I’ve been a Duck Dynasty fan since the first season, when I would sing the show’s praises to anyone within earshot and foist recorded episodes onto unsuspecting visitors. And while my friends and family feigned a begrudging tolerance for the show — which is too improvised to be scripted and too staged to be reality — I could tell that they weren’t sold, not like I was. “It’s going to be big,” I’d mutter to myself as they shrugged off my over-eager descriptions of Si’s wisdom, or Duck Commander workroom tomfoolery. “Just you wait.”
And I was right. Having recently finished its fourth season, Duck Dynasty is huge. Eleven million viewers huge. Extremely comprehensive Walmart partnership huge. For the same intangible reasons that reality-show predecessors like Jersey Shore and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo captured a certain [ratings-boosting] je ne sais quoi, DD has easily become one of the most popular shows in the country. Which makes it super awkward for A&E that cast member/patriarch Phil Robertson – a crucial DD dispenser of old-timer Louisiana wisdom – made a series of offensive comments in an interview with GQ this week. The crucial excerpts are as such:
“‘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.’ [Paraphrasing 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.’”
… “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.”
… ”We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ‘em, give ‘em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ‘em out later, you see what I’m saying?”
Understandably, many people were offended. Many. A&E on Wednesday suspended Phil from the show “indefinitely,” which is a natural knee-jerk reaction, but also kind of like suspending Santa from the North Pole. Whether or not Phil commands the majority of screen time on DD, he is an important element of the family dynamic that makes the show so popular (I don’t buy into arguments that the aforementioned je ne sais quoi is the Robertsons’ read-between-the-lines Christian evangelism). Suspending Phil is like Jersey Shore suspending Snooki, or Honey Boo Boo exiling Mama June. However valid the reasoning, it don’t make no sense.
There are a lot of ways to politicize Phil’s comments: He’s Christian, Southern, a self-proclaimed redneck, and a pretty clear disbeliever in political correctness. Moreover, he’s making a lot of money selling a personality that has now revealed its very real dark side. And as a fundamental believer in LGBT rights, I understand the outrage, I do. But I think what’s being lost is the potential opportunity: For Duck Dynasty, for A&E and – what the hell, let’s get a little grandiose – for America.
One of the central conceits of DD – to the extent that reality shows can have conceits – is that families span generations, and therefore cultures and values. Phil is constantly trying to teach his grandchildren to live off the land — he seems to take joy in skinning captured rabbits (for stew) in front of his grandkids’ wide-eyed friends. He gives his teenage grandson advice on finding the right woman (Phil and his wife Kay have been married for 48 years) and in terse but insightful confessionals expounds on marriage, parenting, and happiness (his new book is literally called Happy, Happy, Happy). Phil and Kay’s children – Willy, Jase, and Jep – each have their own part to play: Willy, a man clearly comfortable in his sexuality, is perpetually trying to improve the family business, Jase would rather be outdoors, and Jep takes his brothers’ semi-sexist ribbing in stride (such as when he agrees to a couples costume with his wife on Halloween.)
In other words: Strip away the frog-hunting and camouflage, and the Robertsons start to look like many families in America, where even the most progressive young adults sit down to dinner with their Gaga-loving kids and patently homophobic parents. Gay rights isn’t a wave that’s spread across the country uniformly, converting entire regions or families at once. It’s a saturation, fueled by a slow and persistent changing of attitudes. And as much as our indignation towards homophobia is appropriate, righteous even, I think we have to stop sometimes and consider whether sacrificing a forthright conversation is worth our [completely legitimate] moral outrage.
Nearly everyone I know has a family member whose opinions are, let us say, uncouth. An uncle who describes women by their weight and breast size, a cousin who wants the welfare program eliminated, a grandfather who begrudgingly describes Obama as “one of the good ones.” Sometimes we rail against these family members, argue with them about politics and religion, good and evil, as our voices grow slurry with Thanksgiving wine (just my family?). And sometimes we let them slide, choosing instead to wink at our like-minded relatives across the table. “Grandpa!” we might exclaim halfheartedly. “You can’t say those things.”
But we don’t stop inviting them to dinner. Because the de facto reaction to disagreement can’t be banning the outlier from the conversation. Call me a Robertson apologist, but I think A&E has a huge opportunity to open an honest, relatable and non-cutesy (sorry, Glee) dialogue about gay rights in the context of America, which is to say through the lens of a family in varying stages of LGBT acceptance. Because in real life, we don’t all go to school with an 18-year-old gay wunderkind with a voice of spun gold, and we don’t all hang out with a dozen competitive drag queens on the reg. Duck Dynasty appeals because it’s familiar – because everyone aspires to have a tight-knit family whose love for one another is matched only by their witty banter – and I think it’d be okay to leverage that familiarity to nurture a more nuanced response to Phil’s little tirade. You may never convince grandpa that Obama isn’t just one of the good ones, but isn’t finding a way to try kind of the point?