the hypocrisy of nigeria’s drag comedy and its real-life price

OPINION / Nigeria
February, 2018
Producer: A Nasty Boy
Words: Richard Akuson

KlintonCod, Josh2Funny, Twyse, Nedu Wazobia, are some of the most famous Nigerian comic sensations. Many of their viral videos, shared predominantly on Instagram, are watched by hundreds of thousands of people. In the last few years, their celebrity has skyrocketed beyond social media, earning them huge commercial endorsement deals and radio and tv gigs. Their online comedy a launch-pad for successful careers in comedy and music.

In a blog post titled; Becoming a Successful Instagram Comedian in Nigeria, a popular Nigerian blog, BellaNaija, posits that buying a wig or head tie is one sure way of becoming a successful Instagram comedian in Nigeria: “From Twyse Ereme to Oluwakaponeski a.k.a Mama Tobi, almost every Nigerian Instagram comedian who has made it in the recent past has done a skit or two wearing wigs or tying headgear and taking on the persona of a female. Apparently, that sort of thing holds a strong appeal for the Nigerian audience. Ensure the wig or head tie is flashy or style in such a way that it easily gets the viewer laughing even before you open your mouth.”  It is therefore abundantly clear, that to make it as a comedian on the internet in Nigeria, taking up a female persona is almost a standard requirement.

Who is a drag queen anyway? Wikipedia defines a drag queen as: “a person who usually dresses in hyper-feminized or gender non-conforming clothing, and often acts with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles for the purpose of entertainment. Often, they will exaggerate certain characteristics such as make-up and eyelashes for comic, dramatic, or satirical effect.”

Photography by Terna IIwar

From this definition, pretty much every Nigerian man who wears makeup or female accessories and clothing for entertainment is appropriating drag culture. What these men share in common is their love of comedy, and maybe crucially, the drag personalities that they appropriate. Typically, their comic alter-egos are feisty, impulsive and vacuous female characters that are instantly recognisable in drag stereotypes, if not in reality. In these comic sketches, they are drag queens. And for a country notorious for its homophobia and criminalization of same-sex relations, this striking fondness for drag comedy is curious and troubling.

The comedians who co-opt drag culture, perpetuate stereotypes and oftentimes produce blatantly homophobic skits for the consumption of their teeming fans, reap the benefits of mimicking this culture while LGBTQ+ Nigerians remain persecuted, marginalized and invisible.

Beyond these figures, the real issue is their wider audience, the everyday Nigerians who watch, enjoy and share their skits for fun. Their appetite for funny fuels these skits and their hypocrisy in abhorring gay and LGBTQ+ culture on one hand and celebrating when it’s re-purposed and presented as comedy and caricature, on the other, is at the heart of it.

Over time, Nigerians have shown that the idea of a man who cross-dresses as a means of self-expression is not something they are willing to engage with. For possibly thousands of Nigerians, this is a present threat in their everyday lives. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we have failed to collect data on the abuse and violations cross-dressers face, but every day we see the evidence of this abuse.

Bobrisky, a famous genderqueer cross-dresser who rose to fame for his affinity for makeup, dresses and other paraphernalia that are traditionally feminine, is an easy case-in-point for how hostile Nigerians are towards cross-dressing. Sometime last year, Twitter was awash with retweets of a man who claimed to have slapped Bobrisky for cross-dressing a few years ago, when he was still in University. This sort of behaviour is not isolated. There are several men and women in Nigeria who are abused for their choice in clothing. A cursory look on Facebook reveals an entire world hiding in plain sight, of Nigerian men in makeup, wigs, dresses, and nails painted. They are attacked by some of the most hateful comments that you’d ever come across online.

For the comedians who co-opt these invisible lives in unrepresentative depictions and personalities, they may or may not have a clear understanding of where the boundaries are. They navigate our society as straight men, and we’re conditioned to think of them that way, even when they’re in drag. It’s why they are beloved. However, to hint the slightest form of homosexuality would upset this delicate balance. Their audience is not alarmed by any ‘message’ that could challenge their homophobia and in mimicking drag they endorse straightness.

I guess only boys like Bobrisky, who genuinely love cross-dressing as a form of self-expression but do not enjoy his insular celebrity status, can truly tell what the true price of cross-dressing is in Nigeria. Unlike these comedians who have the luxury of shooting their one-minute skits, retreat, and return to their safe lives, these boys only feel grateful they persevere each day in order to survive another. And, I guess we can never fully understand why our society thrives on the oppression of others while the oppressors continue to take away, even further, from the oppressed.

In the comedy these figures are famed for, a comedy that we own collectively as Nigerians, we reinforce cruel battle-lines. We share their clips and with it, our violence.

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