Phil Robertson may not appreciate me writing about his business or his family. I’m what Phil would derisively call a “yuppy.” I don’t own camo, hunt, or have a beard. That’s not to say I’m some granola PETA-type; I’m a devoted carnivore who loves gumbo, fried fish, and even the occasional boudin link. Phil lives off the land and, frankly, doesn’t think very highly of the lifestyle the rest of us non-outdoorsy types choose to live. I dwell comfortably in the suburbs buying my groceries at Kroger where the butcher kindly dresses my meat. In some ways, Phil and I have about as much in common as Snooki and the Pope, which is why it may seem odd that I have been sucked into Phil Robertson’s world via the uber-popular Duck Dynasty reality show.
Phil’s story fascinates me.
Decades ago, Phil kicked his wife and kids out of his house in a drunken rage. Phil was more interested in partying and hunting than parenting. About three months later, he came crawling back to his estranged wife, Miss Kay. Phil desperately wanted his family back. Willie Robertson, Phil’s son and CEO of Duck Commander, writes in his autobiography,
“Fortunately for all of us, Kay was strong enough to forgive Phil and take him back. But she took him back with the following conditions: Phil had to quit drinking and walk away from his rowdy friends.”It was at this rebuilding point of Phil’s young life that other things began to change as well. Willie writes, “From that day forward, Phil started his study of God’s Word. He attended church several times a week and started going to Bible study nearly every night. He was baptized at the age of twenty-eight and gave up drinking and partying altogether.” Phil’s newfound faith wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan phase. He continued to serve the Lord and grow in his faith. Today, he frequently speaks to men’s groups about Jesus. True to who he is, Phil wears camo to these speaking engagements.
Phil was blessed with, among other things, an entrepreneurial spirit and a vociferous work ethic. Forty years ago, he invented a double reed duck call that he would self-market, self-produce, and grow into a multi-million dollar company known today as Duck Commander. Despite his considerable success in the water fowl hunting industry, Phil and his family are probably better known as TV stars than the hunting world heroes they are.
Last week, 6.5 million Americans joined me as I tuned in to watch the antics of the Duck Dynasty cast. That equates to the largest viewing audience ever on their host network, A&E! Duck Dynasty has spawned a burgeoning industry of T-shirts, bobble heads, and other trinkets that are flying off the shelves of the West Monroe, Louisiana company’s shelves. I’m a proud owner of Uncle Si myself!
Duck Dynasty has become a cultural phenomenon. Phrases like “Happy! Happy! Happy!” and “Hey, Jack!” have become common vernacular. We can’t wait to see what crazy stunt Willie is going to pull. We eat it up when Uncle Si spins his own Vietnam-inspired philosophical maxims. We love it when Kay and Phil act borderline inappropriately frisky. My wife, even though she denies it, has a mini-crush on Jase and his dry wit. Each episode unfolds new adventures of clean fun and insight into the slightly bizarre Louisiana culture that the Robertsons are so proud of. (Note to producers: We want more Mountain Man!)
No doubt, Duck Dynasty is at the pinnacle du jour of popular culture. And I have a theory as to why.
While I enjoy the zany antics of the cast as much as the next fellow, I believe they are not the primary reason for Duck Dynasty’s popularity. I imagine that the hunting theme is also not that big of a deal to most viewers. In fact, the show is really not about hunting at all. I believe the big drawing card for Duck Dynasty is its emphasis on family. Almost every episode has a “plot” that revolves around family relationships and the natural tension they create in life. Whether it be sibling, marital, or parental, these relationships play out before our eyes where people act surprisingly decent and respectful. I believe America is tired of the ”Jerry Springer-ization” that afternoon television has wrought upon us. We are weary of pregnancy tests that tell who the baby’s daddy is and sisters that sleep with their brother-in-law. Most families don’t need to turn on the TV to see dysfunction played out; it’s happening next door or maybe even down the hall in their own home. We are exhausted from relationships gone awry, and Duck Dynasty is like some funny, bearded, camouflaged oasis that reminds us that family can work. The cast remind us that we can resolve our differences without screaming and yelling. We don’t have to have a revolving door of serial relationships in our lives that leave us emotionally spent and hollow on the inside. Phil Robertson and his family remind us that family indeed can work.
What Phil would tell you is that family works best when people follow God’s design for it. That means that, at least for the Robertsons, their faith in Jesus guides them on how they should structure their home life. Though the show always ends with the Robertsons praying, their faith is downplayed by the producers. A&E promotes Duck Dynasty with the tag line, “Money. Family. Ducks.” At the newly-opened Duck Commander store, the word “money” has been scratched off of the posters. “They give us these to pass out,” Al Robertson, the only Robertson without a beard, said of the posters. “We ‘X’ out ‘money’ and write in ‘faith.’” Faith is key in understanding the Robertson mentality and why their families work.
My hope is that Duck Dynasty is only beginning a meteoric rise on the cultural scene. We need more messages like the one they present. Numerous shows portray families in non-traditional ways, distorting God’s design. Each of these sitcoms brings a level of acceptance to culture. I’ve discovered that people who laugh through what is wrong very rarely slow down and think through what is right. The Robertson clan gives a much-needed alternative. The traditional family does work. They are swimming against the current of culture in a sea of liberal media bias, but, miraculously enough, they are making it.
I imagine that as long as the Duck Dynasty series remains true to its family roots, its ratings will continue to soar. I have to wonder, though. Did Phil imagine that when he went crawling back to Miss Kay trying to restore his family, that his journey would lead down this path? Could he have understood that he would one day have a rare platform to proclaim the benefit of family to culture where families are unraveling faster than a bullet from his favorite rifle? I doubt he understood all of that back then, but I’m thankful for a bearded man and his family that model faith to a world desperately lacking examples.
It turns out that the most important product Duck Commander markets isn’t duck calls at all – it’s family values rooted in faith.