LYNDEN, Washington — A useful rule when talking about gays in public is, never go full Santorum. Avoid man-on-dog, or in this case man-on-duck, at all costs.
GQ reporter Drew Magary spent a day recently shadowing Phil “Duck Commander” Robertson. The journalist’s subject is a Louisiana native whose innovation in duck call devices made his family wealthy and brought them some minor fame on sporting channels.
Magary was taking notes because last year A&E launched the latest addition to reality television, Duck Dynasty. The show features many of Robertson’s proudly redneck family and friends. The show loosely reenacts scenes from their lives.
A recent rerun, my introduction to the show at the behest of family members insisting “You’ve got to watch this!”, featured the men blowing up and replacing a rotted duck blind with a palatial one. While they were occupied with hunting concerns, the wives held a garage sale to clean out the men’s clutter. Phil’s son Willie was forced to buy back his own taxidermied squirrel.
Duck Dynasty is extremely popular, by any measure. It garnered 11.8 million viewers for the most recent season premier. The cast members have had five books on the New York Times bestsellers list with more to come.
The show’s merchandising is proliferating, as I found out when I Christmas shopped for gifts recently at Bellingham’s Walmart and Lynden’s Family Christian Bookstore. Items including stocking stuffer duck calls, dolls, and clothing of all types. Michael Jordan got a shoe named after him. The cast of Duck Dynasty got their own line of plush slippers.
Robertson’s backstory is important to the show. He grew up dirt poor, went to Louisiana Tech on a football scholarship, and turned down an offer by the Washington Redskins to stay home and hunt and raise a family. It didn’t go as planned. Robertson ran afoul of the law and kicked his own family out of the house.
Then Robertson found Jesus and begged his family to come back. With their help, he put together a multimillion dollar duck call empire. Christianity is a regular part of the show, with family prayers and the characters regularly musing on their notions of God and man at the duck blind.
The Robertsons are proud “Bible thumpers” who think that most of what ails this country could be solved if Americans came back to the Old Testament-New Testament God. That this is appealing to so many people is curious to many journalists.
The description of the GQ profile teased out this bewilderment. “How in the world did a family of squirrel-eating, Bible-thumping, catchphrase-spouting duck hunters become the biggest TV stars in America? And what will they do now that they have 14 million fervent disciples?” the editors wanted to know.
Among the many things Robertson uttered to Magary during the ride-along were his thoughts on male homosexuality: “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.”
The Duck Commander probably could have got away with that utterance. It was vulgar but amusing, and at least partially bracketed off the judgment as a matter of taste. But then the reporter asked several follow up questions about sin, including this one, “What, in your mind, is sinful?”
Robertson replied, “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.”
He claimed scriptural warrant for this judgment by paraphrasing something St. Paul said in a letter to Christians in Corinth in the first century: “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.”
That did it. A&E suspended him from Duck Dynasty. The network insisted in a statement that Robertson’s “personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered] community.”
What the suspension means for Robertson’s television future is unclear. It would be hard to do Duck Dynasty without the founder. His famously loyal family wouldn’t along with that anyway.
The Robertsons could take the show elsewhere, creating a ratings black hole, and black eye, for A&E. The Duck Commander’s thoughts on gays have made him controversial but probably not toxic, given the size of the audience he’s proven he can deliver. It’s unlikely many of the shows fans were shocked by his words on gays.
Viewers are petitioning A&E to reinstate Robertson. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, among many others, has spoken up in his defense. Robertson has said, and some defenders echoed, that this amounts to a denial of his freedom of speech. It’s not, exactly, and it’s not the sort of controversy that can keep a great commercial enterprise down for long.
The real danger going forward to Robertson would be for him to take this flap too seriously. Duck Dynasty is a show that leavens any message with a good dose of backwoods folly and humor. If it or any follow-up became too preachy, a good chunk of its solid-gold audience would tune out.