Rethinking ‘Runs Girls’ in Girls Cot

Girls Cot is a Nollywood film that boasts a juggernaut cast of some of the most prominent names in the industry. Directed by Adam Okereke, this film took the industry by storm, turning the typical ‘runs girl narrative’ upside down. 

You can listen a reading of this piece which was recorded at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) London in November 2019 here. Girls Cot is available on YouTube.

Some argue that traditional Nollywood was preoccupied with single women in cities engaging in transactional sexual relationships with men. These women are sex workers and are referred to colloquially as ‘runs girls’. The existence of these women in Nigeria is a social reality, and it can be argued that an entire Nollywood genre is dedicated to charting the fate of such women. The nuances within Girls Cot moves the film beyond the typical ‘runs girls’ narrative within Nollywood. These women seek economic and social security but these desires are not realised within material possessions such as the latest gadgets or vehicles. Instead the women seek to elevate themselves by leveraging the societal positions held by the men they come into contact with. Moreover, while a university campus is not an uncommon location within ‘runs girl’ narratives, locating Girls Cot in Abuja – Nigeria’s capital and the seat of political power – speaks volumes about the path that this particular film will take. Girls Cot tells the tale of four women coming together to forge a path to security for themselves which utilises, but is not dependent on the dominant patriarchal set up. They seek freedom and power for themselves, committing to attaining it through any means necessary. 

The film follows the journey of four undergraduate students; Queen (Genevive Nnaji), Alicia (Rita Dominic), Eve (Ini Edo), and Bella (Uche Jombo), as they combine beauty, brains and other acquired skills to defraud and extort powerful men within Abuja. The use of illicit and illegitimate means of generating wealth is not uncommon within Nollywood films. Yet Girls Cot steps outside of a preoccupation with the occult on campus or attempts to secure sustained romantic relationships with their targets commonly found within Nollywood. Female protagonists are a Nollywood staple, but within the ‘runs girls’ genre their characters are often developed in the face of a struggle ridden past. We come across a range of female characters, here Queen takes on the role of ‘Queen Bee’ the instigator of the women’s activities, while Bella and Eve are the streetwise social climbers who have the motivations, but not the means to dominate the ‘runs girls’ game. Alicia’s presentation is the closest to the role of the ‘foolish/naive virgin’ but very quickly becomes a cunning and calculated professional as she grasps the actions required to be successful in the ‘runs girls’ game. The relationship between these four women is uniquely powerful, particularly in the way they come to depend on each other and maintain a solid and exclusive unit.

“…the rest of us are common students, hustlers, we are struggling to survive”  –  Eve

For the majority of these women, their motivations to escape poverty can be read as understandable, but in the case of Queen, at the end of the three part saga it is revealed that her motivations are darker in origin. Traditionally ‘runs girls’ fils spotlight  a past that is poverty ridden as ‘justification’ for their actions. Subsequently the films often prioritise a redemptive outcome. Within Girls Cot these motivations are alluded to and we get the sense that Bella, Eve and Alicia do not come from affluent backgrounds. Interestingly, it is the character of Queen who takes on the role of ‘aristo’ (the colloquial term taken from the term aristocrat and used to describe the agent that links the girls to the members of the upper echelons of society). She is not a ‘madam’ who runs a brothel, but claims to be the daughter of the Vice President – a claim we learn at the end of the film to be true, and one that sheds great light on Queen’s motivations to defraud the men that the women manage to seduce. This revelation alone is not enough to redeem her character, but it does humanise an almost entirely inaccessible character, revealing that there is more to Queen than her cunning and connections.

“Is this how other girls survive?” – Alicia

‘Runs girls’ customarily make their money from sex work with the hopes that this will allow them to cross paths with a prince charming of sorts who might then adopt her as his mistress or wife, financially supporting indefinitely. Girls Cot cleverly demonstrates that this end is not guaranteed, nor are these means a stable pathway to financial freedom. Alicia is described as having the “sexiest body” Queen “has ever seen”. Yet this body fails to generate an adequate amount of money, in her perspective, after she spends the night with a man. She, like her fellow runs girls is seeking more, acknowledging that these encounters will not suffice.It is Queen who encourages them to utilise the other skills they posses within the ‘runs girls’ trajectory to extract not only money, but power. 

