Regis Philbin, Nicki Minaj and Objectification as a Form of Gender-Based Violence

Physical and sexual violence against women is a global problem. But less-discussed are the more subtle acts that are just as damaging as a means of putting us in our “place.”

Over the last week, I became moderately obsessed with blog posts and internet chatter about Regis Philbin and Nicki Minaj. If you don’t know, Nicki Minaj is the hottest commercial female emcee right now and she is both loved and hated because of her lyrical content, allusions to being a “Black Barbie,” and sexually explicit lyrics which at times reference her on-again/off-again bisexuality. She is often looked at as a Hip-Hop version of Lady Gaga because for each, their spectacle is a large part of their performance persona. A couple of weeks ago, Nicki performed on the Regis and Kelly show during Thanksgiving and things got pretty creepy during the interview when Regis grabbed Nicki’s butt and waist. Yes, on national live television. Here’s the clip so you can be the judge for yourself. (For extra fun, read the comments)

I’ve read a lot of great posts about this including one by Super Hussy that reasonably suggested that Regis and Kelly treated Nicki Minaj like a modern day Saartije Baartman. I also commend the Women’s Media Center for taking a stand and writing a letter to ABC denouncing Regis’s unacceptable on-air behavior. What many posts did not mention is Kelly’s inappropriate gushing over the size of Nicki’s waist. Kelly says that women are dying to know what size waist she has. Really? While it seems harmless and probably well-intentioned, it’s still an uncomfortable objectification of Nicki Minaj’s body, in particular her butt (note how she is amazed at her waist to hip ratio). At the end of the awkward conversation, Nicki says “Oh it’s not that big,” implying she too understands that Kelly is actually fascinated by the size of her butt, not her waist. She is visibly uncomfortable but smiles through it. There is a clear gender dynamic at play but also a racial one. Would Regis be feeling up on Lady Gaga like that? Would Kelly be so amazed at Gaga’s tiny waist and frame? I was waiting for them to gush at any moment, “You’re so exotic!”

Reading the comments at many of these blogs highlights the idea often used to blame rape victims: “look at how she was dressed.” Nicki is known for her hyper-sexual lyrics, clothing, and posing. That is a major part of what she has built her image on, just as many female emcees have before her. But that does not give anyone the right to fetishize her or touch her without her consent, particularly in a public forum where she is presenting herself as a professional. Her job is to make music and sell records, and her goal of appearing on these shows is to promote her work and her livelihood. Both Regis and Kelly’s actions were reprehensible because they are completely discrediting her as a business-person and a musician by primarily focusing on her body. They do take the time to talk about her album but considerable airtime is dedicated to her figure, her outfit, her wig and Regis’s desire to “go hard.” Ewww.

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We are at the end of the annual campaign, “16 Days Against Gender Violence.” Most people think of gender violence in terms of rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, trafficking and other clear and concrete acts of physical violence against women. But what’s lesser discussed are the more subtle acts of violence that don’t always involve physical assault but are just as damaging to women as a means of putting us in our “place.” These include emotional, psychological and even economic violence…all are ways in which men (and sometimes other women) assert their power as a means of controlling women’s autonomy.

This situation with Nicki Minaj highlights what many lesser-known women deal with on a daily basis. The battle of being an open and self-expressed sexual being and being taken seriously as a woman with a brain. So much of our society operates on the assumption that these two things must remain mutually exclusive. Our sexual expression should not open the door for sexual exploitation. 

I’ve been in professional settings where I haven’t been taken seriously (and been touched inappropriately) because of being an attractive (if I do say so myself) young woman who wore form fitting clothing. Remember Deborah Lorenzana who was fired from Citibank for being “too hot?” I’ve battled with the idea of telling people that I do burlesque dancing because it may somehow negate that fact that I am a business owner of almost 7 years with a Master’s Degree. How many times have I and many of my cohorts had to deal with being hit on when you are trying to conduct business and make money as a professional?

That’s part of the cycle of violence. It’s one of many means of subjugation that women face and considering that women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar, it’s economic abuse. How dare we speak explicitly about sex and not expect to be groped and objectified? Who do we think we are to take pride in our appearance and expect to be treated as professionals? I may not love Nicki Minaj’s music, her expression, or her politics, but she is a woman who is playing the capitalist game and is stimulating conversation and debate about sexuality as a commodity. She is trying to make a living using her assets: physical and artistic. She at least deserves basic respect and for people to remember that besides all the spandex, (possible) implants, and makeup lies a woman with a mind…and a heart.

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