A&E’s newest foray into reality television— Duck Dynasty— follows the Robertson family of “millionaire rednecks” residing in West Monroe, Louisiana. On Duck Dynasty, the men all wear beards and the women are almost always seen in the kitchen, cooking of course. It goes without saying that everyone who appears on the show is white. The family seems to be aware of their antiquated ways—Miss Kay the grandmother/family matriarch describes her role as akin to the cave woman. This show should be problematic on so many levels, but here’s the thing: it’s not so problematic after all. Yes, the patriarch of the family says that its hard to find a woman who both carries a Bible and cooks these days, and yes, they really do shoot everything. Well, except for people as far as I can tell. They eat squirrel brains, they blow things up, they drive ridiculous gas guzzling trucks, they wear camo-something every second of every day. They live up to a lot of redneck stereotypes, but they do this with self-awareness. Also, I should point out that the show is “guided reality”. In other words: those explosions, gun shots, and brotherly competitions are thrown in there for our viewing pleasure.
The family recently became millionaires off duck calls. Despite their business Duck Commander’s success, Phil and Miss Kay (CEO Willie’s parents) chooses to live pretty simply. That is, everyone except for Willie lives simply. Willie and his wife live in a mansion with their children. Willie’s father, the family patriarch Phil, calls all of his “grandbabies” yuppies. This juxtaposition of life on the land with the twenty first century makes the show interesting. Phil tries to educate his grandchildren in the ways of manual labor, hunting, and nature and meanwhile the family interacts with the encroaching world of technology, materialism, consumerism, and social stigmas. They exist in sort of a weird space. The only reason they have a television show is because of the social cache of being millionaires, but not just any millionaires—“redneck” millionaires. (I use the word “redneck”, because that’s how they describe themselves.) The financial success of the family business supports the family’s antics on the show. The business remains un-industrialized. There are no assembly lines and limited machinery at the Duck Commander headquarters. The duck calls are handmade in a small room by a a handful of bearded men. Camera shots of Willie’s mansion, private helicopter, and golf country club intermingle with shots of squirrels cooking, beavers, ducks, snakes, mud, and family dinners. iPhones and Macbook Pros exist alongside guns, four-wheelers, mason jars, iced tea, and goats. It seems to me like Phil is fighting a losing battle. Although the sons seem to be enmeshed in the whole “man in the woods lifestyle”, the yuppie grandkids seem to live more in the twenty first century. However, fourteen year old Sadie’s boyfriend, who also happens to be the quarterback, is proficient with guns, ammo, the word “sir”, camo, and he can shoot a snake into pieces in under 3 seconds. Sadie’s dad Willie approves.
Overall, the role of women on this show, at first, seems deeply problematic, but Miss Kay wields just as much influence and power as her husband Phil. There is a patriarch and a matriarch in this family. Something about this show draws you in—it might be the awesome camera shots of things like explosions, frogs jumping, or Miss Kay’s biscuits rising in the oven. This show plays into a lot of classical American values like: the importance of family, religion, and hunting. At the same time, it exposes a highly criticized and ridiculed region and culture of the USA. Oftentimes targeted for racism, sexism, and ignorance in general—rednecks generally have a bad reputation. But these things don’t seem to encroach on the Robertson’s lives, at least not on the show. Can you imagine educated rednecks? That’s sort of the Robertson family. It’s hard to tell if this family succumbs to any classification as simple as “redneck” or even “millionaire”, but it’s clear that Phil and Miss Kay actively subvert the stereotypes of both of these terms through their unique lifestyle. They do not live in the same way as bourgeois America, despite the financial means to live this way. And they live in the same way as most rednecks, except without the struggles of poverty and a lack of education. For some reason, the producers chose to make Willie the center of the show. Willie seems to have transitioned away from the “old way” of doing things more than the others, and this tension between the old and the new keeps the show interesting. Generally, each spat ends in a victory for the “old way” and an acknowledgment that this family must preserve their way of life so that it doesn’t go extinct in a modern world.
Money corrupts, so does power. I’m not sure what these corrupting influences mean for this family. For now, this family exhibits intelligence, wit, and prosperity that defy our standard definitions of success and intelligence. There is no pettiness here like on most reality shows. The brothers squabble, but it’s humorous and physical, not petty and mean. People’s movements and relations to one another seem loosely defined on the show. Obviously the family operates differently in real life than they do on the show, but the show raises interesting questions about the nature of family, society, gender roles, and wealth in America. I’m waiting for some secret to emerge—like that the wives really hate each other, or that they fight about money. I look for signs of animosity or bad feelings or evidence that they are motivated by money or stardom. But so far, there’s none of that. What we’re seeing, maybe for the first time, is a loving family on reality television. A caring, devoted, resourceful, and genuine family. The show has no need for the drama of most reality TV, because the redneck elements add enough interest, humor, and plot points to keep the show moving. Episodes center around issues like beaver dams or frog legs—hunting, not drama. The show and this family give us an alternative lifestyle—one that emphasizes living off the land, local foods, interdependence, and land preservation. The show works because each episode ends in the same way: with the family at the dinner table. The viewer knows that at the end of the day/episode the family hunts, cooks, prays, eats. In that order.
I wish I could say that Duck Dynasty is deeply-super problematic and only perpetuates stereotypes of the South and portrays subservient women, but in fact its much more complicated than that. I can only really say that the show has some problematic elements, like most television shows. My biggest complaint is about the sexist jokes, but the wives carry their own on the show and by no means play the role of the docile housewife. I’m writing this to say that sometimes the things we originally think of as deeply problematic—sometimes those same things subtly confront, subvert, and muddy our preconceived notions about people and places. Sometimes, in the most problematic of venues (in this case reality television), with some of the most frustrating elements—religion, the South, wealth—we see things in a fresh light.