When a media figure gets suspended for making an offensive statement, the tricky thing often is figuring out which part of it he or she got suspended for.
Star and duck-call mogul Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, for instance, was indefinitely suspended by A&E Wednesday after an interview with GQ in which he called homosexuality sinful — like, in his words, drunkenness, bestiality, promiscuity, and terrorism — and in specifically anatomical terms saying why he thought being gay was “illogical.”
But which was the actionable part? Was he suspended for believing that being gay is a sin? For saying it out loud? For saying it in those terms?
In TV, writers talk about getting notes from the network to “make the subtext text.” That is, rather than be subtle, or hint at the meaning of a scene or dialogue without saying it in so many words, you need to make it clear so that nobody in your audience misses it. Robertson got in trouble, for once in TV history, for making the subtext text — for being explicit about the conservative Christianity that, when it was subtext, was a selling point for him and for his show.
Now, I’m not saying that you have to be Christian or conservative to like Duck Dynasty. It’s a comedy — a reality comedy, but still a sitcom, with sitcom setups and zingers — you just have to think it’s funny. I’ve only watched a handful of Duck Dynasty episodes — sometimes funny, not really for me — but nothing in it was predicated on accepting eternal hellfire for breaking the strictures of Leviticus. And likewise, you don’t have to disdain gay people or think being gay will send you to Hell to be a Christian — many, many Christians, some of them gay Christians, prove otherwise.
But for at least part of the huge Duck Dynasty audience, the Robertsons’ faith is part of the appeal: the fact that they’re public, devout Christians with a public platform, even if their faith was mostly background to the zany family antics. They might not be preaching, but if you cared enough you knew: they were keeping it real. And then there was the part of the show’s vibe that was less religious than cultural, but was still connected: that the show was about nostalgia, for the authentic ways, old days, and down-home values.
There were enough of all kinds of fans — family viewers and comedy fans and fans of the culture — to make the show a massive cable hit. As long as the subtext was subtext. But with Phil doing an interview in a national magazine, talking gay people, anuses, damnation — oh, and how the Japanese fought us in WWII because they didn’t have Jesus? [Update: As well as his pull-quoted remarks on "pre-entitlement" black people in the pre-civil rights South--"they were happy; no one was singing the blues."]
That presents a problem. Now, you’ve got an issue with those of us who maybe just want to watch a family comedy about people outside a major city, but please without supporting somebody thumping gay people with their Bible. Or a problem with people with gay friends, or family, or, you know, actual gay A&E viewers.
And, once you take any kind of action on that, you’ve got the opposite problem — with deeply religious viewers who like the Robertsons for their faith. They’re going to see it as you punishing him for saying out loud what he believes, and maybe for what they themselves believe, and what they believe is the word of God. You’re punishing him, in their eyes, for being one of them.
As text rather than subtext, the stuff Phil thinks and says creates an irreconcilable problem. Which is why A&E is maybe trying to solve that problem by putting Phil on a “hiatus” from filming, because what exactly does that mean and how does it work? Is A&E going to put out a season of Duck Dynasty in which we just kind of forget that one of the family members exists? Or is this a “hiatus” that blows over once everyone forgets about this, Phil puts out some kind of crafted statement, and allows for the shooting of a full normal Duck Dynasty season? You know, like the exact same thing we would get if A&E didn’t do anything at all?
I can’t read A&E’s executives’ minds, of course, but there are other options. You can decide that what Phil said was bigoted and not something you want to be associated with, period. Or you can decide that it’s what he believes, and people can exercise their God-given right never to watch Duck Dynasty instead if they so choose.
Or you realize that things have gotten really uncomfortable, make an announcement that says you’re doing something, and wait for the text to become subtext again.