Loathe as anyone should be to find serious consequence in anything that escapes the mouth of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson and makes its way through the mangy tangled forest of beard hair and to our ears, it’s become unforgivably irritating that we are, unfortunately, still forced to.
To the uninitiated—though Robertson and his unkempt brood have become sadly ubiquitous thanks to their penchant for being allegedly charming while massacring fowl on reality television—Robertson is the star of Duck Dynasty, an A&E series that was at one point the most-watched nonfiction series in cable TV history.
As is the case with reality TV personalities, Phil Robertson is popular because of just that: he is a big personality. His big personality, however, just happens to be one of an ass. That’s only half a joke, because the fair description of Robertson is really tricky to navigate delicately.
Phil Robertson and his family are extremely morally conservative Christians, and their faith is a great part of their appeal to the millions of people who watch their TV show each week. It is actually a wonderful thing that the Robertsons are so unabashedly Christian, and it’s pleasant and refreshing to watch a reality TV family rise to fame on a series where you can tell they truly love each other and their behavior is kept in check by faith and a moral code. Moral commandments, you might even say.
But as great as it is that the Robertsons entertain us with talk of Jesus and not Jaeger bombs, a side effect of their status as entertainers is that their “talk” is given a major megaphone. A megaphone that their fans listen to. That they are influenced by, as sad as it is to think that we are influenced by things that reality TV stars say. (But hey, if we can get up in arms that Laguna Beach’s Kristin Cavallari is an outspoken anti-vaxxer, we should take seriously what the Duck Dynasty stars are mumbling from beneath their beards.)
And with lessons about family, God, and buckshot, there is a whole lot of ignorance coming out of Robertson’s megaphone. Dangerous ignorance. Despicable, inexcusable ignorance. And the latest instance might be the straw—or perhaps stray beard hair—to break the camel’s back. Why are we still giving this man a megaphone?
In an interview promoting his new book unPHILtered: The Way I See It, Robertson said recently that, the way he sees it, AIDS and diseases of its kind are God’s punishment for immoral behavior. Of course, that’s me rewording Robertson’s statements into English that makes sense—well, as much sense as retrograde, bigoted statements can make. Here’s his actual remarks:
“Now to me either it’s the wildest coincidence ever that horrible diseases follow immoral conduct, or it’s God saying, ‘There’s a penalty for that kind of conduct.’ I’m leanin’ toward there’s a penalty toward it.”
Should there be any sort of confusion, the “immoral conduct” he is referring to is being gay.
“God says, ‘One woman, one man,’ and everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s old hat, that’s that old Bible stuff’ and I’m thinking well, let’s see now,” he said. “A clean guy, a disease-free guy, and a disease-free woman, they marry and they keep their sex between the two of ‘em, uh, they’re not gonna get chlamydia and gonorrhea and syphilis and AIDS. It’s, it’s safe.”
If you’ve read this far, I’m hoping it’s because you believe, or perhaps even know, that this is total bullshit.
And rather than piece together my own answer for why, I’m going to do the gayest thing a gay person could possibly do in this day and age, and instead quote Designing Woman’s Julia Sugarbaker—patron saint of right and wrong and fabulous shoulder pads—on the topic, from her searing and brutally honest torch monologue from the 1987 episode “Killing All the Right People.” (Again, this was written in 19-freaking-87.)
A client of Julia’s finds out that she is planning a funeral for a friend who is dying of AIDS, and the woman chastises Julia for helping out an immoral person, telling her that his disease is “killing all the right people.” Julia sets her straight:
“Get serious! Who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve known you for 27 years, and all I can say is, if God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as a punishment for sinning, then you would be at the free clinic all the time. And so would the rest of us.”
One both shudders and delights to think what Julia would have said to Robertson after his most recent comments, but the prospect of what she would say to his remarks last year in GQ, in which he insinuated that gay people are dumb because sex with an anus just doesn’t feel as good as sex with a vagina (HE REALLY SAID THESE THINGS), gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
When Robertson made those original comments in GQ, many social conservatives and Republican politicians, if not endorsed his statements, supported his right to having such opinions. And we certainly have a right to call his opinions asinine. A&E suspended Robertson in the wake of the controversy, but reversed its decision after just one week, essentially saying that Robertson had learned his lesson. CNN did the helpful translation for us, though: Duck Dynasty was simply too profitable for A&E to halt filming.
The culture war is likely to wage again in the wake of Robertson’s most recent and inflammatory comments. And while the battle lines are drawn, there’s a third argument to be made: what did we expect?
We really don’t know what we want from our reality stars, it turns out. We tune in week after week to gawk at Robertson’s extreme conservatism, something that he then is rewarded for with money and is therefore encouraged to continue. But when he goes over a line that it is ambiguously drawn, then we erupt with outrage. How can we both condone and condemn a person’s point of view and behavior?
We have a history of such hypocrisy. Back when Jersey Shore was at its most popular, with millions of viewers basking in the tequila-soaked debauchery of the MTV hit’s guidos and guidettes, pearl-clutching moral arbiters fretted over how the popularization and celebration of such antics would affect its young viewers, perhaps encouraging promiscuity and uncouth party behavior. Italian American organizations urged boycotts because they thought the show depicted its population in a negative light.
So many people tell me the appeal of Duck Dynasty is that it reflects what life is like in “real America.” That not everyone is of the high falutin’ ilk that enjoys Mad Men and 30 Rock and Girls and Ken Burns documentaries on PBS. That real Americans are like the Robertsons and that’s why they’re so popular. But shouldn’t we, then, be pretty embarrassed, and maybe even outraged, that, as a representative for this so-called “real America,” Phil Robertson is such a despicable and ill-informed human being?
It seems that not even the Robertsons can figure out where they want their place in pop culture to be. Young 17-year-old, cute-as-a-button Sadie Robertson, Phil’s granddaughter, made her debut Monday night on Dancing with the Stars. She was such a sparkplug of precious fun, shaking her hips in the shiny costume that a battalion of gays likely bedazzled for her, grinning goofily as a flamboyant gay judge told her how great her dance was, and crossing her fingers that the viewers at home will vote for her.
I’d be willing to be that Phil Robertson is equally as hopeful that the viewers will vote, too, as the more popular Sadie becomes, the more popular his family becomes, and the more popular Duck Dynasty then becomes, too.
I wonder if those viewers, the kinds of people who will tune in to watch C-list celebrities do the cha cha cha to Katy Perry songs in fringe-fabulous wardrobes, might be gay. It’s just a hunch. I don’t know. And maybe they’ll even vote for Robinson on the show, helping her to win the show’s infamous Mirror Ball Trophy.
That is, if the punishment they have coming their way for their immoral conduct doesn’t kill them all off first.