It may be midnight in America for many, but for the Robertson family it’s the dawn of a new day. The deeply religious stars of the A&E show Duck Dynasty, which premiered its 11th and final season on Wednesday night, are grateful for their many blessings. In 1972 their patriarch, Phil Robertson, struck gold with his line of custom-made duck-hunting calls. He eventually sold half of the Duck Commander company to his son Willie, and they slowly expanded the family business into the entertainment world. First came a DVD series about the family’s duck hunts. Then there was a show on the Outdoor Channel. And then there was Duck Dynasty, an explosive semi-scripted series that quickly became the top-rated reality program on cable. Centered around the Robertson family’s Louisiana-based business, distinctive facial hair, and Christian beliefs, Duck Dynasty premiered on March 21, 2012. And it was very good.
With its down South hijinks and heartfelt family prayers, Duck Dynasty managed to appeal to sincere, faith-based viewers and cynical, bored channel surfers. A&E seemed to have stumbled upon the perfect pop of local color, in the form of a hilarious gang of Christian conservatives. Of course, it’s the “reality” component of reality TV that can often be tough to swallow—the three dimensionality of the people we only get to know in small, pre-packaged doses. Duck Dynasty thrived because of its unique cast. But outside of the frame, the very qualities and beliefs that made the Robertsons so interesting to watch began to alienate A&E’s more liberal viewers.
This predictable backlash was triggered by a 2013 GQ article, in which Phil Robertson said some truly backward, despicable things about homosexuals. He also described the segregated South of his youth as an Edenic adventure, where black and white people happily hoed cotton together, and “no one was singing the blues.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Robertson’s infamous interview is just how willing the man was to give a controversial soundbite. Robertson clearly saw the interview as an opportunity to really speak his mind—the blessing of sidestepping network censorship. Phil wanted to say the “controversial” things that A&E allegedly edits out, and he wanted to make sure that America could hear him. When Robertson went on to compare homosexual relations to bestiality and insisted that these sinners won’t inherit the kingdom of God, he wasn’t speaking off the record or trying to impress Billy Bush.
Similarly, when Willie Robertson was pushed on-air to apologize for his father’s actions, it quickly became clear that Robertson’s GQ ravings were a direct reflection of the family’s core religious beliefs. On CNN, Willie and his wife Korie both maintained that the Bible was meant to be taken literally. And Phil continued to stand by his statements, telling The Huffington Post that his mission is to spread the word of God, and that “part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together.”
It would be easier to dismiss the Robertsons’ beliefs as out of touch if Willie Robertson wasn’t currently reaping the rewards of being an early Donald Trump supporter. In an interview conducted this week while promoting his new book, The American Fisherman—which is exactly what it sounds like—Robertson didn’t hide his elation over the president-elect. Willie, who was among the dull stars in the underwhelming firmament of Trump’s “showbiz” RNC speakers, sees a link between his candidate’s success and his own reality TV stardom.
As the election results poured in, Robertson recalled thinking, “Now I know why Duck Dynasty works, and why it’s been on for so long. It’s because a lot of these counties, probably, let’s face it, are the viewers who watch.” As a man with front row seats for both phenomena—the success of Duck Dynasty and the election of our 45th president—Robertson believes that the connection couldn’t be clearer. “I think what comes across with people more than anything is authenticity,” he said. According to him, both the Robertson family and Trump share this vital quality; “he is what he is,” and “he says what a lot of people may think.”
While second-wave feminists were still putting in bulk orders for Madam President T-shirts, Willie Robertson recognized the power of a movement. So, while he admits that in the last few days of the campaign he thought that Clinton would persevere, he’s also something of an expert on Trump mania. Robertson sees the will of good, God-fearing people in the continued success of his reality TV show. He saw these masses face-to-face at Trump rallies, where he remembers thinking, “Watch out, because something’s happening here.” And now, finally, their voices are being heard.
Despite the controversy that almost engulfed the Robertsons back in 2013, it eventually became just another case of bad behavior being swept under the rug. The faster we can forget TV personalities’ failings, the faster we can all return to regularly scheduled programming. Networks don’t want to lose money, and consumers don’t want to complicate mindless content consumption by fixating on moral murk. Of course, there are instances where behavior is so unforgivable that it becomes a permanent distraction. Take the dark story of Josh Duggar, one of the stars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting. The faith-based, family values series was eventually canceled after reports surfaced that Josh had molested several young girls, including his own sisters, during his youth.
