By Marc Jampole
When Sean Hannity, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin and other right-wingers come out in favor of freedom of the speech, you know that someone has just said something false, stupid and insulting about a group routinely demonized by ultra-conservatives.
In this case, these Christian right illuminati are standing up for a bearded and backward backwoodsman’s right to slur gays.
The latest right-wing freedom fighter to speak his mind and stand up for religious values is Phil Robertson, one of the stars of “Duck Dynasty,” a reality show about a family business that sells duck calls and other duck hunting paraphernalia in the swampy backwoods of Louisiana. The Robertson family thrives by displaying rural values and wearing their fundamental Christianity on both their overalls and their long, untamed beards.
Robertson’s outrageous views emerged in answer to this question by a GQ interviewer, “What, in your mind, is sinful?” Robertson’s response was not that growing inequality was sinful, not that chemical warfare was sinful, not that cutting food stamp benefits for children was sinful, not that herding people into camps was sinful, not that torture or bombing civilians were sinful, not that paying immigrants less than minimum wage was sinful, not that polluting our atmosphere and waterways was sinful.
No, in answering this softball of a question, none of these horrible sins came top of mind to Robertson. What did was male homosexuality: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men…It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.” Note that women never enter the picture except as preferred receptacle—it’s all about his antipathy to male homosexuality.
There can be no doubt that Robertson has the right to speak these ugly opinions. But shame on the public figures who have decided to select this particular instance to defend the right to free speech. I suppose it’s easier for them to defend his right to speak than to defend his views, which they may or may not believe but certainly want certain voters to think they believe.
And there can be no doubt that A&E had the right to suspend Robertson. I’m delighted they did, but whether they should have or not is not that interesting a question, certainly not as interesting as considering whether A&E ever should have run the series in the first place. “Duck Dynasty” is the most popular reality TV show ever on cable TV. Like all reality TV, storylines are scripted, so what we’re seeing is not reality, but a kind of cheaply-produced semi-fiction produced in a quasi-documentary style that lends a mantle of credibility to its insinuation that we are viewing reality. The great invention of reality TV is the divorcing of fame from any kind of standard: these people are not actors, sports stars, born wealthy or royalty. They haven’t even slept with the famous, as the Kardashians have. Like the Jersey wives, the Robertsons represent the purest form of celebrity—famous for nothing more than being famous.
A&E and the show’s producers have always sanitized and romanticized the harsh aspects of the Robertsons’ lives even to the point of beeping our “Jesus” from the speech of the bearded boys. Suspending Robertson is part of the continuing strategy to hone down the rough spots of rural American life. Besides, the network had no choice but to act quickly or risk a boycott of the entire network by sponsors and gay rights groups.
Moreover, A&E had everything to gain and nothing to lose by suspending Robertson. Those offended by Robertson’s views will never tune in or ceased watching a long time ago, but perhaps there are still those out there who haven’t watched yet and share Phil Robertson’s views. After all, even the premiere of the fourth season—the most watched nonfiction program in cable history—only drew 11.8 million. That’s a drop in the bucket of the 45% of the population who believe homosexuality is a sin (or so reports a recent Pew study).
(Having lived only within the borders of large cities for more than 40 years I find these numbers shocking, but in many ways, we have two societies now: blue and red, urban and suburban, multicultural and religious fundamentalist. I’m a resident of the blue, urban, multicultural world and tend to interact only with others who share my views on social and political issues.)
The gay-bashing controversy also serves as this week’s “Duck Dynasty” media story. Only the Kardashians seem to get more stories about them than the Robertsons.
I won’t blame A&E for developing shows for the rural market, but I do blame it for developing these particular shows. Reality TV is the end game of the Warhol aesthetic—the apotheosis of branding elements into human deities called celebrities through a medium that has ostensibly avoided the distortions created by the artist’s mediation. But it’s only apparent, since it is not reality we see but an imitation of reality made to seem real by the suppression of most artistic craft.
Suburbanites, denizens of new cities, rural hunters—every major demographic group gets its own lineup of reality TV in post-modern America. In all cases, the producers varnish reality and give it a dramatic shape that at the end of the day feeds on commercial activity and conspicuous consumption. You wouldn’t catch Snooki squatting in a duck blind, nor Phil Robertson clubbing in South Beach. But they represent the same value of undeserved celebrity selling mindless consumption.