"Ready for dinner"
The hit A&E reality series “Duck Dynasty” feels like a throwback — not necessarily as far back as “The Waltons,” but to the retrograde conservatism of the mid-2000s. Back then, “The Simple Life” advanced a binary notion of American culture — one could either be a decadent, stupid coastal denizen or someone with the deep wisdom that comes from living in the heartland — and “American Idol” sold a deeply conservative notion that stardom was deserved by those with the broadest possible appeal and a hard-luck story.
Culture has actually improved in the intervening years, but “Duck Dynasty’s” recent success proves there’ll always be an audience for shows that sell a counterfactual conservative fantasy of the God-fearing nuclear American family as exemplary at a time when the American family has never been more fractured. The duck-call millionaires of “Duck Dynasty” are open about their faith to the point of proselytizing, wear beards to signal their conservatism, and live lives as captured on-air that resemble “Leave It to Beaver,” all cute wisecracks with no real tension. “Duck Dynasty” exists to reassure, to comfort people that not everyone is a crazy coastal creature who voted for Nobama.
Subtext becomes text in a piece on “Duck Dynasty” in GQ, in which patriarch Phil Robertson tells the magazine that he doesn’t understand the sin of homosexuality:
It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.
Robertson goes on to note that homosexuality is the sin that begat all others as America lost its way from its foundation as a Christian nation: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.” He also says that mass murder is a direct result of ignoring the teachings of Jesus, citing Nazis, “Shintos,” Communists and “Islamists.”
“Duck Dynasty” is symptom, not cause; there exists more than ever a bone-deep conservatism that the show signals — the duck calls are dog-whistles for an audience hungry for an explicit portrayal of a sort of family happiness that necessarily excludes non-Christians or gay people. The difference is that during the Bush years, the opinions Robertson espouses were the absolute mainstream, so obviously popular that they needed little explication. With values voters in the minority of the electorate, the message needs to be reiterated, again and again, loudly.
Robertson’s views on gay people in a post-DOMA landscape are shared by a small number of people, speaking relatively; there are fewer shows on the airwaves conveying the idea that wisdom is exclusive to those in the central two time zones. But Robertson’s views are shared more fiercely than ever by those who agree; “Duck Dynasty” is more explicit in its themes than shows that came before. “Duck Dynasty” is either the force that will revive values voting in America, or that bloc’s death rattle.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_More Daniel D'Addario.