Saturday, December 21, 2013

Duck Soup

I'd never heard of Phil Robertson until the kerfuffle.

The kerfuffle happened when the Duck Dynasty star made some uncomplimentary remarks about gays in an interview for GQ Magazine, and that got him in hot water with the suits at A&E. The folks at GLAAD are pretty upset about it, with spokesman Rich Ferraro also claiming that Robertson is a racist. On the other hand, the show's supporters have come out strongly defending their TV star, and Duck Dynasty paraphernalia has sold out of stores.

So I've read the GQ piece (written by Drew Magary), along with much else, and even watched an episode (the first one) of Duck Dynasty over at A&E online. I don't share Mr. Robertson's religiosity, and I don't agree with his attitude toward gays. At the same time, the GQ article is a total hit piece--you'd have to believe the guy is a real idiot. Whatever else you want to say about Mr. Robertson, he is not a stupid man. Nor is he hateful, belligerent, or racist.

Still, A&E is right to filter most of the religion out of the show, for otherwise it would reach only a narrow audience. As is, it's A&E's most popular program, and some articles claim it is highest rated show on cable television. That's not because of Mr. Robertson's overt religiosity.

I vaguely recall reading a piece about Duck Dynasty when the show first came out. It was one of those how far have we fallen articles, describing Duck Dynasty as the pathetic successor to Jersey Shore--a hook-up, stupid-guy-stuff, reality show transplanted to the Louisiana swamps. I resolved never to watch the program, a promise I kept until the kerfuffle.

So who watches Duck Dynasty and why is it so popular?

The Robertsons are a large, Scots-Irish family in Northern Louisiana. Phil is one of seven siblings, including his co-star, Si. Phil and his wife, Kay, have four children. The two on the show are Willie and Jason, who are the lead characters. Willie's wife, Korie, plays a role, but none of their five children are involved. In other words, of the very large clan, only a small fraction of them participate in the show. A scene has them assembled around the dinner table--there are no children present. So it's not a very real "reality" program.

The family is apparently worth about $400 million--the proceeds of their Duck Commander franchise, founded by Phil and now run by Willie. Four or five guys lackadaisically sitting around a table making duck calls (as the TV unrealistically depicts) is not the source of that fortune. The Robertson family has been accumulating capital for three generations now. By comparison, Snooki--the most successful Jersey Shore character--is worth $4 million.

Another difference is that all the leading men on Duck Dynasty have been married to their wives for at least 20 years. Phil & Kay got hitched in 1966. These guys are loyal, unlike the ne'er-do-wells over at Jersey Shore. Snooki is recently married and has a son--we'll see how that goes.

So what's with the stupid guy stuff? First, it's not stupid--these fellows are expert outdoorsmen. They can literally live off the land. When you're expert, you can show off and make it look easy or dramatic or funny. But don't be fooled--this part is real. What you're watching is a lifetime of experience hunting, fishing, camping, and living.

I find Phil and his gang intimidating--I couldn't survive a week in their world. That's obviously the way Mr Magary (the GQ author) felt. So far removed from his native habitat, and so far out of his comfort zone, his article is a panic-stricken attempt to cut the Robertsons down to size. They're not really bigger than life--instead they're just a bunch of nutcases. Never mind that, by age 67, Phil has 13 grandchildren, is worth $400 million, and owns 20,000 acres of Louisiana swampland that he "lives off of." Some nutcase.

So the episode I watched showed Phil eviscerating some frogs while giving advice to one of his grandsons. "I've got these grandkids now, a whole passel of them. My task is to teach them to live off the land. It's a good thing, clean and honorable. Frog killing." He goes on with some marriage advice: "Find you a meek, gentle, spirited, country girl. If she knows how to cook, and she carries her Bible close by, and she loves to eat bullfrogs, then there's a woman. ...See, the first prerequisite for marrying a woman, in my opinion, is  can  she  cook? ... She doesn't have to be a pretty girl. If she looks a little homey, that's all right. It's hard to get a pretty one to cook and carry a Bible anymore."

So whose going to live by this totally retro advice? Not me, for sure. Nor any of my children. None of my friends live that way. I grew up in a petty bourgeois milieu that put a lot of emphasis on individuality and personal choice. There's no loyalty in my clan. You don't marry somebody just because she knows how to cook--how gauche. We all grew up in the undisciplined, divorce culture, where children are a burden and not a blessing.

Even on-line, A&E makes sure you watch some commercials. The ones they fed to me were for sanitary napkins--obviously Big Data has failed. But it's an indication of who they think their audience is--women in the 30 to 50 age bracket. How many of these ladies would love to be loved for her cooking? What number would want a handsome, loyal, rich husband like Phil Robertson? How many divorcees aspire to a husband who is an expert outdoorsman?

It's a very conservative show, but not in any political way. Instead, it is aspirationally conservative--it's a dream for women to live up to. Even though few people can actually live the Robertson dream, the aspiration is a good thing. A couple years ago, Charles Murray wrote a book entitled Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010. In it he laments the decline of the family among working class and lower class whites. He sees that as the source of much of our current economic dysfunction.

But the popularity of Duck Dynasty proves him at least partially wrong. The fact that millions of lower-class Americans aspire to live a better life cannot be a bad thing.

Mr. Ferraro of GLAAD suggests that Mr. Robertson should spend more time with gay people so that he might learn something. If a gay man were to encounter a Robertson, the worst that could happen is he'd get an earful about the need for repentance and the saving power of Jesus Christ. And then he'd be invited over for dinner (though I'm not sure I'd want to eat that food). Nothing hateful or untoward would occur.

He should just be grateful that he's not a duck.

Note: Louis Proyect posted a video about Duck Dynasty. Unfortunately I didn't see it until after this post was written.

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