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Phoebe Robinson on black hair and why she calls her vagina “Dolly Parton”

Photo: Mindy Tucker
Photo: Mindy Tucker

Though Phoebe Robinson has been toiling away in the comedy community for years, she didn’t have her big break until last year, when she launched the 2 Dope Queens podcast with her friend and co-host, Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams. The show, which is produced by WNYC, took off, and soon the two were headlining shows across the country and garnering all sorts of national attention. That led to Sooo Many White Guys, Robinson’s relatively new chat show podcast, and—tangentially at least—to Robinson’s new book, You Can’t Touch My Hair, which is out now. The A.V. Club talked to Robinson about her book, her crazy year, and the ridiculously sexist ending of Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Phoebe Robinson’s blooper reel from her audiobook

The A.V. Club: What made you want to write a book?

Phoebe Robinson: I started my blog, Blaria, in 2012 and had a good feeling that I could get a book deal out of it.

Through the course of writing the blog I realized I have a lot more opinions than I thought I did. I used to work in film so I thought I just knew about film and TV and that’s it. Over the course of doing the blog I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m passionate about all these other things.” So it felt like this book could be a good place to put a lot of those opinions.

AVC: When did you get the deal for the book? Was it before 2 Dope Queens or after?

PR: Well, Jess and I started doing 2 Dope Queens back when it was “Blaria Live” in July 2014. I got the book deal in January of 2015. I had been doing a lot of standup and performing with Jess, and my lit agent, Robert Guinsler, he just reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’ve got you on this list of comics. I know you’re probably already writing a book but if not, I would love to meet up with you.” So it really felt like fate when he emailed me in November 2014 about that. It’s crazy now that everything is coming together with the book and the two podcasts and standup and all that stuff, but yeah, it was before 2 Dope Queens really took off and became what it is now.

AVC: It’s funny that your agent said, “I know you’re probably already writing a book.” It’s become such a thing for comedians to write a book that he just assumed.

PR: Yeah. And I feel like especially if you blog a lot, people just assume, “You probably have a book deal.” Like why else would you blog, and that sort of attitude. So that’s probably why he was just saying, “Fingers crossed, but I get it if you’re totally already working on something.”

AVC: On a recent episode of Sooo Many White Guys you said that you have only recently gotten to the point where you can be sure you can pay rent and utilities. How much has your life changed in the past year or two and what has that been like?

PR: I’m not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m not quite living month to month. It’s more like I’m good for a few months and then I’ll start to wonder what’s coming in next.

When you’re worried so much about money, it’s really hard to be creative. You can still create things, and people who are struggling financially create things all the time, but it’s very mentally taxing and it adds a level of stress.

This year there hasn’t been a lot of financial stress, which has been great. It’s been more like, “How can I best market my book?” Or I’m working on stand-up, because I want to put together a new half hour. I’ll ask, “What are the jokes I’m really liking?” The stress is coming more from the work and the career and not really worrying about, “Oh man, I’m going to give my rent check to my landlord two weeks late, and she’s cool with it but I’ve got to do that this month because I’m waiting on checks to clear.” I’m in a happier place where I’m not just constantly panicking every single month, which is really nice.

AVC: You’ve also worked a long time to make this happen. It didn’t just happen overnight. It’s got to be nice to have that finally pay off.

PR: Absolutely. I’ve been doing comedy for a little over eight years now, so it really is starting to feel like I’m getting momentum. I’m definitely seeing how much farther I want to go and need to go, but it’s really encouraging. A year and a half ago I was pretty much, like, “All right, I think I have to quit. I don’t think it’s going to happen for me.” So it’s nice that everything is turning around.

AVC: So much of your book is about being black. Why was that important for you to include in the book and what are you hoping that people get out of this book?

PR: Even though some of the essays pertain to black issues or issues that women go through, I still think it’s universal in the way that everyone can relate to being discriminated against or feeling like their voices aren’t being heard or that they’re not being seen. With everything that’s going on in the country right now—I hate to use the words “perfect timing” because people are being killed—but I think it’s time to talk about police brutality or someone like Donald Trump who’s Islamophobic and racist and sexist. I think books like mine and other books that are coming out that are taking these issues head-on, we’re saying, “Hey, you know these groups that are being marginalized over here? We’re standing up for those groups.”

