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January 09, 2014 12:00 PM Duck Decoy

How the entertainment industry made the Duck Dynasty family into rednecks.

By Daniel Luzer

In the brief pre-Christmas controversy over an article in GQ about Duck Commander-company founder Phil Robertson —an interview in which he said he believed homosexual sex to be a sin:

He paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

—pundits armed up for another battle in the culture wars. GLAAD (the organization previously known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) spokesman Wilson Cruz said that,

Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans - and Americans - who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.

He issued a sort of fatwa against Robertson and his hit show, Duck Dynasty, which draws an average 14 million viewers each episode. The network that broadcasts the show, A&E, briefly considered canceling the program. Wilson was a symbol for America’s effete, presumably blue state, intelligentsia. And Robertson, whose comments were perhaps controversial but not entirely mean-spirited, became a representative of red state, redneck values.

But this is all highly misleading.

According to the GQ article:

Perhaps it’s not exactly shocking that a deeply religious 67-year-old hunter from rural Louisiana would have, shall we say, enthusiastic ideas about what constitutes good Christian morality. That’s the unspoken red-state appeal of Duck Dynasty. They’re godly folk. “Real” folk.

That’s part of the appeal of that show, that it’s so “real.”

Except it’s not.

Robertson might believe that being gay is a sin, but the Robertsons aren’t rednecks.

On December 29 Political Blind Spot posted an interesting series of older family photographs of the Robertson family, from back in the 90s, long after they’d founded the company, but before Duck Dynasty and anyone in the entertainment industry had ever heard of them.

Here are Phil Robertson’s four sons, before network TV:

OldDD

While obviously people change their clothes and their hair over time, and every man with a beard was at one point a man who didn’t have a beard, this is not the sort of photographs rednecks ever take.

Rednecks might sometimes play golf, but rednecks do not go on golf outings with their entire family. They do not pose with golf clubs and all of their brothers at the country club after a great game.

The GQ article explained, accurately, that Phil Robertson grew up poor in the northwest Louisiana —“a place where Cajun redneck culture and Ozark redneck culture intersect” and in 1972 he,

Founded the Duck Commander company, which sold a line of custom-made duck-hunting calls that quickly became popular among avid hunters for their uncanny accuracy in replicating the sound of a real duck. He eventually sold half the company to his son Willie, now 41, and together they made a DVD series about the family’s duck hunts, which led to a show on the Outdoor Channel, which led to Duck Dynasty on A&E….
The show—a reality sitcom showcasing the semiscripted high jinks of Phil, his brother “Uncle Si,” his four sons, Alan, Willie, Jase, and Jep, and the perpetually exasperated but always perfectly accessorized Robertson-family ladies—has become the biggest reality-TV hit in the history of cable television, reportedly earning the family a holy shit-worthy $200,000-an-episode paycheck. It’s a funny, family-friendly show, with “skits that we come up with,” as Phil describes the writing process. They plunder beehives. They blow up beaver dams.

But here is Phil’s son Jase (the show’s “laid-back, self-professed redneck”) and his wife a few years ago

JaseDDOld

Here’s Jase today:

JaseDD

He’s not a redneck. He just plays one on TV.

His brother, Willie Robertson, is the CEO of Duck Commander. This is what he looks like:

WillieDD

This is what he used to look like:

WillieDDold

Seriously? He’s barefoot on the beach with frosted tips? This is a picture with enough touches of American haute-bourgeois wimpiness to make Pajama Boy look like the Marlboro Man by comparison.

Now, no one’s lying here. Indeed, A&E provided us with these photos.

Indeed, Jep and Phil (who has a master’s degree in education from Louisiana Tech University) might think of themselves as rednecks. And they surely enjoy hunting and fishing. But if ol’ frosted tipped, barefoot on the beach Willie is a redneck, I don’t know what a real southern gentleman even is.

A&E appears to have taken a large clan of affluent, college-educated, mildly conservative, country club Republicans, common across the nicer suburbs of the old south, and repackaged them as the Beverly Hillbillies.

Reality TV has long been known to be scripted and edited to make a show more interesting (no one wants to watch the Robertson go over the accounting for their company, after all) but what appears to be happening here is something more serious. It’s not so much that the Robertsons’ show is scripted, so much as the actual family is sort of a creation of network executives.

To make the family more valuable and entertaining, A&E executives seemed to have pretty radically altered the Robertson family to make them seem more genuine, their actual reality being apparently insufficient.

The original Duck Dynasty promo billed the show as a “rags-to-riches story of a down-home family business with a heavily bearded band of hunting experts.”

This is no such family. A&E just created its own rednecks.

This is not incidental. In the case of the Robertsons it not only changes who the family is, it creates a sense of a class and an attitude that may not exist, at least not independent of the creative team at a company owned by the Manhattan-based Hearst Corporation and Disney-ABC Television Group, which is based in Burbank, California, that used to specialize in fine arts programming.

This whole thing was a little too socially perfect. The Robertsons are surely vaguely conservative. They made their fortune creating a product designed for duck hunting, a sport they acutally very much enjoy. Jase proudly calls himself a redneck. They are very serious Christians.

But the ZZ top bearded, camo-wearing mountain men, this fusion of “Cajun redneck culture and Ozark redneck culture” is entertainment industry idea of what real America looks like.

The Robertsons are not being exploited; they’re fully on board with this plan, cynical as it appears. And why shouldn’t they be? If A&E wanted to give me $8 million to play a caricature of myself on TV I would totally do it.

How real are the Kardishians or Paris Hilton or Honey Boo Boo? As a result of The Simple Life that heiress to the Hilton hotel fortune has spent a good deal more time doing manual labor on America’s farms than I have. Why did she continue to be so unfamiliar with American agriculture? Because she wasn’t being Paris Hilton; she was playing Paris Hilton.

Political Blind Spot wonders how much of this disagreement was organic at all.

The costumes are for show, the beards and bandanas are for show - and more than likely, even the recent “scandals” are for show. We have recently learned that A&E will keep Phil Robertson even after previously announcing he would be kicked off the show for breach of contract, due to racist and homophobic comments. In all likelihood, the scandals were part of a well-orchestrated hoax to get even more ratings, even more attention….

How much was the attitude Phil Robertson expressed genuine? A&E briefly considered dropping the show. Pundits went back and forth about this controversy. It served as a nice summary of red state conservatism, pitting red state charm and “reality” against blue state political correctness.

There’s a great big debate, everyone backed down, and a whole lot more people now know about Duck Dynasty (“Gee, if only there were a way we could get gay people to care about this show…”) It all worked out very neatly, didn’t it?

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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