When your face is on pajamas, your opinion ceases to be yours – Duck Dynasty, commercialism and free speech
The uproar over A&E’s decision to suspend ‘Duck Dynasty’s’ Phil Robertson after anti-gay remarks tends to miss a key point: Phil Robertson the person doesn’t exist in the public sector – only Phil Robertson the brand does.
If you’re like me, then your Facebook feed has been flooded with opinions on A&E’s decision to suspend Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson after he made anti-gay remarks to GQ. Several people agreed, citing the need for tolerance; several people disagreed, saying that no one should be surprised that Robertson, an old school Southern Christian, believes homosexuality is a sin. These reactions don’t surprise me. The ones that baffle me though, are the ones that claim A&E doesn’t have the right to suspend him, that they’re trampling over Robertson’s right to free speech.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,” meaning that your speech can only constitutionally be infringed by the government — not by a basic cable channel. Second, Phil Robertson is a brand. The “Robertson Clan” is a brand. Duck Dynasty is a brand, and A&E is simply doing what any corporation would do: it’s protecting its brand.
This is evidenced in the wording of A&E’s statement about the suspension: “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.” What is A&E saying? That Phil Robertson the person is in no way reflected in Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Robertson Clan on the hit A&E show, Duck Dynasty. Phil Robertson the person can have beliefs. He can burp, fart, hate gays, believe in unicorns, or do whatever he wants — in private. However, the second a camera or a reporter is in the room with him, Phil Robertson the person disappears. He is Phil Robertson the brand.
“But he still lives in his original house! He hasn’t sold out like the rest of the family!” Robertson may not have given in to many of the trappings that his progeny enjoy, but make no mistake: he is just as involved as the rest. He accepts money to appear on the show. He says the scripted lines the producers give him. He participates in the sitcom-like antics that are Duck Dynasty‘s hallmark. He chopped down a Christmas tree with Miss Kay months before Christmas because A&E needed to film a special (which went on to garner over 9 million viewers). Phil Robertson’s face appears on body pillows, door mats, alarm clocks, basically anything you can think of. Walmart.com alone has over 20 pages of Duck Dynasty merchandise. There are a lot of paydays tied up in his folksy wisdom, and the cash cow needs to stay in his pen.
The fact of the matter is, what you say and do can affect your job. Don Yelton was fired from his job as North Carolina GOP Chair after making racist remarks on The Daily Show; Big Brother contestants left the show only to lose their real world jobs after making homophobic and racist comments during filming. Paula Deen, Don Imus; public figures often face firing and financial hardship after a scandal like this. A&E in particular is once bitten, twice shy after having to deal with advertisers pulling out after Dog the Bounty Hunter went on a racist rant in 2007.
Ming Chen, one of the stars of AMC’s Comic Book Men, is surprised that Robertson’s comments even got out. “When we give interviews for the show, we usually have a PR person who dials in and listens to the call,” Chen told us at CliqueClack. “GQ had to have gone through the network to talk to [Robertson], so I’m surprised it even got this far.” He says that reality stars are different from actors, because “who you see on the show is who we are. I’ll speak honestly [in interviews]; I speak from the heart.” While he says that his network has never given guidelines of what he and his fellow Comic Book Men can and can’t say, he does say that they’re “expected to use common sense.”
In a show that’s seemingly tightly controlled, it is odd that one of the Duck Dynasty stars was even able to go rogue like this; that no one was on hand during the interview to make sure Robertson exercised the common sense needed to protect the Robertson brand. After all, it’s not the remarks themselves that are surprising. As Chen said, and many people have echoed online, “That’s real. It’s what he really feels, so I don’t get why people are so shocked by the content.” However, the reality we see on Duck Dynasty is a carefully-constructed one.
A&E is intent on cultivating a genteel version of rednecks; a faith-focused, family-oriented group that gets into wacky misadventures in the swamps of Louisiana. The Robertsons are portrayed as a sitcom family; one-dimensional and happy. A&E doesn’t want its millions of viewers to look below the surface, to find the “real” in their reality. Their goal is to keep viewers entertained between toothpaste commercials, so when someone threatens that, he has to be dealt with.
It’s nothing personal Phil; it’s just business.