On Duck Dynasty, Religion, and Cardboard Media Images

On Duck Dynasty, Religion, and Cardboard Media Images

Published Dec. 19, 2013 12:00 a.m. ET

Nothing that Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson said in his GQ interview surprised me

If you live in the South with evangelical relatives over the age of sixty, you probably weren't surprised either. In fact, I'd venture to say there will be a Phil Robertson at just about every large gathering of Southern families this Christmas. He or she will espouse a common evangelical theme, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."

It's a muscular form of evagelicism that condemns acts while simultaneously avoiding condemning the actor. The idea is simple, a sinner can change. It's now the most popular and compassionate form of religion in the country.   

So why were some outraged by Robertson's comments about gays, why did A&E feel it needed to suspend Robertson from his own show, and why's there mass outrage among the millions of Duck Dynasty fans over the suspension? (Go search the mentions for @aetv right now, it's ugly.)


It's simple, because everyone is a cardboard cut out in today's media era.

Let me explain.  

Much of the success that supported Duck Dynasty and made it the top rated show on cable was from religious conservatives. They liked everything the Robertson family represented in the show, "Duck Dynasty" was a counter culture reality spin, a nuclear family that loved Jesus and each other. While religion wasn't the focal point of the show, these religious conservatives knew it was there, bolstering their love for an avuncular family of hirstute duck callers.

How did they know it was there?

Subtle hints in the show itself, but also because the Robertson family toured all over the country speaking to churches and religious groups about their Christian faith. (My mom and dad have never watched the show, but they told me Phil spoke at a church near their house and drew thousands). Millions of people across the country turned out to hear their comments on religion, hundreds of thousands bought their books, "Duck Dynasty," was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, but for a lot of fans the linch pin behind that support was the family's religious faith. While the specific tenets of their religious faith weren't explicitly broken down on television, if you were Southern and went to church weekly, you knew what the Robertson's believed. Even if the evangelical fervor wasn't examined each week, you were willing to look behind the cardboard cut out image of the Robertson family and see that it was buttressed and founded on religious faith similar to your own.

For this group, or anyone familiar with this group, the GQ article didn't tell them anything they didn't already know. 

While they might wince a bit at the detail involved in Robertson's analysis of gay sex, they'd heard the same thing a ton of times before. Robertson, while not as polished as a media professional would be dodging the landmines while discussing his religious faith, was essentially saying what millions believe to be true, being gay is a sin. 

But here's the rub, the Duck Dynasty creators have been smart in the way they've marketed the show, they want the religious backbone of support, but they don't want an ostentatiously religious show that turns off more casual viewers who come for the family hijinks. 

Being religious in Hollywood is fine, but being specific about what your religious beliefs entail, isn't helpful when it comes to attracting ratings.

Turns out gay people and others with no real interest in religion might like "Duck Dynasty," too.

That's how a show becomes a ratings juggernaut, by appealing to viewers of all persuasions. (It's also patently artificial. Which is why our presidential campaigns ring so false. No one can afford to be real when they run for President. If you are, you lose. The result? We all get sold an illusion.)  

The cardboard cut out of religion sells well, but once judging right from wrong in our modern cultural melting pot begins to happen, religion doesn't sell as well. Suddenly you might be judging people who would otherwise support you. Uh oh. (This doesn't just happen with religion, by the way. Modern brands are great at attaching themselves to the cardboard cut out ideal of an image without actually embracing the support holding up that image. Look at modern companies who endorse rappers, for instance, without actually supporting their lyrics or actions. That works well until the brand gets too closely connected to negative lyrics. Ask Reebok, a company that bailed when rap lyrics became too controversial, about that.)   

So A&E cloaked the Robertson family's religious beliefs behind code words and images. The family prayed each show without being explicit in the prayer, the family was religious, but its religion was akin to Tim Tebow's religion, a net positive so long as the evangelical underpinnings of those beliefs are never examined. (Imagine if someone had asked Tim Tebow while he played for the New York Jets whether he believed gay people were sinners who were likely to go to hell if they didn't stop being gay. If he'd answered yes, as he likely believes, Tebow would have been castigated for the belief. Instead, Tebow, a younger and more media astute version of Robertson, has avoided discussing the specific tenets of his religious beliefs. The result? Tebow's religion is much like the "Duck Dynasty" crew's religion prior to Phil's interview, a net positive to his image.)

After all, we like people who are religious in America today, we just don't like people who are too religious.

A&E loved the Robertson family's religion, until they suddenly became too religious.

The moment Phil uttered his comments about homosexuality being a sin, A&E's cardboard cut out of a religious family was torn asunder. Millions who hadn't really cared about a evangelical Christian Louisiana family selling duck calls were suddenly outraged, but millions of fans of Duck Dynasty weren't surprised at all, they expected A&E to stand behind their star. After all, these fans raged, how could you punish a man for his religious faith when a big part of the show's appeal was that family's religious faith?

Easy, a big part of the show's appeal to religious people was the star's faith, but that didn't matter to lots of other viewers. 

Until now. 

It wasn't just that Phil said what he said, it's that he said it to a non-religious audience. 

If Phil had said the same comments in a church or religious setting -- and I'm betting he has lots of times -- no one in the crowd would have even blinked. It's not a story. 

Which bring us so to the second major lesson of the "Duck Dynasty" implosion, it's not what you say, it's who you say it to. 

The GQ audience -- why in the world did A&E agree to a GQ profile anyway? -- isn't necessarily exposed to comments like Phil's. To a certain segment of the audience out there, these were shocking beliefs. If you were raised a Southern evangelical, like me or many of you reading this article today, these comments from a 67 year old Southern grandpa didn't shock you at all. (How nervous would you be if your grandpa took a GQ writer hunting and spent a day with him with the entire day on the record?) That's because you'd heard them before. In fact, you'll probably hear a ton of people expressing outrage over A&E's suspension decision while you eat your Christmas meal this year. 

Old Southern men and women of any race?

Shoot, they don't have time for political correctness or media training, they fire from the lip and tell you exactly what they think.

It's why every Southern family gathering includes someone saying, "You can't say that, Grandpa!"

I like Phil because he reminds me of many generations of Southern grandpas. Chances are, lots of y'all feel the same way. 

In other contexts that's why the Robertson family is so popular, but when it comes to religion, gays, and GQ, that's the wrong message for the wrong crowd. 

In his interview Phil Robertson kicked the crap out of the cardboard cut out image that A&E sold to the masses. In so doing, he revealed himself to be what he'd been all along to many viewers, a devout evangelical with very specific and explicit beliefs about sinning and sinners.

But lots of viewers had no idea what was behind that cardboard cut out A&E created.

They just liked the old man with the beard, his duck calls, and his wacky family.

Once Robertson's comments exploded on the national stage, A&E couldn't appeal to the secular hijinks fan base and the religious fan base at the same time.  

Put simply, the gig was up.

And everyone was mad.