Photo credit: Mattel, Inc.

Film & TV

How Barbie Helped Queer African Kids Feel Safe

Photo credit: Mattel, Inc.

Barbie: The Unofficial Queer Mascot

By Chisom Peter Job

August 2023

“Why be put in a box when you can be anything?” 21-year-old Ines asks me, referring to Barbie, America’s favorite doll, which somehow became a safety net for many African kids.


Growing up in Littoral, Benin as the only girl among two siblings in the noughties, Ines spent her childhood playing with a black ballerina Barbie. “I used to make her hair and carry her everywhere because why not? She was my girl and still is, and I am not sure you understand how excited I have been! I was there on opening night, and got a ballerina dress to go with it. It was so good!”


The iconic 64-year-old doll, which hit shelves in 1959 and has made appearances on TV, video games, books, and more, has finally come to life. Directed by Greta Gerwig, with Margot Robbie playing the doll herself and Ryan Gosling as Ken, the live-action Barbie film is simple: “she’s everything. He’s just Ken.”


Barbie had the biggest opening weekend for a female director, and a film in 2023, with a worldwide debut of $337m, showing how much love people around the world have for the doll. And for people on the African continent, this love is special.


For everyone Ines’ age, and even older, Barbie isn’t just a doll. Her fluidity in both career identity and aesthetic modeled the capacity for change, touching the lives of queer and trans people on the continent.


Fola Francis, a Nigerian trans woman, didn’t have Barbie dolls of hers while growing up but would usually play with that of her cousins. “I lived with extended family for some time and didn’t have a doll of mine. So when I couldn’t play with that of my cousins, I’d create paper dolls,” she laughs. “These [paper dolls] would become my version of Barbie, and I’d take care of them because they were my friends too,.” she adds, reminiscing on the adventures she had with them and the secrets they shared.  


After watching a few animations, Francis decided she wanted to be like her. “I wanted to be a doll, and now, I am one.” At the time, Francis didn’t know how that would work, but now, she is living it and is a doll, a queer lingo used to refer to trans women.


“My dad bought a Superman action figure for me after I had requested a Barbie doll. You can imagine what it was like to hear him rant about my toy choice as a child.” As an only child, Mikael’s toys were his best friends, and after seeing a Barbie animation at a friend’s, he wanted to own one.


“I know I was sad for a while until I visited an aunt one day and saw an unopened box of Doctor Barbie! I was so excited when she gave it to me and told me not to worry about my dad. And even though he continually gave remarks about me owning a doll, [Barbie] instantly became my best friend and was the first person I ever came out to as gay.”


22 out of 55 African countries recognise LGBTQ+ people, with queer and trans people facing legal challenges in the others. From Nigeria to Togo, same-sex sexual activity is penalized and carries up to 3 years in prison in some countries, and 14 years in others like Nigeria, with death by stoning in Sharia states. Many LGBTQ+ people remain in the closet for fear of their safety, and for many, finding something or someone that makes them feel safe is important.


For those who grew up on the continent, just like Mikael, doing anything remotely feminine was out of the question. However, with Barbie, there was a break from the gender binary as they could freely express themselves by braiding her hair, painting her nails, and reveling in her femininity. Whatever self-expression they desired could be at least temporarily fulfilled through their doll alter ego.


“There’s this joke about how queer men find their first female celebrity and stick by them for life, well, my first was Barbie,” Gerald, 24, says. “I could paint her nails, dress her up, put on fake lip gloss, and it was the best thing ever because no one would do that for me. She was a reflection of who I wanted to be.”


Justin, 26, grew up femme in Nigeria. “I grew up in a very religious household, and while my parents began to acknowledge my queerness quite early, they still prayed for me to change. I wanted to change. But when I saw this plastic doll taking a life of her own, doing anything, I knew I could live freely in my truth. It might sound crazy, but as a young queer kid, it wasn’t,” he adds. As the Barbie frenzy has taken over, Justin is getting everything ready for when he sees it. “I’m not just going to watch Barbie; I am going to be covered in anything pink I can find.”


As Ines adds: “There’s a reason I studied accounting in college and now pursuing other things because I saw Barbie doing it all. I know she’s a girl boss, but she’s my favorite kind.”


With its “unlimited” marketing budget, which includes a Malibu Barbie dreamhouse  designed by Nigerian-American designer, Victoria Adesanmi (available on AirBnB) and record breaking opening weekend gross, Barbie is poised to top the very best of 2023 film list. 


“It’s my favorite toy-to-film adaptation ever, and I wish Barbieland was real,” Mikael says. “It’s like this utopia where nothing wrong happens, and I fell in love with how that world was portrayed. What’s a better place to live as a queer man?”


