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Why Reality Stars Like Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson Can’t Be Real

Why Reality Stars Like Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson Can’t Be Real

When Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson opened his yap to GQ magazine, he probably didn’t anticipate the firestorm of controversy that would follow it. 

He told Drew Magary: “Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”

While Robertson’s comments were immediately called out as homophobic and while some like Sarah Palin quickly jumped to his defense under the rubric of free speech, some viewers seemed surprised that their favorite cuddly Southern rednecks weren’t so cuddly after all. 

That reaction was astutely mocked by Seth Rogen on Twitter, who wrote: “It's strange that A&E hired a guy for being a backwoods redneck and then were surprised when he started talking like a backwoods redneck.”

In other words: obvious thing is obvious.

Current reality TV’s entire premise has been to put people that represent a stereotype together and let them live up to that stereotype—within reason. 

We’ll overlook the icky stuff to relate to the good stuff. Honey Boo Boo might be crass white trash, but she’s also sort of adorable and hilarious with a loving mother and family. Jersey Shore’s Guidos are obnoxious drunks, but Snooki’s kinda cute and tiny and the Situation seems like he’d be a good cook. The Real Housewives —any city, any season—are materialistic, plastic surgery-addicted, catty women, but at least Vicki in Orange County has an actual job.

The scrubbed version of the Dynasty clan lets Americans, especially those who might not otherwise choose to spend their time with religious fundamentalists from the South, relate to the cast. We want a glimpse inside the lives of Guidos, hicks, or gold diggers, and we want to watch them perform for our amusement. But if the Guidos or hicks or gold-diggers behave in an unsavory way that make us feel offended and uncomfortable rather than smug and self-satisfied, we’d likely shut off the TV. And nobody—least not advertisers—can have that.

“It’s commerce,” says Tim Brooks, a former network executive and TV historian, the co-author of the book, Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. “If you want to do a TV show on a widely distributed network and get a big audience there are certain rules.”

Robert Galinsky, Founder of the New York Reality TV School who coaches and trains hopefuls for shows like SurvivorProject Runway and The Voice, says: “One hundred percent of the personalities are scrubbed in the editing room and it's never for our benefit, it's for the benefit of profit. The producers scrub, the director scrubs, the pawns—I mean cast members—scrub, but the ultimate scrub-a-dub-dubber are the show and network lawyers. They have the final say and they only care about protecting the value of the network brand and advertising brand relationships involved.”

Off screen, the reality stars often behave as we might expect. Before she joined the cast, footage of Jersey Shore’s Deena Nicole Cortese was unearthed of her using the “n-word.”  And Ronnie Magro of Jersey Shore went on an anti-gay rant in one of the fights that was later aired (and edited out) by MTV. He repeatedly called his opponent, “a fucking faggot” and “a fucking queer.”

But onscreen is another story.  Those seven words (and a few more) made famous by George Carlin are still very much in effect.

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