In the course of an excursion with GQ’s Drew Magary, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson made some remarks that, among other things, compared homosexuality to bestiality. (He also misidentified Mitt Romney’s home city, but no one was up in arms about it as of time of writing.) “Duck Dynasty” host network A&E issued a statement saying that they were SHOCKED, SHOCKED by the gambling in this establishment — or rather, that “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 strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.”
And the backlash has been instant. Stand with Phil! is hashtagging all over. After all, Phil is the patriarch of a Duck Dynasty that has been dutifully laying golden (duck) eggs for A&E for three seasons now, spawning best-selling books and attracting 14 million viewers — nothing to shake a stick at. So, Help! Help! He’s being repressed! “Stand with Phil!” Christians Unite! Turn off the thought police!
What happened to free speech? What happened to freedom of religion?
Even Sarah Palin’s weighing in. “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,” she posted on her Facebook page. (Also, really? You’re dropping the G while typin’?)
As we all know from a close reading of the Constitution, freedom of speech and religion is nothing without your own reality TV show. It says so, somewhere in the fine print of the First Amendment. What’s an opinion without a microphone?
You may, of course, be perfectly free to express your religious beliefs and opinions (however noxious they may seem to some) in reality without necessarily being allowed on television with them. Freedom of religion does not come with a pulpit included. But try telling someone on the Internet that.
We often have this problem where we confuse being denied a Giant Platform With Sponsors with Being Suppressed. As Linda Holmes of NPR wrote in 2010, “The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee that speaking your mind will have no economic consequences . . . Because the ‘free’ in that concept means ‘free from government interference,’ not ‘free from consequences.’ ”
But it strikes in a strange spot when the subject of this furor is a reality star.
I often use the Mel Brooks quote that “You’re often a little disappointing in person because you can’t be the edited essence of yourself,” but it’s never more true than here. The Phil Robertson that 14 million viewers have gotten to know is a Phil Robertson with air quotes. It’s the character “Phil Robertson,” edited for content and formatted to fit this screen. It’s A+E’s character based around the statements and life of Phil Robertson, in keeping with A+E’s mission. A+E means to tell us they had no idea he was capable of saying this? Magary sits down with him for a few hours and he says all of this readily and with no hesitation, and they’ve been taping his life for years and had no idea? What a run of luck they must have had . . . that he wasn’t interviewed until now.
People on reality TV are always a little more and less than human. They’re louder but they have less varied things to say. There is a certain rationing of adjectives. Do you want to be “the smart one” or “the one who likes pizza”? There’s not room for both. You must choose! Whatever you are, be a loud one, as Abraham Lincoln might have said. And you can’t stop when the camera goes off. Whatever else you used to be, forget it. You’ve been hired to play a character full time.
Robertson has always been up-front about his faith, but clearly A+E has been putting at least a small and tactful bushel basket over his light, to allow it to fit into more living rooms. “Phil Robertson” doesn’t say that kind of thing out loud. Phil Robertson does. The character’s done nothing wrong, A+E shouts. OUR Phil would never say a thing like that. Of course not. It’s the actor who’s the problem!
It would be easier if he were just playing Phil Robertson on TV.
The trouble with reality stars is they are so hard to turn off. Deny him one pulpit, where he’s edited, and other outlets spring up like hydra heads. There’s still plenty of free speech to go around. And a big platform to go with it. You can take away an actor’s job. But once someone’s a star, you can’t tell people to stop paying attention to him because he said something awful. He can only half-lose a job where he plays himself. Sure, there won’t be any more A+E cameras turned on him.
But what about all the other cameras?