When your face is on pajamas, your opinion ceases to be yours – Duck Dynasty, commercialism and free speech

phil robertson

The uproar over A&E’s decision to suspend ‘Duck Dynasty’s’ Phil Robertson after anti-gay remarks tends to miss a key point: Phil Robertson the person doesn’t exist in the public sector – only Phil Robertson the brand does.


If you’re like me, then your Facebook feed has been flooded with opinions on A&E’s decision to suspend Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson after he made anti-gay remarks to GQ. Several people agreed, citing the need for tolerance; several people disagreed, saying that no one should be surprised that Robertson, an old school Southern Christian, believes homosexuality is a sin. These reactions don’t surprise me. The ones that baffle me though, are the ones that claim A&E doesn’t have the right to suspend him, that they’re trampling over Robertson’s right to free speech.

Phil Robertson is a brand. The “Robertson Clan” is a brand. Duck Dynasty is a brand, and A&E is simply doing what any corporation would do: it’s protecting its brand.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,” meaning that your speech can only constitutionally be infringed by the government — not by a basic cable channel. Second, Phil Robertson is a brand. The “Robertson Clan” is a brand. Duck Dynasty is a brand, and A&E is simply doing what any corporation would do: it’s protecting its brand.

This is evidenced in the wording of A&E’s statement about the suspension: “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.” What is A&E saying? That Phil Robertson the person is in no way reflected in Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Robertson Clan on the hit A&E show, Duck Dynasty. Phil Robertson the person can have beliefs. He can burp, fart, hate gays, believe in unicorns, or do whatever he wants — in private. However, the second a camera or a reporter is in the room with him, Phil Robertson the person disappears. He is Phil Robertson the brand.

There are a lot of paydays tied up in his folksy wisdom, and the cash cow needs to stay in his pen.

“But he still lives in his original house! He hasn’t sold out like the rest of the family!” Robertson may not have given in to many of the trappings that his progeny enjoy, but make no mistake: he is just as involved as the rest. He accepts money to appear on the show. He says the scripted lines the producers give him. He participates in the sitcom-like antics that are Duck Dynasty‘s hallmark. He chopped down a Christmas tree with Miss Kay months before Christmas because A&E needed to film a special (which went on to garner over 9 million viewers). Phil Robertson’s face appears on body pillows, door mats, alarm clocks, basically anything you can think of. Walmart.com alone has over 20 pages of Duck Dynasty merchandise. There are a lot of paydays tied up in his folksy wisdom, and the cash cow needs to stay in his pen.

The fact of the matter is, what you say and do can affect your job. Don Yelton was fired from his job as North Carolina GOP Chair after making racist remarks on The Daily Show; Big Brother contestants left the show only to lose their real world jobs after making homophobic and racist comments during filming. Paula Deen, Don Imus; public figures often face firing and financial hardship after a scandal like this. A&E in particular is once bitten, twice shy after having to deal with advertisers pulling out after Dog the Bounty Hunter went on a racist rant in 2007.

Ming Chen, one of the stars of AMC’s Comic Book Men, is surprised that Robertson’s comments even got out. “When we give interviews for the show, we usually have a PR person who dials in and listens to the call,” Chen told us at CliqueClack. “GQ had to have gone through the network to talk to [Robertson], so I’m surprised it even got this far.” He says that reality stars are different from actors, because “who you see on the show is who we are. I’ll speak honestly [in interviews]; I speak from the heart.” While he says that his network has never given guidelines of what he and his fellow Comic Book Men can and can’t say, he does say that they’re “expected to use common sense.”

“That’s real. It’s what he really feels, so I don’t get why people are so shocked by the content.” – Ming Chen, Comic Book Men

In a show that’s seemingly tightly controlled, it is odd that one of the Duck Dynasty stars was even able to go rogue like this; that no one was on hand during the interview to make sure Robertson exercised the common sense needed to protect the Robertson brand. After all, it’s not the remarks themselves that are surprising. As Chen said, and many people have echoed online, “That’s real. It’s what he really feels, so I don’t get why people are so shocked by the content.” However, the reality we see on Duck Dynasty is a carefully-constructed one.

A&E is intent on cultivating a genteel version of rednecks; a faith-focused, family-oriented group that gets into wacky misadventures in the swamps of Louisiana. The Robertsons are portrayed as a sitcom family; one-dimensional and happy. A&E doesn’t want its millions of viewers to look below the surface, to find the “real” in their reality. Their goal is to keep viewers entertained between toothpaste commercials, so when someone threatens that, he has to be dealt with.

