From Robin Williams, in 1993’s Academy Award-winning Mrs. Doubtfire to Martin Lawrence’s iconic Sheneneh, cross-dressing for laughs has been a long-standing trend in comedy. There’s something about seeing a grown man in female clothing and wigs that seems to elicit laughter from an audience and let’s just say this has been milked over the years.
With the introduction and growth of social media, and the ease with which it is accessible to the masses, comedy as an art form has evolved from stage performances to online skits and memes. Nigerian comedians have therefore hopped on this lucrative trend which provides a platform for not just exposure but also financial gain.
As hilarious as these skits may be, there is a tendency on the part of these comedians to become insensitive and offensive with their jokes. Most of their viral skits, feature them in flamboyant drag pieces putting out demeaning, sexist and homophobic work for social media clout —oftentimes, oblivious of the stereotypes they’re advancing and, turning a blind eye to the plight of the marginalized community they’re feeding on (women and cross-dressing men).
The fact that these men can take on these roles and walk away at will, without the hate and vitriol thrown at those who do it as an expression of themselves, is a testament of how hypocritical our country is. Our priggish nature allows for us to shower praise on the appropriator but attack the appropriated.
One comedian, whose work not only provides laughs but passes across a message of empowerment for not just women but men, is Steven Chuks.
Chuks’ alter ego — the problematic and hilarious Cleopatra Williams, tends to cater towards the craze for drag entertainment, but not in a crude way. With each Instagram post and story, Chuks actively makes Cleo relatable (and yet, multidimensional) but not at the expense of others. When you laugh at Cleopatra — you don’t do it because of her appearance, rather, you do it because of her wit. This is one facet of drag comedy other Instagram stars are yet to comprehend fully.
Cleopatra, who gets her zest and personality from almost every woman you can think of, became an instant hit with the public probably because of how relatable she is – we all know one Cleopatra, either from church or around us. Always striving to show herself as better than others, Chuk’s embodiment of the character sets him apart from other comedians as it doesn’t feel rushed or inane, it is clear that he has a studied understanding of this character and her many layers. Cleo is sassy, stylish, often times — the vengeful diva who is very much aware of who she is and will not be told otherwise.
Creating this character was something Steve was very passionate about from start, canceling all traces of self-doubt and uncertainty, he made the move regardless of the reactions he got. “Our society, for the longest time, did play a part with regards to the type of characters I tried, but then I decided that before anything else, I am an actor,” Chuks says, speaking about Nigeria’s intolerance for any type of otherness.
Chuks admits to being surprised by his character’s fan base, and the positive feedback he has received. “I’m shocked by the reactions because I thought it would be more negative and judgmental but surprisingly, it has been positive and beautiful. I’m truly grateful for the reach it has gained, and the love the character [Cleopatra] has received”.
With the acclaim given to Cleopatra, Steve decided to try something different to not only gain more exposure for his brand, but make his creation more interactive and inclusive, and so the #CleopatraWalkChallenge was launched. The competition provides a platform for fans of the character to recreate the iconic side strut she’s famous for. The strut, which Steve has mastered, features Cleopatra (often times in slow motion) giving her best diva-walk whilst giving us a mean side-eye. At first glance, it’s easy to make an assumption that the challenge would be a tad too much for the male fans of the character, putting into consideration Nigeria’s hostile environment and the fear of being besmirched. Well, the assumption was invalidated when male fans threw their hats in the ring, holding no prisoners, and participated in the challenge. Speaking on this unexpected enthusiasm from the male audience, Chuks says, “I thought maybe few of my male friends and female Cleo fans would get involved, but I was impressed as to how many guys weren’t scared to participate and I feel honored”.
In times when we seem to be in dire need of hope and laughter, Cleopatra and the ongoing challenge have provided the latter, but most importantly, the former. A challenge like this, which challenges gender norm sparks an incandescent flame in not just its participants, but also in young boys who feel different and crave an avenue to explore who they are and who they could be. Knowing fully well that the blowback of participating in the challenge could be negative, some boys still partook. “Some folks hated it, but I don’t care. I loved doing it and it made me happy, and happiness isn’t something you postpone for the future” says androgynous model, Noel. For Ebuka, an upcoming womenswear designer, it was a struggle making that decision; “I kept fighting with myself, I was scared of what people would say and putting my career at risk. But then as soon as I had that wig on, I became someone else. It was fun”.
With over 300 comments, Ebuka who went through all the replies seems to be getting high-fives, too. “I was ready for all the negative comments but I was shocked that there wasn’t any. People saw it as art and a form of expression”
With Nigeria being tense with regards to LGBTQ+ rights and representation, Chuks’ challenge is doing a lot more than he probably intended. Not only is the challenge providing laughs, it is starting conversations and allowing people to express themselves without inhibition. If there’s one thing Cleopatra has going for her, it’s her Rachel Berry—type confidence. Beneath the hilarity of it all, lies a deeper message of embracing who you are wholly and truly, and also flipping that middle finger to the world with a true sense of humor.
The most minuscule level of representation goes a long way around here, and this, regardless of how small it might seem, pushes that message in its own way.
What do the contestants take away from the challenge? Ebuka walks away with a new sense of responsibility to boys who are different. “I would do it again, just to pass a message across to all the femme boys out there who want to explore other parts of themselves – to simply just be”.
This message is key because as much as we celebrate those who participated, we are not oblivious to the fact that several boys, some riddled with fear, did not participate. As we get more of these inclusive challenges, we are able to reinforce in young boys and girls, their right to self-expression and ownership of who they are. In the end, it is not about winning, but rather a desire to tell their own stories, fictional or not.