This Duck Dynasty thing seems to have everyone’s undies in a culture war bunch with lots of hand wringing about free speech (find out why this is ridiculous here), the persecution of Christians, and the racism, sexism, and homophobia of poor, rural, Southern whites.
There is, however, an underlying class story here that is going unsaid.
Phil Robertson is under fire for making heterosexist comments and trivializing racism in the south in GQ. While I wholeheartedly and vociferously disagree with Robertson, I am also uncomfortable with how he is made to embody the “redneck.” He represents the rural, poor, white redneck from the south that is racist, sexist, and homophobic.
This isn’t just who he is; we’re getting a narrative told by the producers of Duck Dynasty and editors at GQ—extremely privileged people in key positions of power making decisions about what images are proliferated in the mainstream media. When we watch the show or read the interview, we are not viewing the everyday lives of Phil Robertson or the other characters. We are getting a carefully crafted representation of the rural, white, Southern, manly man, regardless of whether or not the man, Phil Robertson, is a bigot (which, it seems, he is).
The stars of Duck Dynasty eight years ago (left) and today (right):
This representation has traction with the American viewing audience. Duck Dynasty is the most popular show on A&E. Folks love their Duck Dynasty.
There are probably many reasons why the show is so popular. Might I suggest that one could be that the “redneck” as stereotyped culture-war icon is pleasurable because he simultaneously makes us feel superior, while saying what many of us kinda think but don’t dare say?
Jackson Katz talks about how suburban white boys love violent and misogynistic Gangsta Rap in particular (not all rap music is sexist and violent, but the most popular among white audiences tends to be this kind). Katz suggests that “slumming” in the music of urban, African American men allows white men to feel their privilege as white and as men. They can symbolically exercise and express sexism and a sense of masculine power when other forms of sexism are no longer tolerated. Meanwhile, everybody points to the rapper as the problem; no one questions the white kid with purchasing power.
Might some of the audience of Duck Dynasty be “slumming” with the bigot to feel their difference and superiority while also getting their own bigot on? The popularity of the show clearly has something to do with the characters’ religiosity and rural life, but I’m guessing it also has something to do with the “redneck” spectacle, allowing others to see their own “backwoods” attitudes reinforced (I’m talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia, not Christianity).
He is a representation of a particular masculinity that makes him compelling to some and abhorrent to others, which also makes him the perfect pawn in the culture wars. Meanwhile, we are all distracted from social structure and those who benefit from media representations of the rural, white, southern bigot.
Sociologists Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Michael Messner suggest that pointing the finger at the racist and homophobic attitudes of rural, poor whites — or the sexist and homophobic beliefs of brown and black men, like in criticism of rap and hip hop — draws our attention away from structures of inequality that systematically serve the interests of wealthy, white, straight, and urban men who ultimately are the main benefactors. As long as we keep our concerns on the ideological bigotry expressed by one type of loser in the system, no one notices the corporate or government policies and practices that are the real problem.
While all eyes are on the poor, rural, white, Southern bigot, we fail to see the owners of media corporations sitting comfortably in their mansions making decisions about which hilarious down-trodden stereotype to trot out next. Sexist, homophobic, and racist ideology gets a voice, while those who really benefit laugh all the way to the bank.
Mimi Schippers, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Tulane University. She is working on a book on the radical gender potential of polyamory. Her first book was Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock. You can follow her at Marx in Drag.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post and Marx in Drag. Photos from the Internet Movie Database and Today.
Bananadrama — December 22, 2013
I've only seen the show a few times, but I'm pretty sure there hasn't been any bigotry displayed on it, just down-home rural hunter folksiness.
Carl Root — December 22, 2013
Excellent post. We have certainly found ourselves in the duck blinds courtesy of the culture industry!
myblackfriendsays — December 22, 2013
This family isn't even poor--they were multi-millionaires even before the show came along. The show made them multi,multi,multi-millionaires.
disqus_Zy46DlXIiz — December 22, 2013
This was clearly written by someone who hasn't spent much time in the Southeastern part of the US. Redneck culture may be looked down upon by other parts of the country, but it is a point of Pride for others.
Don't forget that Phil Robertson has the means and ability to acquire a more developed world-view and has chosen to remain ignorent. His folly is the product of choice and not circumstance. His circumstances have been pretty good.
