9 questions you were too embarrassed to ask about ‘Duck Dynasty’

December 20, 2013

This 2012 photo released by A&E shows, from left, Phil Robertson, Jase Robertson, Si Robertson and Willie Robertson. (Zach Dilgard/A&E via AP)

Phil Robertson, one of the stars of A&E's mega-hit series  Duck Dynasty, was suspended indefinitely by the network for calling homosexuality "illogical" and comparing it to bestiality, for trivializing the harm Jim Crow inflicted on black Americans, and for saying that Shintoism (which he likened to Nazism, Communism  and Islamism) leads inexorably to violence in a GQ interview. However, conservative political figures from Bobby Jindal to Ted Cruz to Sarah Palin have leapt to his defense, arguing that his right to free expression is being threatened.

If you found the above sentences kind of confusing, or aren't exactly sure what views of Phil Robertson's got him fired, or even what Duck Dynasty is, then this is the article for you. Duck Dynasty is the most popular show on cable, making things like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Girls look like flops by comparison. And yet lots of people have never even heard of it because they're out-of-touch coastal elites.

So here are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. I should say upfront, though, that Duck Dynasty is a world unto itself and this is not in any way an exhaustive or definitive account of the show or of the Robertson family. It's just a place to start.

1. What is Duck Dynasty?


Phil Robertson, center, at a Robertson family dinner. (Zach Dilgard/A&E)

Duck Dynasty is a reality show on the basic cable channel A&E. (Sidenote: A&E is no longer short for "Arts & Entertainment." It's like AMC or KFC — the name has been officially switched to the former acronym.) The show premiered March 21, 2012, and just wrapped up its fourth season Dec. 11 with a special Christmas installment. Including the special, a total of 52 episodes have been produced. The show's theme song is "Sharp Dressed Man" by ZZ Top.

The show concerns the Robertson family of West Monroe, La. West Monroe is a small town (the 2010 census counted 13,065 residents) in the northeastern part of Louisiana, close to Arkansas to the north and a bit closer to Mississippi than to Texas. The family is headed by patriarch Phil Robertson (of the recent controversy).

Phil created the "Duck Commander" duck call in 1972, which hunters use to lure ducks. While the company was a relatively small operation for most of its existence, Phil's third son Willie, the company's current CEO, vastly expanded it by pushing it into entertainment, first with a show on the Outdoor Channel called Duck Commander, and now with Duck Dynasty.

In 2011, before the show premiered, Duck Commander sold about 60,000 duck calls; in 2012, when the show premiered, that increased to 300,000. The show itself has also grown considerably in popularity. The show's premiere drew 1.81 million viewers, while the premiere of the fourth and most recent season on August 14 of this year drew 11.77 million. By comparison, only 2.7 million people watched the finale of the latest season of Mad Men. Even the much-anticipated series finale of Breaking Bad only got 10.3 million. Two books by cast members are currently on the New York Times best-seller list, three reached the top 10 simultaneously in September, and two of those spent time at number one on the chart at some point this year.

The show's main characters are Phil, Willie, their wives Kay and Korie, Willie's brothers Jason ("Jase"), Jeptha, and Alan and their families, and Phil's brother Silas ("Si"). Si, Jase, Jeptha and Alan all work at Duck Commander with Phil and Willie. Common themes on the show include Phil's fear of modern technology (he doesn't own a mobile phone or a computer), conflict between Willie's get-down-to-business temperament and Jase's more laid back one, and the family's faith (most of them belong to the White's Ferry Road Church of Christ).

2. What is a duck?


A same-sex couple of two male mallards in a nature reserve in Germany. Phil Robertson's feeling on gay ducks are, as of yet, unknown. (Norbert Nagel)

Ducks are a kind of bird, but beyond that, the precise definition is surprisingly hard to nail down.

Ducks are members of the biological family Anatidae, which also includes geese and swans. But while true swans and geese are confined to the subfamily Anserinae (within which swans have one genus and geese have three), duck species are distributed across a number of different subfamilies. Among them are Anatinae (which includes "dabbling ducks" such as mallards, pintails, teals and shovelers, which primarily feed on the water's surface rather than below it), Merginae (which includes eiders, scoters and other sea ducks), and Aythyinae (which includes pochards, scaups  and other "diving ducks" who feed by diving underwater).

Ducks are thus what's known as a "form taxon," meaning the category is defined not by the closeness of the member species' biological relationships but by their similar morphologies. They can be found in suitable habitats in all seven continents; the yellow-billed pintail, native to the southern tip of South America, was sighted on the coast of Antarctica in 1979.

3. Weird. So what's a "duck call"?

Willie Robertson holds up some of his Duck Commander's calls. (A&E)

A duck call is a tool which hunters of ducks use to lure their prey. Most duck calls, including the ones produced by Duck Commander, work like simple woodwind instruments with one or more reeds, and are used much like whistles. They are commonly made out of wood or acrylic. However, you can also purchase electronic calls which use speakers to play a pre-recorded duck call sound (though these are illegal in many states, sometimes with an exception for late-season hunting of snow geese). For more information, check out the conservation/sportsmen's group Ducks Unlimited's guide to choosing the right duck call.

