Tonight, Duck Dynasty returns to A&E for the first time Phil Robertson shared with us how gross and sinful he thinks it is for men to have sex with men and how happy black people were in the pre-civil-rights South. His remarks spawned a protest, a suspension, and a counter-protest over the suspension, which A&E eventually lifted.
So the Robertsons will be returning to a different world indeed, right? Not entirely. Let’s run it down:
What won’t be different: Phil’s “suspension” won’t affect his appearance in any episodes, because for all practical purposes it did not exist. It took place while Duck Dynasty was on a shooting break, resulting–as I’d suspected when the news broke–with the same Duck Dynasty season we’d have gotten had A&E done nothing at all. Whether this was a p.r. disaster or a brilliant coup, the result is that A&E can say it did something, some people who were offended by Phil’s comments can believe he was punished, and “I Stand With Phil” fans can believe they won a victory with the end of a suspension A&E may have never intended to affect production anyway. (Related: the new season, already in the can before the whole fooferaw, will thus not address the controversy.)
What might be different: The ratings. There are a lot of factors here, though my guess is the show gets a boost from sheer publicity. Yes, there are some people offended by Robertson’s statements who’ve sworn the show off; the effect on the ratings depends on how many of them ever watched Duck Dynasty in the first place. But at least for the premiere, I’m betting they’ll be more than made up for by people watching the show for the first time (as a statement or not), longtime fans making sure to catch the first airing to Stand With Phil, and casual viewers who don’t care so much about the controversy one way or the other but, who have spent a solid month being reminded that Duck Dynasty exists.
What will be different: What it means to watch Duck Dynasty. The show has now joined the ranks of products that have become totems, like Chick-Fil-A (the fast-food chain that became a symbol of conservative bona fides after its president publicly opposed same-sex marriage) and Hobby Lobby (whose management protested the contraception-coverage requirements in the Affordable Care Act). Maybe you just watch the show for the laughs–me, I like Chick-Fil-A for the waffle fries–but to a significant part of the audience (and the politicians who want their votes), watching it is now a statement of belonging.
Dynasty, with its old-school ethos and its family prayers, always laid a little cultural statement between the lines, but the Robertson’s GQ interview brought it out into the open. For better or worse, we’re a country now that votes through consumption–we express our affiliations and ideology not just with donkeys and elephants but chickens and ducks. In late December, protestors arranged a two-for-one special, eating at Chick-Fil-A in Duck Commander gear to show their support for Phil.
Not everybody who watches Duck Dynasty now is going to do it because they agree with what Phil said, or even because they believe in his right to keep a lucrative TV job after saying it. Maybe you just think the show’s funny; we have a lot of ways of measuring how many people watch TV shows, but not so many ways of measuring why. (Though that probably won’t stop some journalists from reporting the season-premiere ratings like the results of the Super Tuesday primaries.) And the cultural politics here are not as simple as urban vs. rural, north vs. south, hipster vs. redneck. One thing that stands out about TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, for instance, is the Thompson family’s outspoken tolerance of gay people, including Alana’s “Uncle Poodle,” Lee. (“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with being a little gay! Everybody’s a little gay.”)
But for an unignorable chunk of the audience now, Duck Dynasty is not just a reality sitcom but a statement: a defense of their besieged values, a defense of the waning belief that condemning gay people in public should be socially acceptable. Maybe in the first four seasons they heard Duck Dynasty affirming their beliefs with a kind of silent dog whistle. Like it or not, Phil turned it into a resounding duck call.