It emerged this weekend that the duck whistle entrepreneur and reality television show star Phil Robertson had, in 2009, before he was famous, given a talk to a group of evangelical sportsmen in which he advised them to marry very young women: “You gotta marry these girls when they’re fifteen or sixteen,” he said. “They’ll pick your ducks.” Robertson, of course, had just recently given an extended interview to GQ in which he denounced gay men and women, claimed all the African-Americans he knew in the pre–Civil Rights south were happy with their political lot, and suggested that the Japanese had lost World War II because they had not accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior — after which he was, in quick succession, suspended from Duck Dynasty by A&E, became a conservative folk hero, and then found himself reinstated on the show. In the momentum physics of offense-giving, context is everything, and so these newly revealed remarks (which were almost certainly intended as tongue-in-cheek, and also almost certainly betrayed misogynist inclinations) were just a ripple on the larger Phil Robertson wave, more confirmation of a set of cultural attitudes that we already knew he held. And yet there is a wink in the 2009 comments (with “They’ll pick your ducks”), a self-awareness, that suggests that perhaps both conservatives and liberals have misunderstood the essence of the Robertson episode — that it wasn’t about politics at all, but something deeper.
What Robertson has come to represent, to commentators across the political spectrum, is a kind of American Genuine. To liberals, he gives voice to the bigotries that they suspect lie close to the surface in contemporary conservative identity politics; to conservatives, he represents a cultural forthrightness, a willingness to speak out on behalf of his interpretation of Christian values, and the controversy over his remarks is an example of PC overreach. This understanding of his character — as an exemplar of an obsolete culture, separate from the American mainstream — dovetails perfectly with the one that both Robertson and A&E have taken pains to cultivate: ZZ Top beard; his epigrammatic, Zen-inflected manner of speech; his life’s trajectory, as a debauched college football star who returned to his roots, found Jesus, and founded a multi-million-dollar company; his politics. Phil Robertson is not the show’s protagonist, but he is its unchanging element, its local genuine. One vanity that Duck Dynasty shares with a whole category of reality TV (from MTV’s Buckwild to the Thom Beers empire) is that in this obscure corner of rural America there still persists a way of life that has both the rough edges and the familial warmth that our urbanizing society has abandoned. The point is that the rough edges are the key to the warmth. As The New Yorker’s Virginia Cannon has pointed out, each episode ends with a family meal and the camera pulling “outside to show the house secure in the darkness, just as the Waltons used to end.”
By now, many reality-television shows have dispensed with the genre’s original conceit, that their cameras are able to capture reality without distorting it, and have become more or less explicitly studies in the effects of fame. (The Real Housewives franchise is especially genius at flirting with this line.) But Duck Dynasty, like other similar shows, has found a way to stick to the original promise, by fixing on a part of America purported to be so genuine, so isolated from modern culture, that the authenticity of its characters is unimpeachable. “Ole Phil might be a little crude,” tweeted his son Willie, the show’s star, but “he’s the real deal.”
There is something suspicious about all of this authenticity theater, in the same way that there is something suspicious about those beards. To insist that the rural life is the purer one from within the cockpit of contemporary media culture, to costume yourself in self-consciously hillbilly garb, to spout inscrutable backwoods epigrams while having been a very modern CEO, to point out how different your culture is from all others in the media, to say deliberately outrageous things to friendly audiences — these are acts of someone very conscious of the statement he is making. It is possible, of course, that Phil Robertson really thinks that high school juniors make the best brides* — Amanda Marcotte thinks so — but it sure sounds like he thinks he is telling a joke. Perhaps more important, it sounds like he is playing a familiar character — the good ol’ boy, teller of impolitic truths, the mountain man primitive. Some part of all of this, certainly, must be deeply felt. But a great deal of it looks like hillbilly drag.
The temptation is to blame A&E for this — no one is really ready for fame — and in the scattered way in which the network championed Robertson, then banished him, then championed him again, it is not hard to detect cynicism. But the Robertsons have been deeply complicit, too, both in their own positioning and in their explicit political advocacy. It is worth being honest, at least, about the Ozark Orientalism of this whole endeavor, and about what reality producers find when they go poking into forgotten cultural lagoons, looking for the most vivid representatives of a different, abandoned culture. What they find are what reality producers everywhere find: Not naïve authentics, but people who have spent years cultivating an Authentic character. People, in other words, with something to sell.
* An astute reader points out that Phil Robertson married his wife, Kay, when she was 16.