Call me a slackjaw, but I was just shocked to discover that Phil Robertson—the 67-year-old, shotgun-toting, Bible-quoting, self-described redneck star of A&E’s reality-TV show Duck Dynasty—does not particularly like us gay people. “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus,” he told GQ magazine, while also evoking the slippery slope of adultery, prostitution and bestiality. Well, chew on that. Until now, I thought Robertson was kinda like a Santa Daddy, and that when he wasn’t busy shooting birds out of the sky, adorable gender-neutral chipmunks nestled in his nicotine-stained beard, enjoying a lifelong contact high.
No, I’m just fucking with you. And so is everyone else who has embarrassed themselves in this political charade—from Papa Robertson, who was later revealed to have once called gay people “insolent, arrogant God-haters;” to GLAAD, whose very rapid response statement condemning Robertson and his “lies about an entire community [that] fly in the face of what true Christians believe” reads as both canny and canned; to the A&E executives who put Robertson “under hiatus from filming indefinitely” while continuing to broadcast a twenty-five-episode, Christmas Day Duck Dynasty rerun marathon; to the flotilla of conservative pols like Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz who rushed to defend Robertson’s First Amendment rights to… have a reality-TV show??
Let us not dignify this incident by calling it a culture war. In a war, there are winners and losers. In this elaborate pantomime, everyone comes out ahead. GLAAD gets the e-mails of thousands of gay and liberal clicktivists and a justification for its continued, sorry existence. The Robertson family and A&E get an avalanche of free press ahead of the show’s fifth-season premiere, as well as a much-needed shot in the arm to the idea that any “reality” remains in the “guided reality” formula. Failed reality-TV star Sarah Palin, who now admits she has not actually read Robertson’s interview with GQ, briefly returns to cultural—if not political—relevance. And everyone gets to be outraged or shamed, which are just about the only two registers left for public recognition of any sort in the altogether joyless mass media.
But what has anyone actually learned? The deepening trough of reality TV has put before our prying eyes and smug, clucking nods a whole host of previously under-examined social ills—compulsive hoarders, fascist dance moms, bridezillas, the entire Kardashian clan—but on the actual lived context of homophobia and racism, it has almost nothing to say. That terrain was ceded a long time ago to starchy documentarians and to the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose alter-egos Borat and (less successfully) Bruno were perhaps the last fake/real figures to elicit demonstrations of casual, everyday prejudice in ways that were both revealing and thoughtful.