A lot of times when race is talked about, it’s really talked about by men. Not that women aren’t writing about it but that no one wants to hear what women have to say because god forbid women have an opinion other than like, “Please fuck me!” I want to include my voice in the mix. I think it’s great that Ta-Nehisi Coates is so revered and everyone hangs on his every word. He’s an amazing writer and an incredible thinker, but there should be other layers. There should be women of color who are being celebrated and who are being listened to when they talk about these issues. It’s the same with LGBTQ people of color.

I really just want to add to the conversation and bring some more layers to it. With things like police brutality, there’s a tendency to act as though it only happens to black men. But it also happens to black women. Maybe not with the frequency, but we’re often left out of the conversation. And I wanted to say we’re here too, and you should listen to us.

AVC: You also deal with smaller issues in the book, like how even in mostly black neighborhoods, you still have to really strain to find black hair products at Walgreens.

PR: At the end of the day, is finding makeup the most pressing issue? No. Flint, Michigan doesn’t have clean water right now. That’s obviously more pressing. But it all contributes to a culture of not validating women of color, not recognizing their beauty, and trying to shame us into not liking ourselves for who we are.

It’s legal, in 2016, to not hire a black woman if she has dreadlocks. And I used to wear dreadlocks for a good five, six years. We’re living in a world where that is allowed. Everyone says it’s not about race, but clearly it is because Miley Cyrus wore dreadlocks to the VMAs and everyone was like, “She’s so cool and edgy and cutting-edge and look how young and hip she is.” But if a black woman went to a job interview with dreadlocks, there’s a good chance that she won’t get hired. The micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions go hand-in-hand. For the most part the everyday person is dealing with a multitude of the micro-aggressions and that can really shape their experiences for the rest of their lives and their self-perception.

AVC: There’s a part in your book where you talk about how you used to constantly be on charm offensive. When someone would ask you to do something you didn’t want to do, you’d joke back, saying, “I can’t believe you’re asking me to do this” rather than just saying no. How much of that do you think you can attribute to being a woman and having that be a learned behavior?

PR: All women are trained from a very young age that being likable and appeasing everyone is part of your duties as a woman. We basically have to spend our lives unlearning that behavior.

I think I talked about this on someone else’s podcast, but there was this comic who sexually harassed me—it was just a couple comments. He wasn’t handsy or anything, nothing like that, but he was just extremely inappropriate and it wasn’t cool. I was really appalled, but I saw him recently—we both happened to be on a show and I didn’t know he was going to be on the show until I walked into the green room and I was like, “Oh, fuck”—but I immediately, in my head, I told myself, “I have to hug him because I don’t want to make him feel bad.” And it was just like, “What? What? He was the asshole, and you’re worried that you’re going to make him feel weird if you aren’t chummy with him?”

The charm offensive is something that all women have to deal with. It’s really hard, and a lot of times it gets in the way of us going after what we want and demanding what we deserve. Sometimes people will think that you’re a monster if you’re not always quote-unquote “nice” to someone all the time. But it’s not that—it’s just not boosting someone else’s ego all the time. And that’s what people—in particular men—get mad about. “Why aren’t you making me feel amazing all the time?” I’m not on this planet to do that for you. You have to do that for yourself.

What’s great is that a lot of my friends, like Jessica and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, a lot of us are in a place where we’re done appeasing everybody, and we’re done worrying about everyone’s feelings at the expense of our own. A lot of it comes with age. I’m in my 30s now and I honestly don’t care anymore. I honestly don’t care. When guys tell me to smile I’m like, “Who are you? You are not a factor in my life.” I do not care. It feels good to be in that place, but it took a really long time.

AVC: You love something that I also love: fan-made YouTube tributes to fictional relationships.

PR: Yes!

AVC: Why did you get into those and what do you like about them?

PR: Ever since I was a little kid I just loved watching TV and being in my fantasy place and reliving those moments. I rewatch Sex And The City all the time—especially the episodes where Carrie and Aidan are first starting to date—and I’m like, “I want a cute carpenter with a shaggy dog.” So it’s a nice fantasy and escape for me.

Also, because I’m starting to work more in TV, I feel like I can learn a lot about how to develop relationship stories. So it’s part work and also part pleasure.

AVC: I’m so interested in the people who make those videos.

PR: I know! I would never take the time to do that but I appreciate the people who do that for us. So thank you to them.

