Now that the media has moved past the brief furor caused Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, it seems appropriate to examine that controversy in a less emotionally charged context. Some might complain that such a discussion is simply an attempt to revive the controversy, but I would argue that one of the major consequences of the controversy-of-the-moment mindset among news providers and news consumers has been that very little is analyzed with the benefit of hindsight. As a result, many of the significant aspects and almost all of the nuances of a controversy—most of the things that might inform our responses to similar, subsequent issues—either go unarticulated or go largely unnoticed in the din of partisan talking points.
For these reasons, it seems to me that now would be the right time for us to address such issues, where they are relevant, in our classes.
In the “New Rules” segment with which he closes each episode of Real Time, Bill Maher showed the following photo of Phil Robertson’s sons before the television show went into development:
And here’s another photo that shows the Robertsons looking much more suburban that backwoodsy:
Maher dryly observed that the Robertsons’ “reality” show is, in essence, a con job—a carefully conceived fable about an anachronistic family prospering in contemporary America despite being distinctly out of step with the mainstream culture. In sum, their appearing to be so anachronistic is actually the secret of their success and not an inexplicable corollary to that success.
According to the site Celebrity Net Worth, Phil Robertson alone has a personal net worth of $15 million. That degree of wealth raises a number of obvious issues. Is a hillbilly still a hillbilly when he‘s worth $15 million? Or, can a hillbilly worth $15 million remain an illustrative hillbilly?
Moreover, if the Robertsons are, in effect, playing hillbillies on TV, are they more similar to or different than Buddy Ebsen and the other actors who were in the cast of The Beverly Hillbillies? When I watched The Beverly Hillbillies as a child, I could quickly identify the things that defined each of the characters: their dress, their mannerisms, their favorite expressions, their most prominent traits, and their relationships the other characters. (To expand briefly on just the first point, like the Cartwright clan on Bonanza, each character wore the same identifying clothing week after week.) But if I had been asked whether the Clampetts might be a real family, I would have immediately said no. Even as a child, I was very willing to suspend his disbelief in order to be amused, in order to enter briefly into the world inhabited by the Clampetts, but I knew that the Clampetts were “unreal”—that they were much less complex than the people among whom I was growing up in the coal regions at the far northeastern end of Appalachia.
I think that people respond the Robertsons in much the same way that I responded to the Clampetts, with the significant difference that for many of the viewers of Duck Dynasty, a major factor in the appeal of the show is that it is presented as something that is “real.” And that assumption by many of the show’s viewers may be at the crux of the real damage done by Phil Robertson’s off-the-cuff comments about gays, women, and race. The core issue is not whether viewers agree or disagree with Robertsons’ increasingly anachronistic political and cultural views. It is, instead, that the audience has now been reminded that those kinds of anachronistic political and cultural views are also part of the very multifaceted hillbilly stereotype. Robertson’s views do not place him among the mutants who prey on the outdoorsmen in Deliverance or among the murderous Klansmen of Mississippi Burning. But they force viewers to view him apart from the controlled—produced, directed and edited–and very sanitized “world” of Duck Dynasty. Although the tones of the shows are very different in some respects, Duck Dynasty is as sanitized as The Waltons was. And one cannot imagine an episode of The Waltons in which Grandpa suddenly reveals himself to be a homophobic, sexist, racist old crank. Such things were not just inconsistent with the character played by Will Geer; they were inconsistent with the milieu in which the Walton family supposedly lived, a milieu in which such volatile issues showed themselves much more subtly and were addressed much more delicately.
Even given the very different political and cultural context in which The Beverly Hillbillies was broadcast, much the same issues probably would have been raised if Buddy Ebsen had suddenly indulged in a homophobic, sexist, and/or racist rant. In that case, however, it is possible that Buddy Ebsen could have been separated from and replaced on the show, in much the same way that Charlie Sheen was recently separated from and replaced on Two and a Half Men. But because Duck Dynasty is a “reality show,” Phil Robertson cannot simply be “killed off.” And it will be the kiss of death to Duck Dynasty if the show now suddenly attempts to absorb, to address, what Phil Robertson has revealed about himself off camera.