Culture
12:19 pm
Thu December 19, 2013

'Duck' And Cover: What, Exactly, Is The Point?

Originally published on Thu December 19, 2013 1:51 pm

Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson has been suspended from filming by A&E after telling writer Drew Magary, for a new profile in GQ, about some of the views he holds that don't make it to air. Specifically, he spoke about not only how homosexuality is a sin but how it would naturally "morph out from there" into, among other things, bestiality. He also rounded up a group of folks with whom he just wanted to share his faith, and in it, he included "homosexuals, drunks [and] terrorists."

[Edited to add: These are the statements that led to the suspension according to what I'd seen of the A&E reasoning. But it's been pointed out to me that it's fair to mention Robertson's remarks on race in the same GQ article, including that "pre-entitlement, pre-welfare," the black people he knew were "godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues." That stuff is also pretty ... startling.]

In suspending him, A&E released a statement in which it said, according to CNN, "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. ... His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely."

Now, ask yourself what kind of sense this makes.

For one thing, A&E is not only explaining that Phil's personal beliefs — which, for him, are part and parcel of the religious faith that has been one of the show's selling points — do not reflect the position of the network. It is explaining that Phil's personal beliefs are not reflected in the show that is ostensibly about Phil. I'm trying to remember whether I've ever seen a network point out quite so clearly — if perhaps accidentally — that you don't have to punish Show Phil for the things that are said in the press by Actual Phil.

For another, it seems vanishingly unlikely that A&E has filmed Phil for 50 episodes and didn't know he felt this way. That makes it hard to believe the suspension is meant to send Phil off to rethink his position on gay people or learn to be more tolerant if they haven't done so before. It seems that Real Phil is instead being suspended for opening his mouth to GQ and fussing with the carefully maintained image of Show Phil by telling people what he actually thinks — by telling people who have appreciated his family's devotion to devotion, as it were, about the parts of their faith that A&E doesn't talk about.

Obviously, the network has every right to suspend him, or to pull the show, or to do whatever it wants with the business arrangement. As we've discussed in this space before, free speech in a First Amendment sense really has nothing to do with this kind of thing, since there's no right to be free of all consequences for saying things that offend other people. One has a constitutional right to believe and say what one chooses, certainly. But one also has a constitutional right (and an ethical entitlement) to be crushingly dull, and that, too, would get one's reality show canceled. Surely we have no greater right to define sin than we have to be crushingly dull.

This entire brouhaha has unleashed some of the usual arguments over (perhaps ironically) whether he's being punished for being too genuine. Authenticity, of course, is no defense unless the charge is a lack of authenticity. One can be truly authentic, real, honest, and perfectly appropriately fired — it happens all the time. The concept that you enjoy a kind of immunity whenever you speak from the heart is surprisingly popular, but — like the interpretation of double jeopardy in the movie Double Jeopardy -- wrong. It appears from A&E's own comments that the last thing it wants interfering with Show Phil is Real Phil.

GLAAD applauded the suspension, saying that A&E "sent a strong message" about discrimination, but ... did it? Or did it send a strong message about staying on message? Is Phil's punishment for what he thinks, or for what he said, or for disregarding some understanding he has with the network that Certain Things We Do Not Talk About? (My friend James Poniewozik has written about this today as well.)

A suspension like this seems designed to do one thing and one thing only: end the whole thing as fast as possible with as few actual consequences to anyone as possible. (As Poniewozik says, it's not even clear what on earth this suspension means to anyone, including Phil, or whether it will cost anyone anything.) By putting (and keeping) the show on the air, the network seems to be acknowledging that people appreciate the opportunity to see a family like Phil's, but by suspending him, the network seems to be acknowledging that at least some of the audience wants a partially obstructed view.

A&E, here, is dealing with one of the fundamentals of reality shows that aren't at the documentary end of the spectrum but are at the comedy end of the spectrum. On the one hand, it loves to sell the Robertsons as real, genuine, cinema beardite stars who simply can't stop keeee-razy things from coming out of their mouths. On the other, it would like to be in the position of a sitcom in saying, "Hey, we are as appalled by this actor as you are, but it doesn't have to have anything to do with the show, right?" (That, though, will offend an entirely different group of folks who would really rather see Real Phil and certainly think there's no reason to find him appalling.)

There is, of course, another way to read the situation, depending on how much cynicism you care to employ. The ratings have been slipping a bit (although the show is still a phenomenon whose tentacles seem to grow ever longer), and there are those who will rally to Phil's defense, as some did on "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day." Magary is a famously unsparing, very funny writer, and it's difficult to believe the people who handle Phil Robertson didn't understand that Robertson + Magary = chaos. Perhaps the interview, the comments, the suspension, the return — perhaps it's all a dance, or part dance, or tripping over your feet and passing it off as a dance.

But the suspension itself seems to consist of little more than the announcement — little more than the obligatory "we acknowledge that we have to put out this statement and we therefore hereby put this statement out" kind of announcement. What then? What happens when the show comes back, when Phil comes back? He promises he'll only let magazines profile Show Phil, not Real Phil?

In the end, whatever the GQ piece revealed that anyone didn't already know, it's awfully hard to figure out how suspending Phil Robertson from filming addresses it.

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