Rethinking ‘Duck Dynasty’: What now?

In the time it’s taken me to process the entire “Duck Dynasty” debacle surrounding Phil Robertson’s admittedly inflammatory comments to GQ magazine, A&E has banned the star and reinstated him. Cracker Barrel vowed to stop selling “Duck Dynasty” product and flip-flopped on that, too. In the end, there’s been much ado but nothing much has changed. 

Still, that doesn’t mean the issue is settled. Gay rights activists complained loudly about A&E’s speedy change of heart. How could A&E change their position so quickly? 

Well, money talks. “Duck Dynasty” is a ratings juggernaut for the network. When the rest of the family issued a statement they wouldn’t film more episodes without their patriarch and fans started signing petitions (1.8 million at one count), A&E blinked first — and blinked fast. This was hardly a surprise. Just as I never think the speedy effort to shame talent and distance a network from a star’s bad behavior is ever particularly sincere, the reversal of said decision is always just as calculated. 

It’s also significant that, in addition to wanting more of the show’s great ratings numbers (the season premiere brought in 11.8 million viewers), A&E may have initially misread to whom those eyeballs belong. Judging from the comments made by fans who took to the Internet, many seemed to value Robertson’s freedom to say what he wants more than express any interest in critiquing the content of his words, whether or not they agreed with what he said. 

But boycotts and fiery condemnations on either side just seem to me to be an opportunity missed. 

The speed with which people attacked Robertson was expected, but also ironic. The dismissal of all things “Duck Dynasty” fell back into the usual knee-jerk attacks that plagued the show in the beginning. Comments I’ve read have called Robertson a dumb redneck, backward and hate mongering. I think you have to cede the moral high ground when you start name calling. 

We are all welcome to disagree with him — and I do — but I think there’s a case for taking a different approach.

I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of the debate. Plenty of other people are happily screaming about New vs. Old Testament and sin and gay rights. That’s not the point, or at least not my point.

As a society, we seem to have fallen into a routine when stars don’t behave themselves as we’d like: statements of condemnation are issued, statements of apology follow, and maybe (depending on the value of the star) there is punishment. Paula Deen lost her TV show, Miley Cyrus apologized for her photo spread in Vanity Fair and has since moved on to getting naked with a wrecking ball and twerking, Charlie Sheen was fired from his CBS sitcom and moved into a less impressive one on FX, Alec Baldwin seems to be constantly apologizing for something, Chris Brown’s career tanked briefly then recovered, Mel Gibson — well, he’s still around. 

In all the screaming to condemn Robertson (and to support him), I didn’t hear a whole lot of listening — or useful conversation. All this finger-wagging is preaching to the converted or, worse, trying to shame those who don’t agree with whichever side is talking. In the end, all we get are canned (publicist-generated) condemnations, canned (publicist-generated) apologies, and sometimes some half-hearted community service. The lesson learned, if there is one, is don’t express your opinions, get hammered or commit a crime around witnesses or a recording device.

Here’s what I wish would have happened after the GQ interview blew up: I wish some organization promoting LGBT or African-American rights would have approached A&E and asked for, instead of an apology or a punishment for Robertson, an on-camera meeting. Find a way to have a member of the LGBT community wander into an episode (it’s not like reality TV isn’t massaged into storylines, anyway), or maybe shoot a sit-down between the Robertsons and a few African-American members of the military or LGBT fellow Cajuns for a stand-alone show. Not for a fight or a debate, but just to hang out. Maybe they could go fishing. Heck, if A&E didn’t want to air it, they could slap it online. 

Granted, I’m not sure a middle ground can be found between gay rights and Robertson’s take on sin. But no one can be faulted for trying. At the very least, Robertson (who didn’t seem to make his comments in malice) can send a message — that he might not agree with certain people, but can have a perfectly civil beer with them anyway. It would be a message very likely to be seen by those 11.8 million fans who would otherwise not see it anywhere else. 

Because as many people argued against Robertson’s comments, plenty of people argued for them. And some of the things they said in defending him (things he did not say, by the way) were not, shall we say, polite — just as the criticisms of Robertson weren’t so nice, either. 

A friend of mine told me that someone posted a comment on Facebook in the midst of all of this brouhaha expressing regret that no one realized that this was a chance to reach out to Robertson (and “Duck Dynasty”), if for no other reason than to make sure that if any member of the extended Robertson clan ever decided to come out, they wouldn’t be condemned as a sinner. There’s a reason why the It Gets Better Project has been such an important tool for reaching out to LGBT youth. 

We may call television the idiot box, but it’s a powerful tool, too. It’s changed the outcome of elections, changed how we view wars. Might as well see if it can stop some yelling and hate speak, too. 

The only way to change hearts and minds (or at least get hearts and minds to behave themselves) is to stop yelling and start listening. Just as that goes for celebrities, that goes for fans, too. But welcome to the bully pulpit known as the Internet. I work here; I like it fine. But people who would never dream of spitting in the face of those who do not share their beliefs in person have no problem ranting against them online. The Internet is the “safe” place to share your hate, to vent your spleen, to show the ugliness in your hearts. 

Of course, you are welcome to write nasty comments about either side of the debate below. But then, I think you may just be proving my point anyway. 

What do you think of the “Duck Dynasty” dust-up?