The aesthetics of a time tell you everything you need to know about a setting. I see uniforms, I make way for the battalion. I see traditional attire, I’m headed straight for the party jollof. I see a blonde wig, fishnet top, and long nails pinching a half-burnt cigarette, and immediately I know I am home among the Nollywood bad girls that raised me. Affectionately called the golden age, the years between 1992 and 2006 birthed an aesthetic that defined an era of youthful experimentation with glamorous storytelling.
As the trend cycle demands that everything old becomes new again, this over the top era spoke to the ills and aspirations of its time, then became “razz” under the guise of social progress, and is once again gaining steam as viewers of all ages reckon with the true state of affairs for women in male-dominated spaces. Questions of gender inequality, sexual autonomy, and independence clashed against social ills of autocracy, economic disparity and end times propaganda (rooted in the rising popularity of televangelism.
At the turn of the century, these films highlighted backward gender politics in our society, and in the 2010s, it seemed these wrongs were being righted in the publication of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s global bestselling manifesto, We Should All Be Feminists, and Liberia appointing its first woman head of state in two-term president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Twenty years later, this delusion of cosmetic progress is crumbling as African women still face issues of financial freedom, autonomy and rights to self-expression against the hostile backdrop of a flailing economy and ancient leaders that refuse to update their conservative, punitive laws.
The iconic characters of Nollywood’s golden era set an industry standard for their contemporaries, and the resurgence of their aesthetics, catalogued for social media by @nolly.babes and @yungnollywood, have done well to celebrate and mythify female characters who were painted as villains at the time. As audiences have become more sophisticated in our understanding of character development, we have come to recognize these femme fatales as anti-heroes, or better still, complex dynamic characters placed in the impossible reality that is being a woman in a regressive, patriarchal state. To navigate fears and assumptions about society and women of this era, two femme villain archetypes emerged to encompass a nation’s anxieties about The Modern Woman (cue thunderclap and horror music):
The Witch or Mami Water
The witch or mami water, a popular fixture in 90s Nollywood horror, appears to scare warn viewers about the consequences of spiritual decay. (Mami water is a mythical creature of the sea who is said to charm, bless, or curse mortals depending on how she perceives their character and often appears as a mermaid). As art mirrors life, evangelical Christianity in the 80s and 90s thrived on demonizing nonbelievers; and on film, this translated to cartoonish portrayals of indigenous rites and worship that inspired more fear than curiosity among audiences. Veteran director Christian Onu heightens simmering tensions between “good” and “evil” in the 1996 classic, Karishika, where the forces of evil are led in battle by a possessed Sandra Achums, following an unsuccessful pregnancy and the untimely death of her husband.
Other witches of this era famously include Nneka, the Pretty Serpent, who is also born from unexplained infertility, and Score to Settle’s Sade, who is widowed and abandoned by in-laws before joining the dark side. Failed motherhood is a recurring theme for the witch archetype, echoing a persistent belief in the cultural landscape that there is something fundamentally flawed about women who cannot or refuse to become mothers.
Though victimized by entry-level CGI and heavy makeup, what makes the Nollywitch truly frightening is the way she subverts cliches of women in horror movies. The witch is not an object of sacrifice to further a male character’s ambition, nor is she a prize for the pious hero to save from eternal damnation. Her presence as the main character threatens the power imbalance that assigns women value solely based on the ability to reproduce. This archetype may be subject to casting and binding for the sake of a happy ending, but the cultural significance of a supernatural villain like Karishika endures because of her sheer audacity to (literally) raise hell when anger is not enough. To this day, the name Karishika is used as a misnomer for a disagreeable woman. And what is more frightening than that?
Ashewo or Harlot
The ashewo, a colloquial term for harlot, is the most emulated archetype of this era, from her bold lipstick to eye-raising mini skirts, and louder than life wigs, this character is styled to take up visual space in a world where she would otherwise be discarded by puritanical society. From Sharon Stone to Corporate Maids, the harlot femme fatale captures audiences with her style, wit, and resourcefulness as a clever mastermind, who by virtue of being underestimated, is poised to outsmart rich and powerful men who aim to control them. As the main character, this genre of femme fatale embodies societal anxieties about sexual autonomy, income inequality, and successfully navigating class struggle with street smarts. Though captivating on screen, attitudes towards real-life sex workers have hardly evolved since the dawn of this trope.
In Zeb Ejiro’s 1992 crime thriller Domitilla, the classic film chronicles a young sex worker fighting to clear her name after a job gone wrong with a high-powered client. While in 2006’s Girls Cot (dir. Afam Okereke), influential patrons including corrupt government officials seek revenge on a group of sex workers who dupe them out of their embezzled funds. The “world’s oldest profession” remains a source of fascination to this day, taking on new identities in the form of “blessers”, financial benefactors who exchange money for sex, or through a faceless customer base in OnlyFans.
Yet, the lack of regulatory legislation for sex work in Nigeria leads to child endangerment, human trafficking, and physical abuse of thousands of women and girls each each year. The discord between iconic sex workers on screen and their real life counterparts is no doubt a reflection of the country’s false puritanism. As of 2018, Nigeria’s fertility rate is greater than China and the United States combined, yet adding comprehensive sex education in school curriculums is still up for debate because it “undermines traditional values”.
At the core of every memorable ashawo femme fatale is her willingness to speak truth to power. In her aesthetic, she challenges the hypocrisy of Nigerian culture with revealing clothing that makes her at once alluring and dangerous to her curious audience. In her actions, she upends the power imbalance that corrupt men in high positions use to lord over their targets. Viewers are repeatedly drawn to this archetype because her existence destigmatizes sex by showcasing female sensuality as an asset, giving female audiences a proxy by which they can learn to embrace and own their sexuality, rather than repress it. To a conservative segment of Nigerians, she is a villain because rather than beg for her humanity to be recognized, she seizes autonomy for herself.
Whether she appears as a witch, a marine spirit, a runs babe, or a campus queen, the Nollywood femme fatale is an embodiment of fear and desire to capture female strength. We celebrate these characters for their boldness in spirit and in wardrobe, and we connect with them because they navigate the world as we hope to; fearlessly, with plenty of wit to spare. So if you’re stuck on how to express yourself on this Halloween, let your spirit guide you to a halter top that will shame your enemies. Be the villain.