He is a wealthy white male bigot not a "poor, rural, southern bigot" Don't forget that.
Craig Kenneth Bryant — December 22, 2013
Here's another idea: "Duck Dynasty" is, at its heart, a show about acceptance. Most of the people who watch the show do not closely resemble the people starring on it--that is true. But those stars are absolutely not held up as objects of ridicule. They're funny--they're different--they do inexplicable things that strike urban viewers as occasionally stupid or crazy--but the point of the program is that they are ultimately being celebrated, not ridiculed. Once all the hi-jinks have finished jinking, here is a family that cares for each other and sits down to dinner together. They're living the way they want to live and pursuing the American dream after their own fashion. The audience is meant to understand them, accept them, and indeed celebrate them. To laugh, yes--to laugh along with them and think of them as not so different from us, really.
Then this guy tells us that homosexuals have murder in their hearts and African Americans were better off when they couldn't vote.
And there's the transgression. Suddenly the audience is confronted with something pretty stark and unsettling: this guy and the values he proclaims are in fact a long way from the "accept our differences/live and let live" vibe that the (scripted, staged, edited, processed) TV show offers us--this show that challenges an urban and suburban audience to open up and look past its own prejudices and assumptions, to see rural whites with beards out of the Old Testament as something other than hateful racists and bigots.
So again, "Duck Dynasty" is a show about acceptance. The problem is that, like all "reality television," it has far more television than reality in it.
TeamAristotle — December 22, 2013
The Robertson's get paid $200,000-plus per episode. Phil Robertson is no poor rural white.
And while it's entirely true that misdirection is a key tool in maintaining structures of inequality, what's more true in this case is that A&E is a business that cares more about profit than inequality.
A&E has audience demographics (18-49 age range) that advertisers love. And lgbt support in that age range is at an all time high (eg, 81% support in 18-29 year olds in march 2013 wapo poll).
Jake — December 22, 2013
As we go through another 'name and shame' cycle for yet another pop culture topic. It would be good to ask whether this morally tinged media criticism changes any minds or just preaches to the converted. I'm betting on the latter.
carter — December 22, 2013
What about speciesism? you can include classes and races but it's just a larger in-group. Anyone crying out about the offensiveness of these men now that they have said something objectionable must be callous and indifferent to the oppression and exploitation of non-humans - if you want to be inclusive you should be going beyond your species. These guys make light and fun out of killing most everything in their path, sentient emotional and social beings, and you bought that as entertainment until they said something to insult your in-group.
Andrew — December 22, 2013
While "redneck" is almost exclusively a term of class-related derision outside of the South, in recent years it's been co-opted by a lot of middle-class, Red State white conservatives as a point of pride and tribal identification. While a handful of reality shows such as "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" make grotesque spectacles out of white Southern poverty, "Duck Dynasty" belongs more to the much bigger genre of trashy spectacles about the rich and privileged. It's questionable that the show invites its audience to feel "superior," when its characters are portrayed as both generally affable and Kardashian-wealthy.
In fact, the affability the show so carefully crafted is probably the main reason Robertson's homophobic comments have attracted so much more negative publicity than far worse ones made routinely by people such as Rick Santorum or Rush Limbaugh, whose bigotry is integral to their public personae. Had A&E chosen to make a show that forced viewers to confront what its fundamentalist characters really believed (as the GQ interview did), we'd have either no controversy or an altogether different one.
chinagreenelvis — December 23, 2013
You can't blame a show for what you read into it.
And the final word on Duck Dynasty « Flexible Reality — December 23, 2013
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[links] Link salad stumbles onward through the fog | jlake.com — December 23, 2013
[…] Classism in the Rise and Fall of the Duck Dynasty Patriarch — A sociological take on the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle. Interesting perspective, including a fascinating pair of photos. […]
Starlarvae — December 23, 2013
Several states have legalized gay marriage; two states legalized pot outright -- the social-policy compass has veered far Left. To bring things back to center, Duck Dynasty might be just the first salvo. Don't overlook the Fundamentalist component of the redneck archetype. Be on the lookout for a Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority, type revivalism. The return of Sarah Palin?
