Ratchet TV: Wanda Sykes’s Not Normal

Per Shamir, Sykes didn't need Netflix — Netflix needed her.

Ratchet TV is a new column in which our resident TV expert Shamir Bailey guides us on what’s worth watching. In this installment, Shamir takes a closer look at Wanda Sykes’s new stand up special. Could it have existed without Mo’Nique boycotting Netflix? Stay tuned for Shamir’s thoughts!
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse Music

“It’s not normal that I know that I’m smarter than the president,” Wanda Sykes protests in the opening of her Netflix stand up special Wanda Sykes: Not Normal. Nothing about Sykes is normal — at least not in a “Make America Great Again” kind of way. She’s an American, gay, black woman married to a white, French woman with two white kids. Every morning, she has to wake up a minority in her own home, never mind the fact that she’s usually the only black woman just about everywhere else she goes. She spent years fighting for gay marriage in the time leading up to its 2015 legalization in all 50 states. When Sykes says something’s not normal, you know she’s not talking about the status quo: She’s talking about the crippling regression that surrounds her.

I’m sure a successful queer woman like herself felt endless possibilities in 2015. It seemed “normal” to progress from there — but now she sees herself trying not to resent her house that’s full of white people whom she loves, but who don’t understand the triggers she’s constantly faced with in this declining and dangerous administration.

This Netflix special came as a surprise to me because of Sykes’ support of Mo’Nique infamously calling the company out for trying to underpay her. Sykes tweeted that her last stand up special What Happened… Ms. Sykes came out on Epix because she, too, felt Netflix had low-balled her. Mo’Nique’s frustration led her to publicly lead a Netflix boycott. Sykes collaboration with Netflix signals to me that, because of her endless perseverance and undeniable talent, they paid her a reasonable amount to host this special. Seeing this kind of manifestation from a queer black woman who knows her worth is beyond inspiring. She uses her platform wonderfully. She knows how to deliver hard truths and experiences in a way that even if you wanted to be offended, you can’t. She understands how likable she is, but doesn’t care to win over everyone in the process. The very first thing she says as the special starts is, “If you voted for Trump, and you came to see me, you fucked up again.” One could only imagine the kinds of aggressions she has to overcome on a daily basis for her to have to reiterate something that should go without saying.

While she often tackles the topic of race throughout the special, her views sometimes come off a bit moderate, progressive intentions. She jokes, “Black people, we need a better publicist.” On the surface it seems like a harmless observation, but it erases the systemic struggles that come into play. Her callowness on the topic is displayed further as she continues with, “How about some billboards all across the country of black people doing fun, non-threatening, frivolous shit.” Sykes has been successful in Hollywood for probably as long as I’ve been alive, starting her career in the ’90s with an appearance on Def Comedy Jam and eventually writing for and acting in The Chris Rock Show. It seems that she could benefit from being reminded that most black people don’t have the privilege to do “frivolous shit.” Black people, or all people of color for that matter, should not feel that they have to partake in mostly white activities to be seen as non-threatening, especially in a system that actively works to keep them oppressed.

Wanda Sykes has always been a legend in my eyes. She’s the only queer person of color in comedy I can easily recall who has inspired me my whole life. Her contributions in the world of comedy are prolific and immense. Going back to her 2006 HBO special Sick and Tired, Sykes’s material has always tackled race and economic issues; by her 2009 special, I’ma Be Me, she was newly out and was finally touching on life as a queer black woman.

While MoNique’s Netflix protest seemed a bit preposterous — her outrage seemed to be a bit egotistical considering her resume might not be as dense as Sykes’s, but definitely has more heft than Amy Schumer’s — it worked in Sykes’s favor. Mo’Nique is still without a special and doesn’t seem to be getting one anytime soon; Sykes doesn’t mind working harder to get what she wants, even when it’s disproportionate. This does not, and should not be the norm for black women. It, unfortunately, is. Someone of her caliber shouldn’t even have had to fight as hard as she did in order to get this special, which was Mo’Nique’s point all along. It feels unfair to shame Sykes for taking any and all opportunities afforded to her, but part of me also wishes she took a stand also. She didn’t need Netflix, they needed her. By doing this, she not only helps Netflix make money, but also sweetens a minor PR fiasco. Now, there’s only one black woman reaping the benefit while the other sits on the sideline in the same position she began. We have seen this story time and time again. Would Netflix even have this special if it wasn’t for Mo’Nique’s protest? I’m always happy when the world is given a Wanda Sykes stand up special; her talent is like no other. But I hope one day she realizes that one of the main reasons she lives in a house full of white people, is because she’s a black person who has been afforded to do “fun, non threatening, frivolous shit” with them.

Shamir is Shamir and remains Shamir through and through, no matter what the universe puts him through. You may know the singularly named artist (think—Madonna or Cher) from his 2015 debut hit record Rachet, beloved by NPR listeners and club kids alike. After quickly rising to underground fame with his Northtown EP in 2014, the DIY pop star made a sonic splash with Rachet’s lead single “On The Regular,” a poppy banger that had extensive commercial usage. But how to follow all that up? Shamir, who came from the dusty dunes of Las Vegas, to Brooklyn’s Silent Barn, to the Philly indie scene (and all over the world in between), wanted to go back to what had inspired him from the beginning. Outsider music, country & punk. Raw and vulnerable tunes, stripped down to their emotional core. 2017’s Revelations explored a new avenue of guitar driven hooky indie rock and was widely critically praised in the US and overseas.

Shamir’s most recent releases, the brilliant Room 7” on Father/Daughter, and his self-released limited edition album, Resolution, are pinnacles in the catalog of the increasingly fascinating artist’s career. Room and its b-side Caballero celebrate Shamir’s love of country music, while Resolution is a deeply introspective look into the fabric of society and the artists’ own mind.  With these two releases he has refined his craft exponentially and done so in less than six months from the release of Revelations.