The suspension of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson over anti-gay comments he made in a recent interview has spurred seemingly as much protest as the comments themselves, leaving an allegedly reasonable society to question the role a reality television show can and should have in important issues of debate.
Robertson, whose family created a duck-calling device and now stars in a reality show airing on A&E that celebrates their rural, self-described “redneck” lives, camouflage pants and long beards, was suspended from the show earlier this week.
During an interview with GQ, Robertson said homosexuality was sinful and stated:
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. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.
The comment prompted a swift rebuke from A&E, which suspended Robertson and distanced itself from the comments. Since then Robertson has been heralded as a champion of free speech and dragged into the centre of the gay rights debate.
There are a few pressing concerns stemming from this entire story. The first is that A&E was not expecting a member of their celebrated "redneck" reality show to share contentious opinions on sensitive subjects.
The next is how we as a society could be affected in any significant way by comments from a reality television star. That the gay rights debate could be impacted, one way or the other, by the musings of a man whose claim to fame (aside from creating a duck-call device) is being on a television show that some people "shame watch" because it makes them feel smart and dignified in comparison.
And, stemming from that point, there is also great shame to be found in the politicians and evangelical groups that now clamor to Robertson as some sort of messiah.
The Washington Post reports that Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's Republican governor, held Robertson up as a champion of the first amendment. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a probable Republican presidential candidate, said, "If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson."
Ian Bayne, an Illinois congressional candidate, said Robertson was the "Rosa Parks" of this generation.
“In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians,” he said in a statement released on Friday. “What Parks did was courageous. What Mr. Robertson did was courageous too.”
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The statement was darkly ironic considering Robertson, in the same GQ interview, claimed that African Americans did not suffer during the 1960s.
Robertson's comments were not courageous. If, as Bayne and others suggest, he expected this fallout then the comments were indeed self-serving and, unlike Parks, he faces no real repercussions for making his stand.
His son Willie is rumoured to be set for a Republican political run, and Season 5 – which will begin airing in January – is about the time the public usually starts tuning on the reality shows and their quirky stars. Just ask Mike 'The Situation' Sorrentino about his post-"Jersey Shore" career arch.
As for Robertson's suspension, the reaction by A&E is somewhat surprising. In similar cases, networks have previously responded with a basic "his comments do not represent the network" apology. For A&E to offer more, there must be something at play that is larger than the show’s ratings.
The cast of “Duck Dynasty” just earned a major salary increase. Perhaps the network has been questioning the long-term fate and profitability of the show, despite its booming ratings. Perhaps the fact that most of Season 5 has already been filmed, meaning Robertson could return before his absence is even noticed on screen, makes the suspension technically moot. Or perhaps, as the network suggested in its statement, A&E is more dedicated to its support for the lesbian and gay community than it is to its most popular show.
Fans of the show have threatened to boycott the show until Robertson is reinstated. His family has threatened not to finish the show without him. The fallout from the fallout would have been expected.
The standing argument being made is that Phil Robertson, any "Duck Dynasty" cast member and indeed anybody else has a right to express their opinions. That is undeniably the case. And when that person's comments and actions have, or threaten to have, a negative effect on his or her employer, they are free to pull their support.
It's not a proud stance, but it's a fair one: A&E is in the business to make money. If they decide someone is a threat to their bottom line, it is their prerogative how to respond. A network once notorious for airing "Law & Order" repeats shouldn't be held up as a champion of free speech, much as a reality star that has profited from his "redneck" reputation shouldn't be held up as this generation's "Rosa Parks."
We've got so much potential, people. We’re better than taking cues from the musings of a reality TV star. Let's leave this one for the pages of US Weekly.
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