Kali — December 23, 2013
Bigotry by proxy - a lot of popular entertainment falls into this category.
ViktorNN — December 23, 2013
I agree with Schippers that A&E has manufactured this show as a play on stereotypes of rural, uneducated, bigoted, redneck whites. I also agree somewhat that this is a form of misdirection where cultural elites are using this show as a "freak show" to distract attention away from real critique of power, but probably not the way Schippers means it.
The best way to understand A&E's use of the "backwards white rural redneck" trope is evidence of typical intra-white jostling for status and power (which is ultimately what most left/right, Dem/Repub squabbling is about).
Schipper is right in the sense that the real impediments to progress are ignored when big media airs these freak shows, but she's wrong in thinking that, aside from a few leftist academics here and there there's some white leftist political movement that doesn't use "backward white rural rednecks" to make hay on a daily basis. If the pro left didn't have redneck boogeymen to fundraise with, they'd have to invent them (which they essentially have, in this case).
In this sense, there's very little daylight between the cultural elites running big media and the professional progressive left. Which of course is evidenced by the flow of money from one to the other.
Next, the idea that some portion of Duck Dynasty's audience is slumming it when they watch this show doesn't seem quite right to me either. People aren't so much getting a vicarious thrill by watching the bigots they can't be in real life as much as they are happy to see any form of representation of themselves and their real lives on television at all - even a negative, mocking one.
On Phil Robertson And Related Issues | Alas, a Blog — December 24, 2013
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Bill R — December 24, 2013
"Might I suggest that one could be that the “redneck” as stereotyped culture-war icon is pleasurable because he simultaneously makes us feel superior, while saying what many of us kinda think but don’t dare say?"
Speak for own self-flagelating self!
I for one dislike rednecks because they embody American anti-intellectualism, happy to replace honest debate with a silly, stubborn look on their faces. And in my book, that dog don't hunt.
cajun beauty — December 24, 2013
Gee folks when did we all get so uptight about things?! It seem these days if one is not politically correct someone gets their knickers in a twist. The point as I see it isn't about whether it's classism, it's about whether we, as Americans, have the right to express an opinion that files in the face of political correctness. If I respect your rights then respect mine...or as my Mama...and my family is all from southern Louisiana...would say, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I do not personally agree with his statements and I have very dear gay friends...but I do defend his constitutional right to say what he did.
#confuzzled — December 26, 2013
He represents the stereotypical redneck, sure. To you. However, you can see from watching the show that they're never depicted making homophobic or sexist comments, or being deeply religious. This is true, despite how those are both characteristics people use to disparage rural white Southerners. The execs instead seem to be trying to make a show that's basically "insular don't-tread-on-me types thrust into absurd wealth and thus the mainstream".
They're fun, highly beardy, and lovably crazy. I know lots of people who seriously love the show, with zero irony.
Honestly, the fact that you interpreted this as an attack on rednecks shows your own preconcieved stereotypes about what rednecks are.
FeministDisney — December 26, 2013
I sort of get what you're saying-- their image is definitely crafted to fit an "idea" about them since they're not really poor backwoods people, they're rich business owners...
but I also feel like you write this having not seen the show? Part of the issue with his commentary in the magazine is that A&E was careful to always edit such references out (presumably they occurred).
"Might some of the audience of Duck Dynasty be “slumming” with the bigot to feel their difference and superiority while also getting their own bigot on?... (I’m talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia, not Christianity)."
Like if racism and homophobia, at least, don't actually make appearances IN the show, how are people "slumming" as they watch?
Gunnvor Valkyrie — January 5, 2014
'while saying what many of us kinda think but don’t dare say' speak for yourself.
Not Ducking My Dynasty — January 10, 2014
[…] interested in is how narratives are used. In the case of Duck Dynasty, a narrative has constructed for the purpose of making money, largely for wealthy White straight men, at the expense (to differing degrees) of Blacks, queers, […]
slow motion — April 4, 2014
It's people like these that continue to make the South look like a bunch of inbred uneducated trash.
The Big Game Theory - Protean Magazine — November 30, 2019
[…] to assume that they received a licensing fee for the use of their image and brand. (Lest we forget, this is what the Robertsons looked like before they began cosplaying as rural stereotypes to capitalize […]