For all the outrage, indignation, and general tumult over the TV show “Duck Dynasty” and its starring family that took place over the holiday season, the one thing almost no one charged was that the Robertson clan were fakes. Yet that’s just the charge Daniel Luzer explored at Washington Monthly last week:
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.
Luzer referred to a Political Blind Spot report from late last year titled “How a Wealthy, Clean Cut ‘Duck Dynasty’ Tricked the World for Publicity.” That report displayed a series of Robertson family photographs from before the show that contrasted strongly with the beard-laden, camo-garbed image the Robertson men have cultivated in the public eye.
In one photo, the brothers posed with golf clubs apparently in front of a pool:
In another, Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson posed on the beach with his family displaying an even worse haircut than he currently sports.
Luzer comments, “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.” He goes onto to remark, with some justification on Willie’s family photo, “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.” Luzer concludes, “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.”
So Hollywood swooped in and gussied up a suburban family business in all the extravagances it could dream of, and sold a bill of goods to the 14 million Americans that tune in for a red state experience. The actual rednecks or rural folk who identify with the Robertsons are, in one uncharitable interpretation, fools who got played like a fiddle, falling for a dolled up caricature of their wildest dreams.
And yet. Could there be more to this?
First of all, rednecks do go golfing, plenty. Whole families will go golfing as a matter of fact, often accompanied by copious amounts of beer. Usually not at the finely manicured country clubs of Pebble Beach and Medinah, but look at the pool chairs behind the men; Medinah, it is not. I won’t begin to defend Willie’s hair, however.
The best way, though, to shed light on how the Robertsons could simultaneously be (at least partially) constructed characters and participants in an authentic enterprise might be to turn to that other hallmark of redneck culture: professional wrestling.
A couple years ago, Grantland’s pro wrestling correspondent The Masked Man (David Shoemaker) relayed a story that makes the whole Robertson transformation make a lot more sense:
My grandfather used to tell a story about a wrestling show in small-town North Carolina. A reporter from the local newspaper was assigned to cover the event but he had someplace else to be on the night of the card, so he went by the arena the day of, watched the guys warming up, took some notes, and then asked the promoter who was going to win each match so that he could file his story ahead of time. He did. But, the story goes, there was a terrible storm that night, and the show was canceled. When the newspaper came out the next day with all the results listed, the townsfolk were infuriated and, in my grandfather’s words, about ran the guy out of town with pitchforks and torches. …
Note the punch line of my grandfather’s story: The townsfolk didn’t run the wrestlers out of town; they went after the journalist. They knew full well what the reality of wrestling was—they were in on the joke—they just expected that the journalist would stay complicit in the enterprise.
Now watch this part of the “Duck Dynasty” intro sequence that plays towards the beginning of every episode of Robertson family hijinks:
You have a Rolls Royce where the Spirit of Ecstasy has been replaced with a duck, stuffed with heavily bearded men in makeshift tuxedos wearing camo wading boots and fists full of rings, spinning a duck-headed cane, where the logo hubcap cover wobbles a bit as the $500,000 car pulls to a stop. There’s more than a bit of spectacle and self-conscious performance from the very start. And that’s the point.
The show is far more honest than pro wrestling will ever be, and takes itself far less seriously, as it manifestly makes cracks at the “yuppified” women the men married, regularly shows the thoroughly generic suburban homes the brothers live in, and even sets one episode around a conflict with the homeowners association of their gated community.
Yet when all the spectacle is said and done, the explosions dissipated and competitions resolved, the family gathers in Phil and Kay Robertson’s still modest backwoods home, around the dinner table, and bow their heads while Phil blesses the food and his family with a prayer. What is seemingly not for show is the family’s tight-knit commitment to each other, and their faith.
There’s a canniness to rural folks that they often don’t get credit for, as they don’t see the need to explode illusions out of some misguided worship at the altar of authenticity. They’re more concerned with what’s real. And for all the staged skits and outlandish facial hair of the Robertson family, all evidence seems to indicate that they’re real.