Nigerian Women and Russian Dolls
by Nike Taylor
“I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act.”— Janet Mock, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, and So Much More
Spoiler alert: Although this is not a review, there are broad show themes here—but no plot details. Still, go watch the series and come back.
The Perfect Show…No, Really
Russian Doll. I love it hard. But it triggers my hate.
Netflix is littered with misses, but Russian Doll is definitely a critical hit. Its title and cover image of a very redheaded Natasha Lyonne had me clicking play before I had finished reading the title. And that’s how this twisty, binge-worthy noir dramedy should be approached—knowing nothing before you go in. Going in blind isn’t always the best strategy for finding something to watch. (I mean, I knew you’d be bad, Velvet Buzzsaw, but how do you make a fun premise so dull? And you, Death Note, you couldn’t even be fun bad?) But when it does work, I’m rewarded with a rich story and characters I want in my life. And this time, it was a story made by women.
But Russian Doll is no chick flick. Unlike The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it beats neither the feminism nor the femininity drum. It’s just a triumph of superb writing, direction, and cinematography, deserving all its effusively positive reviews. The show is an existential exploration that happens to be built around thoughtfully constructed, quirky, and culturally diverse women. And yes, it’s got three-dimensional supporting male characters, too.
Like Maniac, another off-beat hit show, Russian Doll probes the nature of reality, but its surrealism is meatier. As delightfully complex as Maniac is, it’s more whimsy than substance. In contrast, when you dive into Russian Doll’s layered universe, you find meaning around almost every corner. That’s why, as The Ringer’s Alison Herman put it, “Like the best mysteries, a second watch of Russian Doll plays like a richer, enhanced version of the first.” That’s one of the many things I love about the series.
Russian Doll and its lead character, Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne of Orange Is the New Black and Portlandia fame), are both matryoshkas, the traditional Russian nesting dolls after which the series is named. Uncover the whip-smart dark humour in the mystery-box-plot and out pop relevant social commentaries that you might miss at first. Crack the protagonist’s gruff, alpha-female shell, and you encounter foundational experiences that are inimitably female but universally relatable.
What I love most about Russian Doll, though, is how every female character is so unrestrained, so quintessentially and fearlessly herself. Women in this world are independent, deeply flawed, selfish, self-absorbed, self-destructive, creative, sweet, caring, complicated—very human. Their various attachments to men don’t define them. To them, sex, sexual identity, and sexual orientation are non-issues, mere biology. They just drink in life.
These women are all about self-determination. They can and have created their own domains, spaces that are as challenging as they are liberated. And these spaces allow them to have conversations that help them dive deeper into who they are and blossom.
These characters have evolved from decades of women in real life slowly taking control of their own stories. Which is what activates my hate—or rather, my jealousy.
Simply by existing, Russian Doll is a none-too-forgiving critique of the Nigerian woman’s limited social and sexual autonomy. No matter her accomplishments, she remains “just a woman.” Of course, this is true for a lot of women around the world, because men everywhere are raised to assume ownership of women’s bodies and, therefore, their destinies. But while some societies are inching their way towards gender parity, we stubbornly cling to norms that were once foreign to many Nigerian cultures. For instance, our culture values marriage and married motherhood over other fulfilling relationships, career accomplishment, and financial freedom. Women apparently cannot thrive outside the umbrella of men.
And women themselves reinforce these systems; single Nigerian women know this well. Recently, a friend was added to a prayer group by a former classmate because she told the classmate that she wasn’t married. The classmate, of course, was. It’s not totally our fault that we’re such willing collaborators, though: religion, culture, and tradition are hard for most to see past. Consequently, the phallus-centric culture we help prop up reaches far into every stage and corner of the Nigerian woman’s life. In Nigeria:
- more than half of adult women are illiterate, and 41 per cent of primary-school-age girls are not in school.
- only about 21 per cent of middle and senior management positions go to women, while almost 62 per cent of all employed women work in the service industry today, an alarming jump from 39 per cent in 2000.
- less than 10 per cent of married women of childbearing age use contraceptives and 59 per cent of wives can’t even ask their husbands to use a condom.
- up to 61 per cent of women under 50 don’t have a say in their own healthcare, while 30 per cent of women have problems getting any healthcare.
- just 3.8 per cent of women under 50 own a house by themselves, compared with nearly 26 per cent of men.
- up to 37 per cent of women believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife.
Our STD (or Socially Transmitted Disease)
Nigerian women have been socialised to accept subordination, and it shows in the entertainment we consume. Nollywood is dominated by male-centric attitudes and acts as a potent gauge and reinforcement of these attitudes. Not surprisingly, over 66 per cent of major female characters in Nollywood are dependent on male characters. Only 30 per cent of female characters are career professionals or intellectuals, and many of these are portrayed as “loose” women. To complete the picture, a whopping 80 per cent of on-screen women are in physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive relationships.
Afrobeats, currently our most popular music genre, echoes these attitudes, with women being increasingly objectified and caricatured as hypersexual and obsessively money-driven.
Even advertising companies seem to think our women are basically kitchen-inhabiting mums and grandmas, or girls desperately vying for male attention.
So you can see how the strong female characters I was drawn to in Russian Doll might be a little hard to find in Nigerian entertainment. And Nigerian entertainment seems to be what most Nigerian women consume. Even on Netflix.
I hate that.
One Day, Though…
I know that one day, I’ll click on a random Nollywood title and see women I can root for, women whose stories don’t all somehow depend on some guy “completing” them, characters born of hard-won gender parity—even if it’s a bad movie. But that day is still somewhere far in the hazy future.
Until then, I’m clicking on Netflix’s Always a Witch. Yeah, its material is problematic, but just look at that title.
Oyediran, Kola. “Explaining Trends and Patterns in Attitudes towards Wife-Beating among Women in Nigeria: Analysis of 2003, 2008, and 2013 Demographic and Health Survey Data,” Genus vol. 72 no. 11 (2016), doi:10.1186/s41118-016-0016-9. Available:
[Accessed Feb 12, 2018]
Usaini, Suleimanu, Chilaka, Ngozi M. and Okorie, Nelson. “Portrayals of Women in Nollywood Films and the Role of Women in National Development.” Impacts of the Media on African Socio-Economic Development, ed. Okorie, Nelson, Ojebuyi, Babatunde Raphael and Salawu, Abiodun, 126-140 (2017), doi: 4018/978-1-5225-1859-4.ch008 [accessed February 13, 2019].
Onanuga, Paul Ayodele, “Of Commodities and Objects: Women and Their Representations in Nigerian Hip-Hop,” Muziki vol. 14 no. 2 (2007): 81-108, doi: 10.1080/18125980.2017.1393319.
August 11, 2020
January 15, 2020