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Mimi Schippers, Ph.D. Headshot

We're Right to Criticize Phil Robertson, But Why Are We So Quick to Let A&E Off the Hook?

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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 gender and class story here that is going unsaid.

Phil Robertson is under fire for making heterosexist comments about LGBT people and about racism in the south in this GQ article.

While I wholeheartedly and vociferously disagree with Robertson's take on things, I am also uncomfortable with how he is embodying the culture wars and being pushed and pulled as "redneck" spectacle.

Phil Robertson is presented by the show's editors and by GQ magazine as a particularly classed and raced masculinity. He represents the rural, poor, white redneck from the south that is racist, sexist, and homophobic. Remember folks, we're getting a narrative told by the producers of Duck Dynasty and editors at GQ magazine -- 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 in GQ, 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).

My point is that 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 says what many of the privileged think but don't dare say?

Jackson Katz, in his documentary, Tough Guise 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 gender power when other forms of sexism are no longer tolerated. While 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 Duck Dynasty 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).

Some of the memes and comments I've seen suggest that I'm not off the mark. For instance, I saw this comment by a wealthy, white man who lives in the urban north in my Facebook Newsfeed:

"A show about red necks making millions for A&E when one of the characters acts like a red neck [he gets fired]. The whole cast should tell them to pound sand. Plenty of manly networks to move to."

I think it's telling that he referred to a more "manly network." Race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality are deployed (in this case by the media corporation that owns A&E) in representations of characters like Phil Robertson -- as the embodiment of a rural, poor, white, southern masculinity who is at once "manly" and a "good Christian" and therefore idolized and mythologized, but also articulates the ideological underpinnings of inequality.

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 current arrangements and media representation of the rural, white, southern bigot. That is not to say that racist, sexist, and heterosexist attitudes are not part of the problem; I'm saying the attitudes held by individuals are not the only problem -- perhaps not even the most important problem.

Roxanne Dunbar wrote an autobiographical essay about growing up poor "white trash" in Oaklahoma. (The essay can be found here, and further elaboration here).

She writes:

"Poor, rural whites (the original white trash) have lived by dreams... and, in a perverse way, still do, albeit in reaction to broken dreams.' (Someone or some force has hijacked their country and now controls the government -- Jews through the supposed 'Zionist Occupation Government,' the Federal Reserve, Communists, Liberals, the United Nations, Gays and Feminist..."

She goes on to say:

"We dregs of colonialism, those who did not and do no 'make it,' being the majority in some places (like most of the United States) are potentially dangerous to the ruling class: WE ARE THE PROOF OF THE LIE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM. However, self-blame, a sprinkling of white-skin privilege with license to violence against minorities, scapegoating, and serving as cops and in the military (give them a gun and point to the enemy) conspire to neutralize or redirect our anger. "

While Dunbar is critical of the bigotry expressed by rural, southern, white people, as am I, she contextualizes it in the larger structure of U.S. colonial imperialism and class inequality. Making it all about the racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes of the "redneck" or "white trash" conceals the workings of social structure that all of the poor share in their systemic disadvantage. (You can find more on class inequality in the U.S. south here)

In an article that can be found here, 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 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 of racism, sexism, homophobia. As long as we keep our concerns on the ideological bigotry expressed by the uneducated, poor, rural, white southerner, no one notices the corporate or government policies and practices that are the real problem. The poor, working poor, working class, and increasingly middle class fight against each other, not the system.

When we fight for or against Phil Robertson, we fail to see the economic and class system that provides the privileges of education, cultural capital, resources, and positions of authority from which to make decisions about what representations are proliferated. While all eyes and pointing fingers are on the poor, rural, white, Southern bigot -- when Phil Robertson's attitudes about sexuality, race, and gender become the story of racism, sexism, and homophobia -- 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.