I was livid.
On a night in September 2019, I found myself watching "4th Republic," a gripping Nigerian political thriller. Along with around two dozen other people, I was seated in a moderately sized hall, all of us captivated by the film's narrative. This was part of the Kaduna Book and Art Festival, an annual gathering of literature and art enthusiasts in Kaduna, Nigeria.
One of the highlights of the festival was this film session featuring "4th Republic” and its filmmakers. The film follows the journey of a Nigerian politician, Mabel King (played by Kate Henshaw). As is the case in many nations, Nigeria's elections are riddled with misconduct. From violence and rigging to corruption and bribery, these are synonymous with campaigns and elections.
Yet, Mabel King was different. She steered clear of bribes and unlike her competitor, Idris Sani, she never smeared his name during her campaign. Even when she was faced with many challenges typical for a woman in politics, she always chose the high road.
Until, suddenly, she didn't.
Toward the end of the two-hour movie, a startling revelation emerged - Mabel wasn't the beacon of righteousness we all perceived her to be. She had manipulated the elections, which led to the death of many people. Behind closed doors, she was no different from her male counterpart, Idris Sani. She too was a corrupt politician.
I was furious. Not because Mabel's character was unveiled to be morally gray, but due to the reactions of the audience that evening. Many, especially women, were disappointed with Mabel's fall from grace. They wanted an untainted female politician, someone pure, unblemished.
One woman, in her anger, confronted the “4th Republic” filmmakers present that night, accusing them of tarnishing the image of women. To her, the unexpected twist of Mabel King's character did a disservice to women at large. She believed a flawless portrayal would've better exemplified the potential and goodness of women.
My heart raced in frustration. I couldn't help but wonder, why must Mabel be the epitome of perfection? Why is there such an overwhelming demand for women to be morally superior compared to their male peers?
Throughout history, women have consistently navigated undue expectations, double standards and unrealistic judgements. Whether in business, politics, academia, or any other field, the scrutiny on the actions of women always burns brighter than it does on men. One example of this disparity is the life of the late Princess Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Harry’s mother.
Right from her entry into the Royal Family, she was framed as a fairy tale by the media - the beautiful, young princess marrying her prince. This came with crazy expectations of flawlessness, virtue and grace and left little room for mistakes or wrongdoing.
Why is there such an overwhelming demand for women to be morally superior compared to their male peers?
While both Princess Diana and her then-husband, Prince Charles (now the King of England), had extramarital affairs, Diana faced an unbelievable level of blame and vilification in comparison to Charles. Charles’s relationship with Camilla, though controversial, did not elicit the same level of moral outrage from the public or media that Princess Diana’s relationships did.
The princess was subject to ridicule, slut shaming and relentless criticism, with many overlooking Charles's equally significant infidelity. The pressure on Diana to personify perfection was both baffling and unfair. When I reflect on this, I wonder: Why was Diana’s indiscretion more scandalous than Charles’s? Why did she endure such staggering scrutiny, in comparison to her cheating husband?
Such disproportionate scrutiny isn't isolated to royalty. Women globally face relentless examination of their actions. Every step we take is scrutinized, every word uttered is dissected, and any misstep can overshadow years of hard work and dedication. This disparity is why I wholeheartedly support women’s wrongdoings.
The constant demand for moral uprightness from women not only perpetuates double standards but also stifles genuine representation. Women, like men, are human. We make mistakes, we stumble, and we can be morally gray - all at once. Yet, we deserve the freedom to make mistakes and move forward without the looming threat of undue criticism.
Women globally face relentless examination of their actions. Every step we take is scrutinized, every word uttered is dissected, and any misstep can overshadow years of hard work and dedication.
Supporting women’s wrongdoing is not the same as endorsing crimes. It’s about acknowledging our shared human nature, imperfections and all. It’s about fostering a society where women can be bold, innovative, and human without the fear of disproportionate backlash.
Women, like men, are human. We make mistakes, we stumble, and we can be morally gray - all at once. Yet, we deserve the freedom to make mistakes and move forward without the looming threat of undue criticism.
From childhood, many girls are conditioned for perfection - the perfect daughter, mother, wife, student, employee. Fast forward to adulthood and these expectations remain. A working mother is constantly judged for her balancing act, a female CEO’s decisions are questioned more than her male counterparts, and a young woman’s clothing can unjustly become a topic of character assessment.
Men? Their mistakes are often dismissed as part of their growing process, shielded by the “boys will be boys” narrative. They are granted the luxury of making mistakes and learning from them without the same degree of public shaming.
That is why I firmly oppose any dialogue that demands only goodness from women. It is an exercise in futility and it is unjust to demand such high standards of women especially when their counterparts face far more lenient expectations.
Recently, I spoke to a former colleague about Mabel King’s story in “4th Republic.” She provided an interesting perspective that I had overlooked, suggesting that “maybe the women in the hall just wanted a more positive narrative about women.” It’s true that much of the media does a disservice to women, painting them in a negative light.
This skewed portrayal contributes significantly to ingrained sexism and misogyny in today’s world. And I agree that to counteract these harmful narratives, we must leverage large platforms, like films, to showcase the strengths of women.
However, in our enthusiasm to showcase the positive, we must not fall into the trap of reinforcing stereotypes of women as always being “decent,” “polite,” or “well behaved.” Such one-dimensional representations are limiting. Women are good, but they can be bad too. Women are polite, but it’s okay if they’re aggressive when the situation demands it. Women, like Mabel King, can be beacons of morality, but also err.
I appreciate and understand the sentiment my colleague expressed. But as we strive to spread positive narratives about women, we must be careful not to constrain women within the very stereotypes we’re aiming to dismantle. We must support women’s rights, as well as their faults.
Women are good, but they can be bad too. Women are polite, but it’s okay if they’re aggressive when the situation demands it. Women, like Mabel King, can be beacons of morality, but also err.
As we fight for a more equal society, understanding and embracing imperfections across genders is key. It's time to unshackle women from the chains of unrealistic expectations. It’s time to support imperfect women.