It’s nothing personal Phil; it’s just business.

Photo Credit: A&E

9 Comments on “When your face is on pajamas, your opinion ceases to be yours – Duck Dynasty, commercialism and free speech

  1. What you forgot to mention is that the very same people who are championing Mr. Robertson’s right to free speech are pretty much the same exact ones who protested when Martin Bashir exercised his right to free speech when pointing out Sarah Palin’s lack of intelligence. It’s funny how the right wingers wrap themselves in the Constitution (without having actually read it) when one of their own is under attack, but will gladly put a match to it when it serves their own purpose.

    With a third season all but completely filmed, I’m sure A&E will bring the show back once the furor has died down. But you can bet the cast will have very little, and much more supervised interaction with the press. Now they just have to hope no more of those racist videos pops up. However, if the show does come back, then MSNBC should bring Bashir back as well.

    • I agree with the article regarding his face and the brand. I also agree with your assertion that those same people complaining lack consistency in their principles. However, it’s not a perfect parallel. Phil is not a broadcast journalist. Some might say differences in responsibilities might exist due to the differing nature of the work although they are both generally “on TV.” Personally, I don’t care for either and don’t think either needs to be kicked off tv. So far, everyone has been well within their rights to say and do as they please and that’s perfectly fine with me whatever they choose.

      • Still, the point I’m trying to make is that these same people standing behind Robertson are the same ones who go ballistic anytime anyone says something negative about them. It’s a hypocritical double standard from the right wing who believe they can say and do what they want and the rest of us have to fall in line and not dare disagree or disparage them, or face the consequences if we do. It’s only free speech to them when it comes from their mouths. The rest of us have to shut up.

  2. Phil Robertson is right.Most ffaagggots are pedafiles and rapeist and just sickos.I guess these sick sexual degenerates cant handle the truth that theyre sick vile unaccepted freaks.

  3. As an editor with CliqueClack, I thought about deleting the comment above, but I decided it was best to leave it so as not to encroach on someone’s right to free speech, and it gives me a chance to point out what this whole issue is truly about. Robertson and the lovely individual above have every right to believe and say what they want. No one has taken that right away from Robertson either (in fact, A&E announced previously shot episodes with Phil will air as scheduled). What this matter is truly about is how hateful words can have major consequences. A single individual who says something hateful or misguided doesn’t amount to much but with people like Robertson, the commenter, Sarah Palin, half of the people in Congress, everyone on Fox News, Pat Robertson, and “religious” (using the term losely) organizations like The American Family Association, the Catholic church, the Mormons, et al saying the same things over and over again can and has lead people, mostly teens, to take their own lives because they keep hearing over and over again how sick and twisted they are simply because of who they love. LGBT youth are the most vulnerable to this kind of language, and whether it comes from plain ignorance or was instilled in you from someone else (parent, religious leader), it’s wrong, sick and twisted to have that kind of hatred towards people. People are not born with that kind of hatred. It’s learned. People don’t just wake up one day and decide to be gay, nor do they wake up one day and decide to be straight. So the next time you want to say something hateful in public, stop for a second and think about the consequences your words can have. You never realize how much blood you could have on your hands simply because of your misguided, ignorant words.

    • I’d bet a large sum of money that the offensive comment above is fake. A little (lot) too over-the-top. My guess is that it’s someone pretending to be a right-winger and trying to make his/her point by showing how disgusting he/she could make the comment.

      If I were an editor, I’d delete it, because I think thoughtful discussions come from people being honest, not from trying to make another group look bad.

  4. The point is that Robertson was on GQ representing the show, so he was “on the job” at the time. If he was there purely and simply talking about something else and not involving the show’s name at all, A&E probably wouldn’t do a thing. When you’re on the job, you are under the job’s rules. If I say sexist or ANY offensive things at my job, I’m fucking fired — simple as that.

    • I hear what you’re saying, but in his situation, any time he speaks publicly he is probably perceived as being on the job. If he’d posted the same thing to his personal twitter, and had it received the same level of notoriety, don’t you think A&E would have reacted the same way?

      • If his personal Twitter said anything at all about the show, then yeah. I think they’re able to separate themselves from it if he does. The point is, it’s pretty much impossible.

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