On Breaking Backs

In relation to the TVOTR post, Rudimudi offers a woman's perspective on that "I wanna break your back" line. I think it's worth teasing this out some:

I was with you on this until you got to the "I wanna break your back" part. I'm not sure that the violent desire you describe is better than the macho posing. Or rather, I don't know if this sort of desire for women SHOULD be considered an authentic expression of masculinity. It seems to me that both attitudes are rooted in the same sort of patriarchal disposition toward women. We often attack the first one because it manifests itself in pretty obvious ways(and also, causes people to make bad records). But speaking as a woman, it freaks ME out to read that an authentic description of how some men feel when we walk in the room is the desire to violently possess us. You say there is a crucial distinction between "wanting" to do it and knowing that you're "going" to do it. I don't understand that. I guess what I'm trying to say is, at the end of the day, the way you understand sexual desire for women is still rooted in ideas of dominance. I don't see the vulnerability there, except for the fact that the language is different.


...didn't take it to mean that this song suggests doing bodily harm to women. I was speaking more to the ideology that that kind of language reflects. I recently read a piece by Catherine MacKinnon, and she talked about how the way that we conceptualize sex and desire is ultimately grounded in the idea that it is natural for men to dominate women. Porn, snuff films, rape, etc are the most blatant examples of this, but she argues that this attitude trickles down into even normal, consensual relationships between men and women. Ta-Nehisi himself is evidently somewhat aware of this connection, since he cops to feeling like its pornographic and "borderline violent" to express lust in that way. And he's right, it is. In fact, it's not borderline violent; it's violent. Cultural understandings of lust, desire, etc are informed by ideas of domination and subordination.

So I was just troubled by the fact that Ta-Nehisi was writing as if that approach is a more mature, more nuanced way of looking at women. To me, it's the same, albeit more articulate. In other words, I don't agree that it's just human nature---people are socialized into conceptualizing sexuality that way, even women. The only difference is that women are often taught to be the willing recipients of sexual acts, of desiring to be that dimepiece who sets off sexual fantasies.

Hmmm. Well it only felt pornographic because I'm blogging at the Atlantic. There is, believe it or not, still some element of puritanism running through me. But to the broader point, I don't know where the nature/nurture thing begins and ends for sexual desire. I guess it's possible that we're socialized in certain terrible ways about sex. The whole conceit in horror flicks of killing sexually active young women freaks me the fuck out. Likewise, I've never gotten the appeal of the pimp aesthetic.

That said, all I have to offer here is some modest life-experience. The kid was never Denzel, so you can take this for what it's worth. My limited experience tells me that both men and women enjoy, at times, dominating and being dominated. My limited experience tells me you'll be shocked by who pulls out the handcuffs, and what they plan to do with them. My limited experience tells me that the key thing, that all people want, is a choice.

Objectification isn't simply wanting someone physically--it's a denial of their right to choose, it's a denial of their will, their independence, their agency. The person literally becomes an object. That's where, I think, so much of hip-hop goes wrong--black women are rarely given the sort of agency, that any dude who's lived in a hood knows that they exhibit on a daily.


Men have a lot of trouble with that agency idea--indeed we live in fear of it. Ever had a dude hit on you on the street, and when you ignore him, he yells something completely out of line? ("Fuck you bitch," or some such?) That's a dude who has yet to acclimate himself to the fact that women get to choose who they want to talk to. It is again, the heaping of their insecurities on to someone else. There's a Dr. Dre joint (the title of which I'm blanking on) where in the video, an attractive woman strolls into a party with a rather uppity look. She scorns all the men, and is rewarded by having beer sprayed on to her. The implicit point being that she doesn't have the right to choose. She is the property of the first nigger that approaches.

The difference between the lyric that brags about what it's going to do (the will of the recipient plays no part) and the lyric that expresses what it would like to do, is the absence of agency. The great thing about that TVOTR lyric, and about the whole song, is that doesn't simply express a desire to dominate, it expresses a desire for the perspective dominee to want the same ("I want to love you all the way off..."). It's a request for submission, and on some level, isn't that what love and sex are about?

Perhaps that's some foul, fucked up sexually backward shit. I know I can relate--but I could just be a demented perv. But I know a lot of brothers who feel the same way. Maybe that only proves that demented, sexist pervs run together. I don't know. When it comes to these matters my ability to theorize is quite limited. I don't know how much ideology can be applied to who likes what, and why they like it. I don't know if there is a standard of sexual attraction that can be called wholesome. We are all animals. And sometimes we feel that way.

I didn't address the violent aspect of it, sorry. Again, I think that's an expression of the sort of force the attraction hits you with. I don't know what to say, except that when I hear that song, I know exactly how that feels. And, in my talks with other brothers, it expresses how they feel. I think women who want to know what dudes are thinking should listen to more TVOTR. You might not like what you hear. But, then, I'm not sure we'd like it much if things were reversed.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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