Duck Dynasty: Those Beards are Nobody’s Fool

Image credit: A&E Television

The guys with the beards are back.  On reality television that is.  Duck Dynasty’s new season premiered last night and its legions of fans tuned in to see the latest happenings in the Robertson family, especially those of the hirsute men of the clan.

Duck Dynasty has become the most successful of the reality shows set in the South.  It’s part of what I like to call the “Louisiana genre” of reality TV that includes other successful show like Swamp People and Billy the Exterminator.  Though let’s not forget the lesser known Cajun Pawn or Cajun Justice.

What makes Duck Dynasty different, for me at least, is that the guys with beards are nobody’s fool.  So much of southern-based reality TV seems geared toward stereotyping people from the region.  Very often they are placed in ridiculous situations for comedic effect and their speech is accompanied by subtitles. This is most famously the case with the Thompson Family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  Not so with Duck Dynasty.

One gets the impression that Willie and the boys are very much in control of their show and while there’s humor, it’s the kind where we can laugh with them and not at them.  Uncle Si might be the one in the family who’s picked on, but “hey,” he and the rest are in on the joke.  Moreover, the show about these self-made millionaires, whose company Duck Commander makes duck calls among other products, seems more like a strategic move on the family’s part to further their brand.  And it’s worked like a charm.

Uncle Si Robertson and his catch phrase on a T-Shirt

Now the brand includes the show itself.  The success of Duck Dynasty has resulted in sales of all sorts of items that have less to do with duck calls and more to do with the family’s keen marketing sense.  Products range from bobble heads of father Phil and his sons Willie and Jase to shirts and coffee mugs with Phil’s saying “Happy, Happy, Happy,” to images of Uncle Si and his catch phrase “Hey!” printed on t-shirts. The Robertson women are also in on the boondoggle with products of their own.

One of the reasons I enjoy the show is that I can see that the Robertsons are very grounded, self-aware, and clearly wise to the ways of the world.  When their fame dissipates, they will still be doing well financially.  Unfortunately, this is the exception to the rule when it comes to southern-based reality TV.  True, many of those stars may temporarily be enjoying some windfall, but they are not as savvy as the beards.  And that’s too bad.

Call me “Professor Swamp People”

Troy Landry, one of the stars of History Channel's "Swamp People"

I was recently interviewed by Cara Bayles at the Houma Courier in Louisiana about the flood of reality television shows that are set in Louisiana.  We had a terrific talk that lasted a good half an hour, but all that ended up in the paper was a couple of sentences, which you can read here.  Just before we hung up the phone, I asked Cara “How did you find me?” to which she responded “I Googled ‘professor swamp people.'”

When I set out to write Dreaming of Dixie, I had no idea that it would lead to my becoming some “expert” on reality TV shows set in the South, although “Professor Swamp People” has a nice ring to it.  It began with the op-ed in the New York Times, which led to an interview about “hixploitation” for the Louisville Courier-Journal(KY) and similarly-related articles elsewhere.

Ernie Brown, Jr. a.k.a. "Turtleman," from "Call of the Wild Man" on Animal Planet

It may seem a huge leap to go from an analysis on the impact of Gone With the Wind to that of Swamp People, but from where I sit the purveyors of popular culture have, since the early nineteenth century, simply decided to emphasize what it believes to be the South’s cultural distinctiveness–whether or not it applies to the broader region.

And yet, therein lies the problem. So often nonsoutherners (including seasoned journalists) who don’t know the region’s history and have not spent time in the South, will often buy into those differences they find in popular culture. And as long as they do, I will continue to answer to the name “Professor Swamp People” when called.  Choot’em!!