What the duck?! Mere weeks after reality TV show star Phil Robertson’s controversial GQ interview, which included racist and homophobic statements, led to his suspension, parent network A&E has announced that his suspension is over: right on time for filming the 2014 season. From “indefinite suspension” to back in front of the cameras in a remarkably short period of time. So short, in fact, that his suspension didn’t even affect his appearance on the 2014 season: he won’t be missing a single episode. What happened here, and what does it say about media, pop culture and activism in the United States?
The controversy started when Robertson’s interview hit the internet, and a collective outburst of anger about A&E’s tolerance of a racist, homophobic star led to an explosion of discussion and debate about a show many people had never even heard of. While “Duck Dynasty” had a somewhat considerable following, many of those involved in the criticism of the show were just tuning in, so to speak, and they all had opinions about whether the network should be providing a platform and a footing for the conservative Christian’s rhetoric.
Some called for his suspension or firing, while others hotly defended him, and a battle raged over whether his “free speech” was at risk — mostly from members of the conservative right. It is worth noting, of course, that while free speech is a constitutional right, this right does not extend to mandated televised airings of anyone’s speech or commentary. Television networks are free to hire and fire at will regardless of the expressed views of their stars and staffers, as this doesn’t constitute a restriction of free speech rights.
Those opposed to the star’s continued appearance on the network noted that it constituted an offense to black and LGBQT viewers, employees, and friends of A&E. They argued that supporting the continued presence of stars like Robertson contributed to homophobic and racist cultural attitudes, by allowing them to pass unpunished. Meanwhile, defenders of Robertson argued that he was free to express his opinions (as indeed he is) and compared a proposed network suspension or firing to censorship.
Quickly seeing that the controversy was growing ever-larger, A&E chose suspension and a statement noting that Robertson’s comments in the private GQ interview didn’t reflect the network’s beliefs or ethics. Robertson’s supporters criticized the decision while those infuriated by his comments were delighted — but now, it appears we are back at square one, with Robertson restored to his position on the show without any real penalties.
“Duck Dynasty” had been in hiatus when the controversy erupted, thus meaning that the suspension was largely a PR and political gesture, as it didn’t affect filming. By lifting the suspension nearly a month before filming resumes, A&E ensured that he would continue to appear uninterrupted in the next season, and the network appears to have sent a mixed message to critics and commentators. Those angry about his suspension are pleased to see him back, even as they claim the network may simply have caved to pressure and didn’t actually support Robertson’s “free speech” rights.
Those upset by Robertson’s comments, meanwhile, feel betrayed by A&E’s move, which turned what could have been a sharp rebuke into a slap on the wrist. Instead of making a statement about tolerance for homophobia and racism, the network quietly capitulated, but the decision and the reaction raise some larger questions. Those offended by Robertson’s comments were unlikely to be among the demographic that watched the show in the first place, after all, and Robertson certainly hadn’t made any secret of his conservative Christianity and values before, so the remarks certainly didn’t come out of nowhere.
The larger question isn’t about whether people will continue watching “Duck Dynasty,” but whether some activists may decide to drop A&E from their viewing schedule in protest of the network’s decision to reinstate Robertson. A coordinated protest might send an effective message to the network that when it comes to corporate responsibility, viewers expect A&E to behave with a minimum of human decency, and not reward racist and homophobic behavior followed by hostile pressure from the conservative right.
Photo credit: David Wright.