Despite there being no press tour on the continent, star studded premieres took place in South Africa and Nigeria. And for the rest of us, Barbie-themed brunches and parties have become a summer must. [Warner Bros. Pictures did not immediately comment on the lack of press tours on the continent.] 



Rogers Ofime on Queer Love in the Nigerian Series Wura

A queer love story on Nigerian TV and the man behind it

By Chisom Peter Job

July 2023

“Am I being Western?” he asks. “No. We’re talking about love, and it is between two people. And as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s a man and a man, a woman and a woman, a man, and a woman, I don’t think there’s anything wrong as long as it’s genuine love.”


In Wura, Rogers Ofime brings queer characters out of the shadows, challenging Nigeria’s long-held social norms.


Dubbed as Showmax’s first Nigerian telenovela, with plans on making it their longest-running one, with over 200 episodes, Wura follows Wura Amoo-Adekola (Scarlet Gomez), a mother and ruthless businesswoman who is ready to do whatever it takes for her gold mining business to succeed.


In Wura, Femi (Seyi Akinsola) and Lolu (Iremide Adeoye), two queer characters, are allowed to exist as they are without the implication that they are abominations, a common theme in mainstream Nollywood. While there are a few productions where queer characters are beginning to be respected, humanizing them has always been a problem, something Wura takes seriously.


While creating the show, Ofime wanted to stay true to its South African adaptation, The River, where these characters also exist. “So, when we were going to adopt it, we asked questions like ‘Would it be accepted in Nigeria?’ ‘Should we change it to a boy and a girl?’ ‘A love triangle?’ But then, we had to remind ourselves that there wasn’t anything wrong with two people of the same sex being in love and that the fact that it isn’t accepted in Nigeria doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Ofime tells STATEMENT.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


STATEMENT: You’ve worked on many projects and have been in the industry for years. What has it been like for you so far?


Ofime: Well, I think it’s been fun. It’s always interesting when you do what you love to do and what you’re passionate about. And that’s the one thing that has kept me going. I’m doing what I love and have carved a niche for myself in the industry regarding the stories I tell.


I like to tell provocative stories. Stories that can change the status quo. So I think it’s been an interesting journey so far.


The story of Femi and Lolu was provocative. What was it like to tell it? Were there any challenges faced?


Honestly, there was no challenge. There was nothing. We don’t face challenges telling the stories of a boy and girl in love, so why now? Why are we giving it attention? Why are we making it feel like there’s something wrong that we’re doing? There’s nothing wrong with the story. There’s nothing wrong with the creative approach because it is what happens in our day-to-day existence. We all must come to the acceptance of it because it is what it is.


This is the first Nollywood show on a major service that isn’t offensive when showing queer love. And we know there’s still a long way to go, so what do you think about that?


On the contrary, Nollywood has come to embrace it. Do we have many confident producers telling these [queer] stories? Maybe not, and perhaps not many of us, but it’s been accepted. Like, a friend recently won a Berlinale award for his gay drama, and that’s not the first. As I said, it’s not Westernization but the fact that we must embrace this part of our existence. 


Do we have queer people in Nigeria? Yes. Do some of us accept them? Yes. I’m not here to tell people; please accept queer people because they’re in love. They’re in love, and you have to take it or leave it.


Why was it essential to bring The River to Nigeria?


Firstly, The River was very successful. And secondly, we knew it would work in terms of our social milieu. The only area, as you pointed out, was the queerness. The River is in its 6th season in South Africa; it’s done about three seasons in Kenya and two seasons in Portugal, if I’m correct. And so when they approached me to do this for Nigeria, I checked and saw the good ratings, and thought, “why not?”


Were you involved in the casting process?


Yes, I was. So our casting process was very long and tedious, but yes, I was involved, and of course, Mnet was involved too. So we called for an open audition, and then we streamlined to the number of people we wanted from the open audition. And in fact, you’d be amazed at how many actors wanted to play the part of Lolu and Femi. 


I was shocked, but seeing people auditioning to play these characters was also encouraging, as we had about 15 actors for the role of Lolu and about 20 for Femi before we pruned down to three and then from three to the final two. And the actors we eventually got for the role knew what it entailed. They got close, would call themselves babies, and held hands, which made the on-screen chemistry believable.


What stood out between both actors?


We didn’t want stereotypes. Do you know what I mean? We tried to avoid stereotypes about queer men and how they must look or sound. So we looked out for good screen chemistry and screen presence in delivery. Also, they were more convincing than the others, so they landed the role.


So what should viewers expect in the next season?


It is going to get better. I mean, we saw people complain about Femi and Lolu. Meanwhile, we didn’t show them doing anything. But wait for it; our viewers won’t be disappointed. We had two queer characters in The River and got to see more. So, expect the same.


Wura is currently streaming on Showmax.