By now those who don’t know about Phil Robertson and the debacle at A & E are most likely among those who have no access to any kind of media. They have no idea what the world is doing, because they have no way of knowing what to pay attention to. How can they possibly know anything about reality without the all-important medium of…well…media?
This isn’t really about Phil or Duck Dynasty or anything directly related to the people at the center of this. Not really. How can it be when what we see of them and hear them is simply not real?
How’s that? Didn’t Mr. Robertson say those thing printed in GQ that got him suspended from his on-air presence in his own reality show?
Well, he did and he didn’t. The man playing the part of Phil Robertson, in character as the patriarch of a television show, said some thing which were printed in a high fashion magazine that normally wouldn’t touch plaid shirts, bib overalls, and pump action shotguns or the beards sported by these folks. They aren’t ZZ Top wailing about sharp dressed men with cheap sunglasses, so to begin with, the question is why were these words in GQ in the first place?
Well, because GQ wasn’t interviewing Philip Robertson, they were interviewing Phil from Duck Dynasty, which is not the same thing.
Again, how’s that?
In the past couple of decades we have become familiarized with the so-called “reality show.” By now, we have, depending on which ones we’ve followed, which ones we like, and which ones we hate, have acquired the necessary distance to realize that these confections are shows about a particular reality. Which is not the same as shows that are “real.” That kind of show we understand to be a documentary. Or, occasionally, the news. We know this in our bones. There is a difference between reality and a show. We know it’s a fabrication and that the people displayed are not actually like that in—you know—real life.
Reality shows are manufactured product, which in turn makes the characters in them manufactured. The Phil we see on Duck Dynasty is a caricature, a sketch, and to a large extent a fictional character based on a real person, but not the real person himself. No more than the people on Survivor actually behave like that once the show is over. At best, they are exaggerations, but in reality (there’s that word again) they are characterizations.
Novelists do this all the time.
The difference being that novelists (and other writers of fiction that pretends to be nothing else but fiction) seek the truth through the artifice of their creations while as best I can tell the main point of “reality shows” is to impose drama through an abstraction of reality that ends up giving us no truth whatsoever, because at the end of the show we know nothing about who these people really are, only what they do in front of a bunch of cameras filming them as they follow a loose script that sets up situations they would normally never experience. Since the script itself has no thematic point, there’s no way to elicit truth out of what become nothing but a bunch of situational reactions with exaggerated responses.
In short, a reality show does exactly the opposite of what fiction is normally all about. There’s no truth there, not even reality (how real can it be with a director giving directions and scenes being fed the actors?) but a farce designed to make us think we’re seeing what reality would be like if we all lived on a soundstage.
So when Phil Robertson gives an interview to a high profile fashion magazine that is highlighting his presence as the principle character of his show, everyone should know that this is not reality being engaged, but two fictions colliding.
(You don’t have this problem with actual fiction on tv because everyone knows the actors are not their characters—or should know—but the primary conceit of “reality shows” is that they are their characters.)
There are YouTube videos of Phil giving speeches and saying all kinds of things that are consistent with what he said in GQ and A & E never pulled him off the air for those. Why now?
Well, because in GQ it’s the image talking—because it’s, you know, GQ—but all those other speeches are Mr. Robertson talking.
Mr. Robertson’s First Amendment rights were not violated by the disciplinary action taken by A & E because it wasn’t him giving the interview, but a character from a tv show. That character—and you can tell it was the character because that’s how GQ packaged it—is pretty much fictional. Are we going to defend the rights of a manufactured image that is owned by corporations? And I don’t mean just A & E here, but the Robertson clan.
If it sounds like a tangle, that’s because we have entered upon a bizarre new scene in which fiction and reality have been mingled in such a way that it is genuinely confusing to some people which is which. This isn’t cognitive dissonance in the classic sense, but cognitive estrangement in the sense that people are reduced to image and the image is empowered with more substance than our next door neighbor. It’s as if people supporting Phil are suddenly aware that they can be removed from their show. Maybe some of them even think that without a show, no one has any rights. Certainly we’ve entered a new phase of only recognizing reality that ends up on television.
If that were not confusing enough, more has emerged about the Robertsons and how far they seem to be from their characters. The yuppie lifestyles, the fashion sense, the cleanshaven condo-on-the-Gulf American Dream that has opted, for the sake of advertising and a larger market share, to don the garb and attitude of swamp-dwellers who’ve barely learned what a fork is for. Which is the real Robertson Clan and which is the “reality” clan?
The net result has been a manufactured drama of civil rights that were never at risk. (People have gotten so incensed at how Phil’s “rights” have been trodden upon but I can’t help but wonder where their ire is when some hapless minimum wage drudge loses his or her job because of something they posted on FaceBook. ) People have gotten pissed because a favorite character might have been taken away from them just for being himself.
And while that goes on we seem not to notice how this has cheapened the rights supposedly in peril. What has been defended is the “right” of someone to misrepresent himself and say things he may or may not actually believe and then pretend that the misrepresentation is being oppressed.
Because nothing Mr. Robertson said has been censored. He’s not serving jail time for what he said. In fact, he didn’t even lose any income. The censure—and that’s what it was, or should have been, censure, which is not the same thing as censor despite their similar appearance (and this is all about similar appearances, isn’t it?)—involved nothing that even prevented him from saying the same things again afterward. The only people affected were his fans, but nobody said anything about their rights.
The Robertsons are in the business of making and selling decoys.
Reality Shows are very expensive, long-running decoys.
The people on reality shows are merely stand-ins for themselves.
The First Amendment is there to protect our right to speak truth to power.
Phil Robertson has made a great deal of money pretending to be someone based on himself and saying things and doing things that entertain people who get off on the image of that kind of lifestyle.
Even if he said something worth hearing, how would anyone, under these circumstances, know? You hear the sound of the decoy, you fly in to find reality, and the substanceless fakery captures you and damages your right not be manipulated.
I really hope 2014 is better than this.