While TLC attempted to circumvent the controversy for months, the scandal ultimately proved to be insurmountable. As businesses continued to pull ads from the show, the network was ultimately left with no choice but to pull the plug—though it still came under fire for waiting so long, and for continuing a relationship with the scandal-ridden family.
As we navigate the treacherous terrain of 2016, scripted half-truths continue to distract us from an increasingly terrifying reality. When life gets too hard, or simply incomprehensible, it can be comforting to revert to the otherworldly logic of our television screens. In real life, Kim Kardashian hardly leaves her house. But on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, we watch prelapsarian footage of a family untouched by Kim’s recent tragedy. For half-hour increments, we can absentmindedly stare at these women as they contentedly stare at their kale salads. It’s not the real world, where surreal plot lines consistently lead to unfathomable outcomes. It’s a reality where we can think less, following predictable threads to inevitable conclusions.
Of course, our unwillingness to take our guilty pleasure programming seriously can have serious consequences. Take the recent news that reruns of The Cosby Show are returning to television. The Atlanta-based Bounce TV has announced that it will resume airing the 1980s sitcom on Dec. 19, even as the show’s patriarch awaits his sexual assault trial. After Cosby was accused of unwanted sexual contact by dozens of women, a host of networks—including Bounce, TV Land, and Centric—dropped The Cosby Show. But apparently, a few years without reruns has convinced viewers to prioritize comedy over critical thinking. According to a network representative, “While we take very seriously the accusations against Bill Cosby, our research showed that African-American consumers see a distinction between Bill Cosby, the man, and the iconic TV character Cliff Huxtable.” This is how we get reality TV redemption for hypocrites and homophobes. In surrendering to our need to be entertained, we normalize disgusting rhetoric, bad behavior, and sexual assault.
But what if Duck Dynasty’s continued success is the result of more than just mundane greed and Average Joe apathy? A&E’s initial decision to keep producing the show may have been a simple weighing of the Robertsons’ appeal versus their patriarch’s perceived crimes, as they banked on cultural amnesia for continued success. But in the wake of a Trump win, we need to reckon with the viewers who actually celebrated Phil Robertson’s candid remarks, in the same way that they welcome the president-elect’s perceived “authenticity.” Many fans of the TV show weren’t just willing to forgive the Robertsons—they were actually proud of Phil’s ability to defy the P.C. police and preach the gospel.
Immediately after the GQ interview went live, A&E issued a statement admonishing Robertson and insisting that “his personal views in no way reflect those of A&E networks.” It was this disavowal, as opposed to the offensive remarks themselves, which prompted objection from some of Duck Dynasty’s most faithful fans. Chris Stone, the founder of Faith Driven Consumer, urged the network to “embrace the biblically based values and worldview held by the Robertson family and millions of faith driven consumers.”
A&E essentially condoned Phil’s remarks out of pragmatism. The Duck Dynasty clan is clearly pragmatist as well. Before their reality TV stint, the family enjoyed clean shaves, polos, and golf outings—a far cry from their onscreen beards and camo, barely concealed attempts to exploit the appeal of redneck living. This brand of white, lower middle-class porn has become a consistent reality TV cash cow. But it’s not all barbecues, beer runs, and good times. The Willis Family, which similarly showcased the talents of a Southern Christian family, was discontinued after patriarch Toby Willis was arrested on charges of child rape. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was canceled after reports surfaced that mother June Shannon was dating a man who had been convicted of molesting her eldest daughter. And MTV’s Buckwild, billed as the redneck answer to The Jersey Shore, was unceremoniously chucked after a cast member died in an off-roading accident.
Unsurprisingly, peering voyeuristically into the lives of the poor who are trying to be famous often ends badly. After years of being tracked on television screens, “real” America is pushing into all of our lived realities. We’re becoming a country where Phil Robertson’s brand of blatant homophobia and racism is becoming more and more commonplace. White America and violent prejudice are renewing their centuries-long love affair, and they want to shout it from the rooftops of swastika-marred college dorms and desecrated black churches. Under Trump, the people who actually endorsed Phil’s rants have been united and emboldened. A&E may have apologized for Robertson’s “authenticity,” but they’ve continued to give them a weekly pulpit. And in the coming months, a whole lot of Americans will be joining Phil Robertson and Donald Trump in articulating the deplorable, hateful things that “a lot of people may think.”