AVC: There are a lot of people who don’t understand that kind of stuff, or maybe don’t even understand re-watching Sex And The City. It seems frivolous to people.

PR: Right. But it’s one of those things where, yeah, Sex And The City is ridiculous, but so is fucking Transformers. That’s stupid. It’s about a car that turns into a total robot? That’s fucking dumb. How is that any cooler than Carrie Bradshaw wearing impossible heels? It’s the same thing.

It’s just because of gender that we’re made to feel like we’re bad for watching romantic comedies. Most action movies are terrible. Literally, it’s like someone took a dump on a sheet of paper and that became a movie. But we act like we have to feel bad about watching Anne Hathaway in Princess Diaries 2. Those are the same things to me. They’re both ridiculous silly fantasies, and women shouldn’t be made to feel bad about enjoying the fantasy stuff that they enjoy.

Sorry to get all worked up about that, but it really pisses me off. I saw this thing—I wish I had the article in front of me—but it said that routinely on IMDB, male commenters will give female-led TV shows lower ratings just because they’re led by a woman. Also, it said that women commenters tend to be more objective in their ratings for both male- and female-led shows.

Everybody’s just telling us that we suck and I’m like, “Do we? Do we suck? Or are we all just pretty much kind of the same?”

AVC: Women are more open to liking things that are quote-unquote “for men,” while some men are really resistant to even checking out shows like The Mindy Project or New Girl, just because they perceive them as being for women.

PR: I love The Mindy Project.

I just started watching Better Things on FX, which is so good. It’s co-created by and stars Pamela Adlon, who was on Louie. Anyway, I was watching the show and there are videos of it on Facebook. I think I was looking at a trailer for the show that FX put up and the top comment was from this guy who said, “Normally I don’t like women’s shows, but this actually surprised me.” It was funny. It was like, “What? Normally you don’t like women’s shows? Are you out of your mind?” Across the board, any show starring a woman, this guy says, “That’s garbage”?

It’s that casual kind of sexism that’s just like... I’m sure he’s a cool dad and respectful of his wife, but deep down he’s still sexist, and he still ultimately thinks things created by women are inferior to things created by men.

This is the kind of stuff that we’re combating every single day of our lives. And dudes are always like, “Why are women so worked up?” It’s because of this shit! It’s because we have to spend so much energy just to be heard and be appreciated, you know?

Anyway. That was a tangent. That was not related to any question you asked me thus far. I just wanted to express it.

AVC: Well, it ties in nicely to something else you talk about in the book, which is the idea of a thigh gap. Maybe the idea of a thigh gap was invented by men, and maybe it was invented by women, but it’s just another manufactured construct that we’ve developed to shit on ourselves.

PR: Yeah, totally! I absolutely agree with you. It’s a bummer because women are awesome, and I feel like if we were told that more and not just when Dove does their campaign where they say “love your body”—they do that once a year and every other time it’s women who look like Kate Moss—I think it would be different.

No matter what size you are, people make women in particular feel bad about it. If you’re thin, you’re too thin. If you’re average-size, why aren’t you skinnier? If you’re bigger, why aren’t you skinnier? You should be like Ashley Graham, because that is the only acceptable kind of curvy body out there. It’s insane.

AVC: In the book you talk about how you call your vagina “Dolly Parton and the Coat Of Many Colors.” Why you do that?

PR: [Laughs.] Because I’m an idiot. Sometimes I like to just say ridiculous things and then they stick in my head. That was just a moment where I thought, “What’s the craziest thing I can say about myself? Oh yeah. I’ll say that.” Dolly Parton would say, “This is not why I wrote this song. This is actually very meaningful to me but thank you for relating it back to your vagina.” Sorry, Dolly!

AVC: But it’s also one of these jokes that’s actually based in truth, because your vagina can change colors.

PR: People still get so uncomfortable when people talk about their bodies in real ways. They’re fine with male comics that talk about women’s bodies, but women taking ownership over it and not saying, “I’m such a slut. I’m gross”—not okay. When someone says, “This is my body and this is what’s going on with me,” that makes people feel weird, and female bodies are awesome. They’re amazing. I just thought, “Here are some fun facts you should know.” The fact that we’re not talking about the freaking miracle that is the vagina on the regular… I don’t even understand it. We hear about penises all the time. We get it. We know the ins and outs of all dongs until the end of time. So let’s talk about vaginas more. That’s my platform if I run for office.

