council in 2012, women who are steadily employed either have very basic education or are graduates in the university. These are the women, one would imagine, that make up the 15% of Nigerian women with bank accounts, the 7.2% who own their own land, the 20% of women-owned formal sector enterprise. Men are more likely to own the business and the media-houses. Even if women are avid consumers of magazines, television, film and music, men are much better placed to control content and representation than women are. Economic and cultural powers are very much in the hands of men.

Taking the data into account, the lack of diverse representations of women in the media is no surprise. What does come as a surprise, though, is how much this is taken for granted. This lack of critique has been dangerous for women, as it has allowed for negative representations of women to become a standard against which women are measured.

Embracing the Remix

So where to from here? If sociologist and writer Gaye Tuchmann is right, and the dominant perceptions of marginalized groups are at their strongest during the threat of social change, then there is no point in hoping to do away with the damaging myths of Nigerian womanhood. As can be observed from the Black-American and women's experience that Tuchmann wrote about in the 1970s, one-dimensional characterization does not end on its own merely as a by-product of increased economic power on the part of the marginalized group. Indeed a key feature of destructive prevailing ideas is that those who are stereotyped tend themselves be consumers of stereotypical representation. It is no surprise that the greater challenge posed by the misrepresentation of women is that many Nigerian women believe in the myths that are perpetuated about them.

Members of the marginalized group need to recognize these representations as faulty, and try to change them. If the media is flooded with the monochromatic, then through our own media and in recognition of our own power, take every opportunity to display the full spectrum of who we are.  Today, Nigerian women of all backgrounds wear Ankara fabric, formerly only used for traditional garb, sewn into modern styles, and worn with fashionable Western-style shoes and handbags. In much the same way, it is possible to re-craft visions of Nigeria’s diverse womanhood in ways that resonate with women’s lived experience. With the same inventiveness, we can re-imagine ourselves and project these images in the way we wish to be known in both media and film. Still, before any advances can be made in the representation of women in Nigerian media, we all must first see these representations as a problem.

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