When news hit that the latest season premiere of Duck Dynasty had seen its ratings tank by almost 30 percent, I was surprised. Over the last three years I had done my best to try and ignore the Duck Dynasty phenomenon while never truly understanding the mass appeal and fanaticism of the show’s fans.
I really never thought I would say that about any television show, especially one where men with long beards hunt ducks. Call me ignorant or call me out of touch, but I found nothing appealing about the program, and wasn’t ready to learn. Then, one day, I finally sat down, watched and tried to understand just what the hell people were so jazzed about.
I first heard about Duck Dynasty from my old college roommate; he was an athlete and, at the time, just beginning to ingrain himself in the culture of hunting. When he first got the itch, each day a new package of gear would arrive at our doorstep — first a hat, then a camo jacket and eventually a small plastic device meant to attract ducks. The name on the side of the device was “Duck Commander.”
Soon the duck call gave way to actual hunting and I got used to waking up to find frozen duck meat from the morning’s kill in my refrigerator or hopping into his car only to find a dead duck already buckled into the seat. Safety first!
On one of the many nights spent toiling away in front of our television, he mentioned that the people who made so much of the paraphernalia he had purchased had a television show.
“What do they do on the show?” I asked. “They hunt ducks. They talk about hunting ducks. They get into shenanigans and then eat a big dinner and pray,” my roommate said.
As a former punk kid from the Jersey Shore who hadn’t eaten meat in a year, the idea of watching men with long beards go out and hunt wasn’t up my alley. Based on my own cultural bias, I refused to watch the show anytime he would put it on, walking out of the room whenever it appeared. I eventually got used to hearing names like Uncle Si and Boss Willie. They didn’t make sense to me, but I felt like I knew enough about them to decide I didn’t want anything to do with them.
A few years went by and the men with beards continued to creep into my life. When I had lived with my roommate, I was under the impression that the only people that cared about this family were people who hunted ducks. When I started seeing Duck Dynasty hats, pencil cases, rugs, and dozens of other chotskies in my local Walmart, it began to set in that people really loved this show.
After doing some research, I discovered that, not only did people love the show, but that it had better ratings than any other reality show in the history of the medium. Frankly, I was stunned.
In the fall of 2013, I covered a charity event in Washington D.C. Headline guests included Hugh Jackman and several members of Congress; near the bottom of the list were Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame. To my ultimate shock, when the event began, people flocked to them, almost completely ignoring Hugh Jackman. I had watched them enter the event. Flanked by gorgeous women and being chased by autograph dealers, Willie Robertson had walked into the room with the confidence and bravado of any movie star I had ever seen.
And then the Phil Robertson thing happened.
I watched in ultimate amazement as hundreds of thousands of citizens, members of the media and public figures chimed in on the comments an elderly gentleman gave to a magazine. While I didn’t agree with Robertson’s anti-gay rhetoric, I certainly couldn’t admonish his ability to say what he wanted to in a public forum. The amount of dialogue that surrounded the event caught me by surprise. Clearly there was something to this program that I had been missing, or perhaps previously ignorant of.
Eventually, I made the the journalistic snafu of misidentifying a gun the Duck group had promoted in an article. When the article was published, hundreds, literally hundreds of people tore into my mistake, believing that I had deliberately tried to soil the Duck name. With my own article, and the hubbub surrounding Phil Robertson, I was continuously surprised that people were defending this family as if they were blood relatives. Even for Internet rhetoric and vitriol, it was surprisingly emphatic.
After watching hundreds of people yell at me on the Internet, I decided it was finally time to actually sit down and watch a program that I had avoided for years. A program that so quickly become an integral part of American pop culture right before my eyes.
What I saw surprised me. While I wasn’t bowling over with laughter at the the expression of southern stereotypes extolled on the show, I think I sort of got it. What was immediately apparent was, that at the center of the show, these people truly loved one another. Like any other reality show, it leaves much to be desired in terms of how real it is, but that “reality” it creates contains quite a bit of heart. Shows like the Jersey Shore or Pawn Stars present a caricature of people: doing things only because it’s funny to watch them do them. They are rarely in on the joke and their shows exist only to make headlines and kill time. While Duck clearly makes money, you aren’t laughing at the people on the show when you watch it; you’re laughing with them. Unlike so many people on reality television, they seem to be in on the joke and are just along for the ride.
I can’t say that I’m about to go to the store and buy a Duck Dynasty T-shirt, as it still isn’t my total cup of tea. What I can say is that, after years of stereotyping the program and the people that watch it, I think I get it. And if the central idea of the program is to be happy and watch a family who really love each other, than what is so wrong with that?