Yesterday, Phil Robertson, the star of A&E’s massively popular reality show Duck Dynasty, about a family that made a fortune selling duck calls to hunters, followed what’s now become a familiar cycle. He was quoted saying any number of intolerant things in a profile by Drew Magary in GQ, condemned by GLAAD, and swiftly suspended by his network for an indefinite period of time. The Duck Dynasty story has gone wider than this type of cycle normally extends, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, normally a supporter of free enterprise, complaining that Robertson’s suspension is an example of how far our society has fallen from First Amendment principles. But variations aside, the Robertson kerfuffle is the perfect scandal with which to end our year in popular culture for what it tells about the lines reality television tries — and increasingly fails — to walk, who has power to marginalize political ideas in popular culture, and how conservatives will try to defend the holdouts they’ve carved out for themselves in mass media.
The most revealing thing about Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality in GQ is really the extent to which his comments about homosexuality are on-brand for A&E. Jase Robertson told Magary that the three things his family wanted their show to be about were “faith, betrayal of family members, and duck season.” As is clear in the profile in GQ, A&E has tried to walk a fine line between portraying the Robertsons as religious Christians without spotlighting the parts of their beliefs that have the potential to cause precisely the kind of firestorm that resulted yesterday. “There are more things Phil would like to say—’controversial’ things, as he puts it to me—that don’t make the cut,” Magary writes. This dilemma of wanting part of a reality television cast member’s personality, but only the parts that will make you money, is one that faced CBS’s Big Brother this year, too, after discovering that the ways in which a number of their controversial and colorful cast members were controversial and colorful was that they were enormously ignorant racists.
I absolutely understand the desire to make money off of either evangelical Christianity or American backwardness, which has increasingly been one of the staples of reality television. There is clearly a market for an underserved audience of religious Christians who would like to see themselves reflected in popular media more frequently. And there is clearly a market for being horrified by other people’s behavior. But it is exceptionally difficult, in a reality television context, to separate out and wall off the part of someone’s personality that is attractive and media-friendly from the parts that are less palatable to a mass audience. If you’re writing fiction for television, those attributes can get shaved off by the collective process of the writers’ room. But if you are, yourself, a reality television product, especially if you feel like you’re being suppressed or misrepresented, those parts of your personality and beliefs will inevitably out. Sometimes, the surprises are pleasant, as was the case on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, where a family offered up as backwards and repellent proved to be tolerant, loving, and charming. But that is not often the case.
For the most part, reality television producers and the networks that air their work, have decided that these outbursts are worth the risk of continuing to sell highly specific personalities, precisely because the cycle of suspension, response, and temporary profit loss are so well-established at this point that it can probably be worked into a budget. I can’t imagine anyone at A&E is surprised that someone like Phil Robertson, who bills himself as a Bible-believing evangelical, believes that you can “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” or that he would say something like “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.” The question was probably when, not if.
And when that when arrived, A&E had a well road-tested formula to use in its response, provided by the folks at GLAAD. GLAAD is the most effective media advocacy organization that I know of, on two levels: first, its ability to swiftly identify and condemn anti-LGBT speech and to get results, and second, in its deep, comprehensive, and intersectional research on the depiction of LGBT characters and figures in media. When Robertson’s remarks broke, Wilson Cruz of GLAAD responded quickly with a statement that hit on an incredible number of ideas in a clear, efficient way.
“Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe,” he said. “He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans — and Americans — who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors, who now need to re-examine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.” It was a condemnation that positioned GLAAD as a more sophisticated and compassionate arbiter of Christian values than Robertson, drew a connection between culture and legal protection, and offered a reminder that GLAAD has plenty of experience influencing media sponsors.
And A&E knew immediately what it had to do to respond to GLAAD: Robertson was suspended for an indefinite period of time, a punishment that doesn’t just promise long-running financial losses to him, but because it has no end point, can’t be immediately decried as too short or too long. It’s action that effectively ends the news cycle, as far as A&E’s need to take action and appear responsive are concerned.
It’s also worth noting that because of GLAAD’s swift intervention, much of the media coverage has focused more on Robertson’s anti-gay remarks than his comments about African Americans and the Civil Rights movement, which weren’t worked into the narrative of the profile, but appeared as a pull quote in the online version of the piece. While Robertson’s views on homosexuality are presented as consistent with his religious beliefs, his remarks about African-Americans are actually more politically extreme, aimed at undermining the validity of the safety net.
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field,” Robertson said. “They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
That’s a vision of the American South and American racial history that’s in keeping with Paula Deen’s alleged plantation nostalgia. It’s an attempt to substitute Robertson’s own memories of his interactions with African American laborers, whose behavior around him may well have been influenced by his relative privilege as a white man, even a poor one, for the larger history of organizing against and resistance to the economically and racially ruinous consequences of the Jim Crow system. It’s a kind of narrative that’s aimed at retroactively manufacturing black consent for policies aimed at maintaining white supremacy.
But in the absence of an organization like GLAAD, which is extremely familiar to both media companies and media reporters, condemning those remarks, most of the entertainment reportage focused on Robertson’s anti-gay comments. That’s less a matter of disregard for racial bias, I think, than a focus instead on covering conflicts or potential conflicts between large organizations. And there’s a particularly strong incentive to cover disputes that could evolve into disputes with economic consequences, like the advertiser boycott GLAAD was clearly threatening. The NAACP did co-author a letter to A&E with the Human Rights Campaign. But that letter didn’t mention advertisers, as GLAAD’s statement did, and I wonder if it might have been interpreted more as a sign of consensus among gay organizations, than as proof of a broad-based coalition that objected to a range of Robertson’s remarks. A&E certainly reinforced that impression by focusing on the LGBT community in its statement announcing the suspension, explaining that “His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.”
Normally, the lifecycle of the Duck Dynasty scandal would end with the suspension. But in an attempt to score political points off the controversy, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has decided to express his great sorrow about a supposed suppression of Phil Robertson’s right to free speech, which I was not aware included a guarantee to be paid to say whatever he pleased on a major television network’s airtime.
“I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV,” Jindal said in an official statement. “In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended ”
These sorts of statements are always hilariously hypocritical coming from conservatives who in all other spheres of their lives want private enterprises like A&E to be able to do whatever they’d like. But it does suggest a particular frustration. Duck Dynasty does prove that there’s a definitive market for Christian figures in reality television. But the backlash to Robertson’s remarks does suggest that the market is limited to certain professions of Godliness, rather than to Phil Robertson’s entire theological or political program. And the fact that A&E is willing to respond to GLAAD and other organizations does demonstrate that it prioritizes some consumers over others, and that it’s more interested in being seen as compliant with some norms than others. That’s a fairly definitive valuation of Christian consumers’ worth to mass media. And I can’t imagine that it’s a figure that makes Robertson, Jindal and plenty of other people particularly happy or comfortable.
It’s easy, I suppose, to dismiss the coverage of Robertson’s remarks, his suspension, and Jindal’s follow-up as all-too-predictable. But in 2013, that’s precisely why the cycle of the scandal matters. We’ve reached a point where the monetization of controversial figure as entertainment, their inevitable line-crossing, the organizations that exists to police that line-stepping, and the outrage that accompanies networks’ moderation of their own business strategies is an institution in and of itself. The relationships between all players in the cycle are symbiotic. But the power to influence culture and determine which political ideas are mass-marketable is decidedly real.