4. What, if anything, does Duck Dynasty have to do with Darkwing Duck's Drake Mallard, DuckTales/Scrooge McDuck/Huey, Dewey, and Louie Duck, Duckman, Howard the Duck, Donald Fauntleroy Duck, Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Duckie from Pretty in Pink, the Aflac Duck, Daffy Duck, Mallard Fillmore, The Mighty Ducks film franchise, the Anaheim Ducks, Bean the Dynamite from Sonic the Hedgehog, the programming paradigm of "duck typing," Rick Dees's "Disco Duck" and/or the classic NES game Duck Hunt?

Nothing, except a common affinity for birds of the family Anatidae. On that note — Let's. Get. Dangerous.

For more on this topic, see the impressively comprehensive Wikipedia article, "List of fictional ducks."

5. I feel like we're getting distracted. So why are we talking about Duck Dynasty now?


Phil Robertson paddling a canoe. (Karolina Wojtasik)

Because Phil — who, it should be noted, had already told Parade Magazine that he would stay on the show "not long" and that it would "go on without me" — was suspended after making a variety of offensive comments to GQ correspondent Drew Magary in this piece. My colleague Jonathan Capehart has a good rundown of them here. Here's Robertson on why he thinks Shintoism — much like Communism, Nazism and Islamism  — leads to violence:

All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.

Here he is on homosexuality, in response to Magary asking what acts he considers sinful:

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 … We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus — whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?"

Implausibly, that's actually the least offensive thing he says about gay people in the interview:

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.

And then there's this crazy-go-racist disquisition on race relations in the Jim Crow South, where Robertson grew up:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field. …  They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

A&E quickly condemned the comments, saying in a statement: "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been supporters and champions of the LGBT community. … The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.”

The Robertson family replied: "We want you to know that first and foremost we are a family rooted in our faith in God and our belief that the Bible is His word. While some of Phil's unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible. … We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of Duck Dynasty."

Phil himself also released a statement: "I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the Bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."

6. How did politicians get involved?


Former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin with the Robertson clan. (Palin's Facebook)

Robertson's comments drew predictable condemnations from civil rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the NAACP (which sent a joint letter condemning the comments) and GLAAD, which also praised A&E for suspending Robertson.

Various conservative political figures have embraced Robertson and condemned his suspension as going against the spirit of free speech. The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes marriage equality, has started a petition calling for Robertson to be reinstated. Tony Perkins, a former Louisiana state representative who now leads the anti-gay Family Research Council, declared Robertson a victim of a "campaign of intimidation."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) condemned the suspension, saying in a statement: "If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson. Phil expressed his personal views and his own religious faith; for that, he was suspended from his job. In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him, but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree." Vance McAllister, who won a U.S. House special election in Louisiana in November in part due to the support of the Robertson Clan, said, "Everyone, including A&E, should respect other people's opinions."

Sarah Palin posted a photo of her with the Robertson clan to Facebook with the caption, "Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us." In perhaps the most confusing intervention into the debate, the Robertsons' governor, Bobby Jindal, declared, "This is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views.  In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended."

7. Wait, did A&E violate the First Amendment by suspending Robertson?

Problem Child GIF via Giphy.com.
Problem Child GIF via Giphy.com.

Uh, no, not even a little bit. As Bobby Jindal — a Rhodes Scholar, by the way — was apparently unaware, "no clause in the First Amendment establishes a right to star in a reality show on A&E regardless of what you say to GQ about vaginas and anuses," as Josh Barro put it. Unless you think it should be illegal to fire people based on their political beliefs (which would be one hell of an impingement on employers' economic freedoms), there just isn't a policy issue here of any consequence.

8. This is all super dumb. Is there some cool, preferably non-racist/homophobic/weirdly-anti-Shintoism thing that Robertson did that I can think about instead?

How about this — Robertson was a star quarterback at Louisiana Tech. Indeed, he was starting quarterback, leaving fellow player Terry Bradshaw — who would go on to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories and eight AFC championships — in second on the team's depth chart. The two reunited for the first time since college recently, as shown in the above video. While the Washington Redskins expressed interest in Robertson, he ultimately chose duck hunting over football, which ended up working out fairly well for him, all things considered.

Crap, that story almost involved zero racism and then the Redskins got involved.

9. Is duck hunting generally this conservative a culture?

dingdarling

It's hard to speak too generally, but it's worth emphasizing that duck hunters have historically been among the most forceful proponents of conservation efforts. In most states, duck hunters must acquire "duck stamps" to hunt ducks or geese, almost all the revenue from which goes to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which helps conserve duck and geese habitats in wetlands.

The program, started in earnest in 1934, was the brainchild of Jay "Ding" Darling, an editorial cartoonist and conservationist who ran the U.S. Biological Survey (the forerunner to today's Fish and Wildlife Service) under FDR. Darling was a lifelong duck hunter himself, and the program has been sustained over the years in large part due to the support of hunters, such as the members of the conservation group Ducks Unlimited.

This approach to conservation, in which sportsmen help ensure the continued sustainability of the species they hunt, has come to be known as the "North American Model" of wildlife conservation, and has been embraced by advocates for other species, such as Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Most recently, duck advocates succeeded in pushing the House to unanimously pass a bill enabling the issuance of electronic duck stamps; the bill, sponsored by Virginia Republican Rob Wittman, has yet to pass the Senate, where it was introduced by Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker.

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Neil Irwin · December 20, 2013