The city is the home of ‘runs girl’ in Nollywood. This environment provides men and women with the space to create the identities needed in order to engage in ‘illicit’ activities while maintaining a seemingly separate ‘legitimate’ life. In the case of Girls Cot, Abuja provides an additional layer of power to harness. Locating this film in the Nigerian capital, and providing a conduit to political influence in the person of Queen makes power a prominent theme. The impact of this chosen setting on the theme is communicated in the opening scenes. We are first introduced to the women during a police car chase – a flash forward to the end of the film. These women are in control of their own destiny, commanding a vehicle away from a group of men in hot pursuit. This is a stark contrast to other instances within this film, and traditionally within this genre, where the women are driven around in cars owned, and controlled by their powerful male patrons. Being introduced to the women in this way whose home and safe place is also designated as a “restricted area” by the police reveals from the outset that these women wield serious power. The rest of the film demonstrates how this came to be. The film follows the women as they move from an overcrowded dormitory – sharing mattresses on the floor and having to entertain men in hotel rooms – to their own luxurious living space which is completely separate from the university campus. Here, rather than being summoned, they summon their patrons and are able to not only entertain but entrap. Although temporary, this is the metaphoric journey from poverty to security, powerless to powerful that Girls Cot details, and it is a journey that begins and ends with Queen.

“All my life I never thought that I can own so many clothes at the same time” – Belle 

The women see themselves as indebted to Queen. This is most clearly demonstrated through instances of material possession. In attempting to secure business on the socio-economic level they desire, ‘runs girls’ must look the part. Queen provides not only the connections, but the clothing and environment needed to sample the lives that the women wish to secure. It is Queen who organises the clothing for the girls very first outing into Abuja’s high society. It is also Queen who arranges a shopping trip for new clothes, and ensures that the women have to pay for nothing. This presents an interesting contrast to the majority of ‘runs girls’ films where powerful men finance the shopping trips and accommodation which allow the women to escape their poverty. For Queen to downplay a shopping trip of 1.6 million Naira is for her to cement her role as their ‘aristo’, and assert her distinct economic standing. This is also her way of illustrating that the women can aspire to more. On the surface it may seem that the women are pursuing glamorous lifestyles, but their desires are fundamentally economic, and are in no way tied to romantic entanglement with men. They are seeking social and material freedom, power which is independent of any man, despite men being the means to this end. They are seeking security, stability, and in the case of Queen, revenge.

“I am suggesting that we go corporate. I am suggesting we quit dealing on a low scale. We can help ourselves to a slice of their wealth” – Queen

The most interesting set of relationships within Girls Cot are those between the opposite sexes. The tables turn very quickly as Queen encourages the women to “take it up a notch” and devise alternative means of extracting money and favours from their male prey. They resort to forgery, blackmail and extortion. They succeed in creating a hedge of protection around themselves by targeting the right men such as politicians and prominent civil servants. Here, we see that the popular Nollywood storyline of corruption has not been completely ignored, as the girls take time to collect evidence on the misdeeds of these men in office. It is not necessarily the sexual misconduct of these men that is their undoing, but their inability to stay guarded when engaging in sexual acts that they themselves deem illicit. The dark side of life in the city is exploited in this film, but it is the women who leverage the appetites and weakness of these men against them. While the men think that they are receiving sexual favours, they are giving away their freedom while the women are securing theirs. They later use these relationships to wield power against known criminals, create a geographical sanctuary for themselves and to have criminal charges against them dropped. These women have leveraged these relationships with men without having to maintain cordial or romantic relationships with them, thus successfully stepping beyond the traditional ‘runs girls’ narrative.

The story of Girls Cot is one of the pursuit of power, and the benefits and disadvantages that come with it. The women get to live the lives that they desire, but have to do so through illegitimate means. These means put targets on their backs in a way that differs to the traditional runs girls narrative, as they are in direct conflict with men to secure their freedom – their relationship is conflictual yet symbiotic. Although they still need these men as ‘runs girls’ traditionally do, they do not rely on their favour.

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