AVC: It’s great that some people are talking about what actually happens to women, like Cameron Esposito’s bit about period chunks, but the fact that people actually freak out positively when someone talks about that is a little jarring. We’re celebrating plain facts.

PR: Right. And it’s just so funny how so little people actually know about women.

I did a food diary for Grub Street recently, and I talked about how I do laundry so late that I constantly have to buy underwear because I have to wash underwear in the sink to have clean underwear. And this guy wrote, “Wait, women can’t wash their underwear?” And I was like, “Yeah, some of it’s really delicate so you can’t throw it in the washing machine because then it’ll get ruined.” And he was like, “That happens?” And I was, “Yeah. Every woman has five pairs of underwear that she has to hand-wash because otherwise they’re going to be nothing.”

I’m not saying that’s pressing news, because it’s obviously not, but it’s just these basic things that we go through every day. Or that feminine products are taxed. They have the luxury tax on them, which… having your period is not a luxury by any stretch of the imagination. There are things like that that I don’t think people really know about or pay attention to or talk about.

AVC: Another thing we don’t talk about is the NFL and domestic violence, which comes up in your book. I assume you’re a Browns fan, because you mention that you hate the Steelers. The Browns just put a statue of Jim Brown up outside their stadium, but Jim Brown is a pretty sketchy dude. But nobody was talking about it when that statue went up.

PR: It’s freaky being a fan of the NFL because the treatment of women is really horrible. And even the way that people are reacting to Colin Kaepernick right now and his protesting, it’s like, “So that pisses you off but you guys are totally fine with Ben Roethlisberger and all these athletes just constantly doing very questionable things to women? You guys are fine with that?” There’s no outrage over that, there are no articles about that, and that’s what’s upsetting.

The only time the NFL will ever make any sort of stand is when there’s video evidence that makes them look so poorly that they have to do something. They’re just all concerned about making money. The athletes are not valued by the owners of the teams, and they’re just looked at as cash cows. So there’s an element of, “As long as you win, I don’t care what you do.”

Even outside of the NFL it’s really difficult for women who are sexual assault victims or domestic violence victims to be believed. There’s a tendency for everyone to say, “Women lie all the time.” And that’s not true. They’ve done studies and literally such a small amount of those reports have ever been a lie. Most of the time, it’s true. And no one listens. No one cares.

Then there’s also this thing that I see happening, which I saw with the New York comedy scene, when everything went down with Aaron Glaser, there was this tendency for people to go, “I want you to relive your rape for me in order for me to believe you.” Women don’t have to relive their trauma for you. You don’t need to know all the details of that horrible night that happened to them.

There’s just something sick about that “show us your bruises” mentality that is very particular to women. Maybe it’s because historically men have been awful to women, so they’re thinking, “If we’ve done this awful shit, why wouldn’t women do awful shit like this?” So maybe there’s a little bit of projecting going on. There’s clearly a lack of value for human life if it comes in the female form, for sure.

But yes, it’s really irritating that the NFL has a tendency to not believe women and to just say, “Yeah, we’re cool with these dudes being monsters because they make enough money that it’s okay.”

I haven’t really watched football this year. I want to but I’ve been busy with work. And I feel weird about it. It bothers me more and more.

AVC: In the book, you wrote about disliking the ending of Kingsman, which I totally agree with. The anal stuff drove me insane.

PR: Yeah, and I loved that movie. I love Colin Firth. Well, I won’t say I loved that movie, but I thought it was really fun and silly and ridiculous. I understand the director was like, “The whole thing is over the top,” but I was like, “It’s only really over the top in terms of objectifying women in that case.” It’s not equal opportunity. I don’t know. It felt so reductive. There’s enough of that in media already that I don’t think you making a joke of, “Let’s be over the top and have this girl be like, ‘You saved my life and you can have butt sex with me.’” Is that the joke we need to make?

That happens all the time in film. Actresses’ whole careers are pretty much based on whether they’re still fuckable or not. I just thought, “This isn’t a smart joke. This isn’t a cool commentary on over the top action. This is just perpetuating the same garbage that’s already out there.” That was a bummer for me because I thought that up until that, the movie was fun and goofy and then... I don’t know. It really went ridiculous for me in a way that wasn’t fun.