'Duck Dynasty': Why Phil Robertson's Suspension Won't Work (Opinion)
THR's reality TV critic observes why reality personality controversies are a gray area, and calls A&E's decision to suspend Robertson indefinitely "a confused knee-jerk reaction that ultimately will probably mean very little."
Reality television's worst nightmare is reality actually becoming real. For viewers of the A&E ratings juggernaut Duck Dynasty, there's never been an illusion about the show being set up more as a sitcom than a docuseries. Still, one of its greatest appeals is that, despite its heavily prompted format, something about the Robertson clan felt believably folksy. They represented, like so many of these gold-seeking pawn broker Alaskan ice-road trucker alligator wranglers, an entertaining and appealing version of middle American life, for all Americans.
But there can be a difference between the appearance of folksy -- or the carefully crafted PR of folksy -- and the actual folk. While, again, there's never been any illusion about the Robertsons' beliefs (their adherence to their Christian faith is surely a big appeal for many), it's another thing when people are faced with the brass tacks of it. But those beliefs in general don't seem to have been too problematic in their presentation, or the ratings would never have been so high.
The issue therefore doesn't necessarily seem to be that Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson said what he did (it shouldn't be a shock that people think this way or say these things), but more about the who and the where. He was talking to a reporter from GQ, and not a friend down the way. Comments perhaps usually reserved for other ears were cut loose for the world, on a platform that amplified them and shocked because "that's not who we thought you were." Robertson went unscripted.
Robertson's comments crossed a line by making a lot of people uncomfortable for a lot of different reasons. A&E is surely particularly uncomfortable, because the reality broke free from its constraints. The "realness" of the show, however personally defined by viewers beforehand, has now taken on a very different look.
The result has been a hiatus for Robertson, though not the show, which seems like a confused knee-jerk reaction that ultimately will probably mean very little, after the next few scandals make this one recede from public consciousness. Meanwhile, articles are being lobbied left and right, politically, in the never-ending circuit of, "No, YOU'RE the bigot!" The same lines are being drawn as they always are, about what can and should be said, by whom, and how.
A&E's problem though -- as for all purveyors of reality programming -- is that if an actor or a musician or a filmmaker does or says something controversial, there can be a separation, for those who choose to make one, between the art and the artist. In the case of reality television, there's not supposed to be that delineation. These people are "playing" themselves. That means the appeal becomes personal, not general. It's like suddenly finding out that a close friend is a racist. Who is this person I thought I knew? It's a similar connection that viewers have to charismatic characters on TV, and those feelings become safe because the reality is controlled. What you see is supposed to be what you get. Only sometimes it isn't, which is where the problems start.
There are plenty of people who will defend Robertson and continue to watch Duck Dynasty, just as there will be plenty of people who will condemn him and not tune in, and that's really all OK. The real issue that seems to have upset everyone the most, though, is that Robertson's comments shattered the illusion that we all get along. Despite the crazy idea that it was the industry of duck calls that brought us all here in the first place, the fact is, Duck Dynasty represented common ground for very different populations. That's over. And that's not something that can easily be confronted or reconciled.
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