Cable network A&E on Friday reinstated the bearded patriarch Phil Robertson of the runaway reality show hit "Duck Dynasty" – a faith-driven country man who had suddenly come to represent many things Southern and good, plus some things, like intolerance, that a lot of Americans think aren’t so good.
The decision by A&E to reinstate Phil and let the show go on came after a standoff with the Robertson clan, who suggested they’d quit the quirky show about a bunch of wealthy Louisiana rednecks unless Phil could be part of it. The network put Phil on indefinite hiatus before Christmas following a GQ interview where Robertson linked homosexual behavior to “bestiality” and other sins like adultery.
Many, including gay advocacy groups, took offense, and demanded A&E fire Robertson over what they called “vile” comments that promoted intolerance of gays, who comprise a small percentage of the population but a group in the middle of a civil rights movement for legal equality, especially when it comes to marriage and wills.
When A&E executives acquiesced to demands from gay groups, Christian Americans surged to Phil’s side, forcing at one point the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain to reverse a decision to pull Duck Dynasty merchandise. “We apologize for offending you” by pulling Duck Dynasty stuff, the company wrote in a submissive Facebook post.
The dustup was really a landmark moment in an American culture riven by faith and values, differences often exaggerated and amplified by the wild and wooly world of Internet commentary, says Rob Weiner, a pop culture expert at Texas Tech University. But A&E’s buckling to the Robertson clan’s demands also epitomized the marketing power that Christian consumers can muster at a time when only 41 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, are regular churchgoers (compared to 89 percent in Nigeria).
“This discourse has brought into focus that there are significant bodies of people who have competing world views in America,” says Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that sponsored the “I Stand with Phil” Internet petition that drew 260,000 signatures. For A&E, that meant executives had to “deal with the fact that there are millions of Christian Americans who say, ‘Hey, you’re talking to me, and you’re disenfranchising me.’ [Their] opinion has to be included in America’s rainbow of diversity, and it has to be included in the conversation” with regards to “power, inclusion and mutual respect.”
But as executives and fans took to Christmas tables, conversation turned at least in places not to Duck Dynasty’s political implications or opportunity for advocacy group grandstanding, but to the fact that the show fairly hews to the Arts & Entertainment ethos: Perhaps not artsy, but ultimately family entertainment that makes people laugh and think, if not fantasize, about American opportunity and freedom.
Self-admittedly liberal and urban writers – including GQ reporter Drew Magary who penned the blow-up piece – have romanticized the rural Christian lifestyle, suggesting that Phil Robertson and his clan may have gotten the American idea right.
“Whatever you think of Phil’s beliefs, it’s hard not to gaze upon his cultivations and wonder if you’ve gotten life all wrong,” writes Mr. Magary, a self-admitted coastal elite type obsessed with his iPhone, as he describes the Robertson’s West Monroe, Louisiana, existence. “This is life as summer camp. It’s gorgeous, in a way that alters you on an elemental level. I feel it when I breathe the air. I feel it when I survey the enormity of the space around me.”
Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty had up to this point straddled America’s cultural rifts deftly, if not always artfully, creating a kind of modern-day “Cosby Show” where Americans are given a warm, welcoming glimpse into how the other half lives.
A former Louisiana Tech football standout, Phil’s a self-made man, a reborn sinner, a clan leader who carries respect, and a bit of awe and embarrassment from grandkids wide-eyed at the words that come out of his mouth. A strongly upturned thumb and exhortations of “Yep,” and “happy, happy, happy,” are his catchphrases.
Phil may be the patriarch, but is hardly the star of the show. Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson, the second-eldest son, sometimes plays the buffoon but is better known for his exasperated forgiveness of his younger siblings.
Jase Robertson is the smart-alecky middle brother with a thirst for anything “redneck” and adventurous. His best line so far may have been: “You can talk any redneck into a challenge. That’s why so many rednecks die in strange ways.”
Jep Robertson is the youngest and, understandably, given his two loudmouth brothers, the quietest son, but the one best beloved by matriarch Kay.
While lots of attention is also given to kids, grandkids and wives, as well as rotund and well-bearded Duck Commander employees, Si Robertson is the star. The lanky, loose limbed Vietnam vet has an ever present glass of ice tea and specializes in hilarious retorts that border on the bizarre, if not downright perplexing.
“One time in Vietnam, I saw a grizzly bear riding a scooter,” he once pronounced. (Okay, one more Si-ism: “I sting like a butterfly and punch like a flea.”) When Si Robertson made a promotional appearance in Conway, Arkansas recently, 20,000 people showed up. That’s how many souls fit in your average NHL hockey arena.
But as Magary points out, the bottom line for the Robertsons is to engage Americans with the Bible – the notion which may have rubbed many gay groups the wrong way, since they’re sensitive to any shift in attitudes that could affect how the law and the courts view the homosexuality.
That viewpoint also walked Phil Robertson into what some would call a reporter’s trap, asked offhandedly , in his living room, how he defined sin. That’s when Phil went on a roll:
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” Robertson began. “Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
Then he proceeded straight to Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
(Less widely publicized were observations about Southern blacks during Jim Crow, where he said the blacks he worked alongside seemed happy.)
The backlash was strong and immediate, in large part because Robertson has a TV pulpit that reached 14.8 million people, record cable viewership that has already shook cable economics to the core.
“His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community,” wrote the partly-Disney-owned network after hearing about Phil’s GQ commentary. “The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely."
In reaction to A&E reversing that decision on Friday, GLAAD, one of the country’s most influential gay advocacy groups, had this to say: “Phil Robertson should look African American and gay people in the eyes and hear about the hurtful impact of praising Jim Crow laws and comparing gay people to terrorists. If dialogue with Phil is not part of next steps then A&E has chosen profits over African American and gay people – especially its employees and viewers."
Robertson never apologized, but did tell his West Monroe, La., church last Sunday, at the height of the Duck Dynasty flap, that, “I am a lover of humanity, not a hater.”
The franchise itself has already raked in nearly $500 million, making the financial stakes huge for the continuation of the bayou-side enterprise. The family has just signed a $200,000 per show deal, and the excitement around the show has shown few signs of abating. So resonating was the Phil Robertson suspension that everyone from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and political provocateur Sarah Palin weighed in, and it was a popular topic on a range of talk TV and radio shows.
In its statement A&E explained its reaction to put Phil on “indefinite hiatus” and also explained what prompted the Christmastime reconciliation.
“Duck Dynasty is not a show about one man's views,” network executives wrote. “It resonates with a large audience because it is a show about family … a family that America has come to love. As you might have seen in many episodes, they come together to reflect and pray for unity, tolerance and forgiveness. These are three values that we at A&E Networks also feel strongly about. So after discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family.”
To be sure, Mr. Stone of Faith Driven Consumer agrees that “reflecting on Christ” and his teachings during the holidays may have helped both sides cool the rhetoric and move the ongoing conversation between Christians and progressives forward, if only by a beard’s length.
In that spirit, A&E says, “We will also use this moment to launch a national public service campaign (PSA) promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people, a message that supports our core values as a company and the values found in Duck Dynasty. These PSAs will air across our entire portfolio.”
The network also says it’s agreed to work with the Robertson clan in other ways to promote tolerance.