Television

The Show That Lets Black Women Be Messy

Phoebe Robinson’s Everything’s Trash dismantles the politics of respectability.

Phoebe Robinson on Everything's Trash.
Phoebe Robinson on Everything’s Trash. Freeform

​In an interview about her Freeform show Everything’s Trash, creator and star Phoebe Robinson, who plays 30something podcaster Phoebe Hill, was asked whether, compared to the characters messily finding their way in the big city on Girls and Broad City, Black women “felt as free to be trash.” “We know that the answer is no,” Robinson responded, adding, “I didn’t create this show thinking about respectability politics. It wasn’t even a topic of discussion.”

As a Gen Xer, I want to believe that the millennial Robinson was intentionally shunning the respectability politics that have shackled Black women of older generations to prescriptive ways of being. However, based on Robinson’s own words, it seems more accurate to say she is creating a space where she is free to be unbothered by dated beliefs that define behaviors and appearances. A great swath of Black women Gen Xers were raised by Baby Boomer veterans of the Civil Rights movement, where displaying a “respectable” appearance—suits and dresses—was part of the struggle to be viewed as worthy of civil rights and humanization. With the achievement of integration and civil rights, the discourse around moral behaviors and appearance deserves an evolution as well.

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Even though I still worry about what I wear and share and how I am viewed by others, I am here for everything Robinson is offering her primary audience of millennials and Gen Zers. I started fangirling over Everything’s Trash, which recently finished its first season, from the first episode, “Choosing Between Peen and Politics”—when Robinson’s character, Phoebe Hill says, “I’m a free-spirited young woman who wears head wraps when I’m having sex ’cause some dudes are not worth sweating them edges out, OK?” (There’s no using the explanatory comma for her non-Black audience members.) Phoebe puts her relationship with pleasure and protecting her hair on display with a natural ease. Black hair does these things that white hair doesn’t, and thus sex, exercise, and rain are landmines we attempt to sidestep. To visually represent a shield to make sex and Black hair compatible was a much needed reprieve for my Gen X soul.

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During her podcast, Phoebe shares that she was able to dodge a possible pregnancy mishap instead of cowering behind shame. This announcement that the Plan B pill worked is accompanied by shooting celebratory pew-pews (laser guns or air horns, I’m not exactly sure which) in the air with her producer, Malika (Toccarra Cash). Phoebe is more concerned with trumpeting her reproductive rights than she is about fueling the stereotype of a Black Jezebel, or the moralistic code of keeping Black female sexuality behind closed doors.

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Although Robinson may have created Everything’s Trash without reference to respectability politics, the show underlines their problematic nature in the 21st century. Phoebe launches an intelligent critique of online trolls as she defends her decision to have sex with a member of the campaign for her brotherJayden’s (Jordan Carlos) rival for state representative : “This 1950s sexist misogynoir bullshit is how you wanna play this?” She acknowledges that when Black women operate outside of what has been coded as acceptable, the women are judged through a sexist and racist lens. In other words, Black women can’t publicly display their sexuality without rubbing against the terms promiscuous and whore. Everything’s Trash is about repealing those Black codes. In later episodes, Phoebe develops a relationship with Hamilton, the director of communications for the opposition, despite the fact that his job is to damage her brother’s political campaign. She puts herself first without regard for what that looks like to others—pushing the envelope in terms of addressing the limits of respectability politics. And when a problem arises during their entanglement, Phoebe seeks solace in detached sex by scrolling through her millennial rolodex of past hookups. Phoebe was a free spirit prior to Hamilton and she sought to reclaim that lifestyle. My own late paternal grandmother started telling me to “be good” when I was a young teenager without ever qualifying what being good meant. To just be is something Phoebe Robinson has chosen to sell to her audience.

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The respectability politics of sexuality and physical presentation snake their way through the season finale of Everything’s Trash. The episode begins with Phoebe in a committed relationship with Hamilton. She is about to have sex with this man on her brother’s election day, which her sister-in-law scornfully references in a separate scene. Later, Phoebe wears a short, tight green dress and pink hair to a job interview. Proper interview attire is a staple within all communities; we are taught there is a specific way to present oneself when seeking career advancement or just plain job attainment. However, this moment in the show underscores why Black respectability politics has been a huge issue for the Black community and especially Black women. In a society with a history of dehumanizing and Black women and treating them as inferior, there was a time where Black women had to work extremely hard to overcome mainstream white American perceptions. In order to do so, there were specific ways of performing in public in order to be considered respectable, appropriate and even mainstream. This show is fun and lighthearted because we get a much needed break from worrying about mainstream American perceptions. During this interview, Phoebe is selling herself, her personality, not a specific look of how a Black woman should appear.

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The episode ends with Phoebe reading a text message from Hamilton hoping she will join him in a farmhouse in upstate New York while simultaneously receiving an offer to run away to Miami with a new guy. Choosing the adventure of sex and travel with the new guy would be messy and a deliberate shunning of the more respectable or traditional thing to do. The season ends with the question: Will Phoebe honor her relationship or return to her free spirited ways and disrespect the politics of respectability even further?

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Over the course of the season, Phoebe’s fierceness diminishes slightly and she becomes whiny and screechy. I love when she’s messy and human, and says things like “do better” to her “vajeen” after a hook up with a sexy but “dumb” (her words) man. But when she’s childish with sayings like “go on your little journ journ” or “you guoiys” and maintains little girl pink as her color, I’m annoyed—or rather, I truly recognize I’m of an older generation.

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The show is not easily for all audiences. The cultural references were elusive at times. I had to look up the Gal Gadot “Imagine” video after I couldn’t understand how hurling it at her brother and his campaign video was an insult. (I was surprised I had missed the video when it was circulating in the early days of lockdown; I must have been in a haze of reading books I had neglected and writing bad poetry.) I also had to turn on closed captions to identify words like Naysh and then look them up in the Urban dictionary to understand the meaning—nation.

Black women storytellers who use the screen as their artistic medium are increasingly ripping through respectability politics that have bound Black women to a code of ethics that have been limiting and debilitating. There is a lot of power, freedom, and fun in Everything’s Trash for millennials and Gen Zers, but there is also a freshness, and new kind of energy and joy for old heads like me.

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