by Matthew Towles
The family that made its millions on duck calls has, it seems, conquered the reality television market. For a genre that usually boasts over-the-top challenges, personalities, and scenarios, the Duck Dynasty version of reality doesn’t veer much from the mold. After all, much of reality television trades on the force of curiosity, and this is a curious bunch. Even at its strangest, Duck Dynasty has launched into the reality television stratosphere. From a Relevant magazine article that describes it as “carefree escapism in its purest form” to a recent podcast episode of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” that all but served as a Duck Dynasty cheerleading session — complete with a Godwin fanboy shout-out — the Robertson family has accomplished the strange feat of creating a reality television show that appeals to down-home Christians and sophisticated urbanites alike. Although I won’t claim that theirs is an unmitigated success, the fellows at Duck Commander seem to enjoy a full-throated huzzah from a grateful nation.
Though I’d love to say that “what you see is what you get,” we’re still watching reality television, and Duck Dynasty is as real as any other show. That’s why it works. The Robertson clan has notably fought for their brand of family values, even in the face of skeptical producers and an early bleeping effort that actually bleeped family-friendly words. Yet they did not agitate for a complete deconstruction of the reality television model. Instead, they worked within it. They had a message to deliver, and they were willing to provide it in a familiar package.
Quite a number of reality shows highlight the sex lives of their cast, and Duck Dynasty is no different. Like other shows, Duck Dynasty has a prominent sexual tension. Sure, it’s no Big Brother or Jersey Shore, but Phil Robertson, head of the Duck Dynasty crew, talks about sex. A lot. And it’s uncomfortable.
Here’s what I mean. In the final episode of the third season, the Robertson clan has jetted over to Hawaii for an exotic vacation. For reality television, exotic location is more necessary than a script. Like many reality shows, there’s a group who seem to enjoy everything together, and then another couple who just want to spend time alone, mostly in bed. For Duck Dynasty, that couple is Phil and Kay.
Now if you’re shocked by the idea that the oldest couple on the show is the most sexually-active, then you haven’t watched much DD. In one of the earliest episodes, for instance, Phil gives his grandson, Cole, a lesson on anatomy. And the classroom is on the river, catching crawfish.
He holds the crawfish upside down and says, “There’s the vagina, as they call it. Right there? There’s his, as they say in the business, ding-dong. He puts it right up in there. It takes two to tango.”
If you’re reading that and you’ve blushed, then you need to imagine what young Cole must have been thinking. Really, his face is frozen in horror, and in my household, we all laughed with a discomfort that comes from seeing too much reality in our reality television.
That’s not the only time Phil has expressed his sexuality. Every other episode, it seems, Phil and/or Kay talk about physically loving each other or the proper way that physical love occurs. There’s the episode where Kay tells the young ‘uns the boundaries of dating. (The children run away in fright). There’s the other episode where Phil and Kay go mattress shopping and hijinks ensue. (Willie wanted to run away in fright). And then, of course, the final episode of season 3, where Phil and Kay spend most of the day in bed together. (And America ran to their television sets, to the tune of nearly 10 million viewers).
That’s the kind of reality that Christians should clamor for. Too often we decry the sexualization of our entertainment without providing a realistic alternative. Phil and Kay, for the most part, play the dual roles of wizened family leaders and hot-for-each-other lovers without cheapening either. We must move beyond our collective discomfort to argue for the continuation of such odd expressions of naked (pun definitely intended) sexuality.
There is something a little off, perhaps mysterious, about Phil and Kay’s relationship. Perhaps that’s why it works. In other, more familiar, expressions of reality television sex, the physical takes preeminence over the emotional, psychological, or spiritual. Phil and Kay, by contrast, seem to love with that specific type of love that occurs between committed partners: Eros.
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes the effect that Eros has on people, and it fits the hilarity seen on Duck Dynasty: “Lovers, unless their love is very short-lived, again and again feel an element not only of comedy, not only of play, but even of buffoonery, in the body’s expression of Eros.”
Phil and Kay’s expression of Eros for each other occurs in whatever they do, even if they are not around each other. It’s because Eros happens in the midst of a mundane life. It’s rare that you’ll be able to work a full day, make dinner, clean up the dishes, and have a three-hour session of lovin’ to top it all off. Eros, especially in the context of life, is eventually stripped of unrealistic expectations. In a word, Eros is real.
Conveying Eros, even while using a sex-soaked reality-television medium, provides a much-needed conduit for Christian sex programming. The folks at Duck Dynasty are making it happen. Phil and Kay are making it happen. It’s no mystery why it’s a success.
Matthew Towles is the Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University. He and his wife, Sunday, help to lead a marriage ministry at Blue Ridge Community Church in Forest, Virginia.