In “Duck Decoy,” Daniel Luzer argues that the family portrayed in A&E’s Duck Dynasty are not really “rednecks.” Rather the entertainment industry, specifically the television network A&E, fashioned them into the beard-wearing, camo-donning, duck-hunters you see before you. Luzer also explains how Duck Dynasty—like all reality shows—is fabricated and why it is especially problematic:
Reality TV has long been known to be scripted and edited to make a show more interesting [...] but what appears to be happening here is something more serious. It’s not so much that the Robertsons’ show is scripted, so much as the actual family is sort of a creation of network executives.
I won’t deny that in some ways A&E has helped fashion this family into the “rednecks” you see on TV or that 85% of what happens with and to the Robertson family on Duck Dynasty is concocted (it’s television after all). But other statements in this piece, which serve as the primary evidence for Luzer’s argument that “A&E just created its own rednecks” are unfounded, and I would like to address them below.
NOTE: This piece does not support Phil Robertson’s recent homophobic and racist claims. Neither does it take a stand against A&E’s firing and rehiring of Robertston. In fact, it doesn’t even suggest that viewers should watch Duck Dynasty (I’ve only seen 8 episodes myself). Rather, this post seeks to do two things: 1) to (re)define modern-day “rednecks,” especially those in North Louisiana, and 2) to shed light on issues scholars who study media for a living have with some non-scholars who report on the same.
Golf, Beach, College, Rednecks: One of These Things Is Unlike the Other
The author of “Duck Decoy” relies on three old photos of the Robertson family to frame his argument that A&E created its own “rednecks”: a shot of the Robertson boys with golf clubs, and two family photo-shoots on the beach in which one Robertson male (gasp!) has frosted tips in his hair. (Incidentally, my North Luzianna friends have been circulating these pictures on Facebook for a long while now; they ain’t new.)
Beneath the photos, Luzer remarks that while people change over time (e.g., grow facial hair, buy new clothes, etc.), these are “not the sort of photographs rednecks ever take.” Further, he submits that “rednecks might sometimes play golf, but rednecks do not go on golf outings with their entire family. They do not pose with golf clubs and all of their brothers at the country club after a great game.” I had three initial reactions to these statements:
First, using a 20-year-old photograph as evidence that people have been altered completely by a TV show is unconvincing. Also, as the comments below Luzer’s piece indicate and as my cousin’s husband—who shot this video and this one for the Robertsons in 1997 and 2002—can attest, the family donned long beards, dressed regularly in camouflage, hunted ducks, and spoke their minds (sometimes comedically) way before A&E got a hold of them.
Second, is the author, a self-described Vermonter and graduate of Columbia and Cornell University, intimately familiar with photos “rednecks” take? Does he have a cache of pictures that depict the true goings-on of North Louisiana “rednecks”? (I do.) Or is he basing his view on stereotyped (and some surely fake) photographs like the ones below? If the latter, then we’ve a more serious problem when it comes to discussions of representation and “reality.”
Finally, here’s my sister-in-law on the Robertson’s beach photos; her thoughts echo mine: “Do you think those men wanted to dress up to match their families and take those pics?” Lulz. Truth.
But a less snarky and more balanced reaction to Luzer’s assertion that A&E has “taken a large clan of affluent, college-educated, mildly conservative, country club Republicans, common across the nicer suburbs of the old south, and repackaged them as the Beverly Hillbillies” is this: if one is willing to make this argument, one might want to familiarize oneself with the etymology and current construction of the word redneck along with how it’s typically regarded in North Louisiana. One also might want to speak with someone who knew the Robertsons before they became a part of the highest-rated reality TV series to date.
WTF Is a Redneck?
In America, the word redneck dates back to the 1800s, and in different parts of the country at different times, its meaning has shifted. Over the course of nearly 200 years, it has stood for the following:
- poor, Southern whites
- a name “applied by the better class of people to the poorer [white] inhabitants of the rural districts”
- a word used “to denigrate [white] farmers within their party who supported populist reforms”
- white Presbyterians living in North Carolina (specific rednecks!)
- a term black southerners used—alongside poor white trash, cracker, and peckerwood—to poke fun at poor white country folks
- white coal miners who belonged to labor unions (in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, and southern Illinois and Indiana)
- any white racist, regardless of his or her class position or birthplace
These are all pretty degrading characterizations and perhaps precisely what Luzer and others have in mind when they hear the word redneck. But according to Patrick Huber and Kathleen Drowne, the term, originally an allusion to the sunburned red necks of farmers, was not always used as a slur amongst whites. For example, wearing red neckties and kerchiefs to political rallies, some southerners claimed the label as a “badge of class pride for a county’s populist voters.”
Moreover, in the 1970s, being a “redneck” became fashionable, and the term redneck chic, which seemed to have little to do with outwardly disparaging race or class, was born. According to scholar Patrick Huber, this is what was happening during the Carter presidency and afterward:
Suddenly, trendy white Americans across the country affected phony southern drawls, dressed up in Levi’s and cowboy boots, sipped Lone Star and Pabst longnecks, tuned into Waylon and Willie, and hankered for meals of fried pork chops, grits, greens, and biscuits and gravy. “Redneck chic”—which anticipated by half a decade the western-wear and bull-riding fad created by the blockbuster hit film Urban Cowboy (1981)—spawned its own distinct body of literature, to use the term loosely. Dozens of books and articles were published to teach redneck wannabes how to stomach greasy home cooking, speak with a proper accent, chug six-packs, fashionably dress down, chew tobacco and spit without opening their mouths, and convincingly act the part.
Similarly, in the late 1980s, a salesman working in Jackson, Mississippi, distinguishes “upscale ‘rednecks’” from those who “live in a trailer someplace out in Rankin County, smoke about two and a half packs of cigarettes a day, and drink about ten cans of beer at night” (Huber 149).
There’s an upscale redneck, and he’s going to want it cleaned up. Yard mowed, a little garden in the back. Old Mama, she’s gonna wear designer jeans and they’re gonna go to Shoney’s to eat once every three weeks. [...] If he or she moves to North Jackson, he’d be upscale. [The wife's] got some little piddling job. She’s probably the basis of the income. She’s going to try to work every day. [...] You see, he doesn’t want to work all day long. He’s satisfied by getting by. (149)
Add to “redneck chic” and “upscale rednecks’” the 1990s country music boom and its crossover stars whose videos featured wealthy “rednecks” doing some rednecky and lots of un-rednecky things. See also the rise of comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
Now, our definition of redneck as defined via class, politics, and/or rural geography is getting a bit more jumbled. Foxworthy, for instance, claims his “redneck” heritage even though he grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, had an IBM executive for a father, and attended Georgia Tech. (For the record, fellow redneck/blue-collar comics Larry the Cable Guy and Bill Engvall also went to college.) These stories are not too far from some of the “characters” on Duck Dynasty, you may notice.
“Rednecks” I Know
At this point, I’m lacking the energy to list all of the white, non-racist, non-inbred, middle- or upper-class guys from North Louisiana with whom the Robertsons and I went to high school and college that either self-identify as a “redneck” or could easily be classified as a postmodern one. But here’s a brief rundown of their nature:
- Some of them dyed their hair and wore camouflage.
- Some played baseball or golf and skipped school to shoot and then eat deer, ducks, squirrels, and turkeys.
- Some wore suits/ties and rode four-wheelers.
- Some wore necklaces, Girbaud jeans, Drakkar Noir cologne and drove duallys with gun-racks.
- Some joined preppy fraternities and took their dates mud-hogging (look it up).
And today, these same guys post to social media photographs of their white, middle-class families at the beach and/or Disneyworld—yep, right alongside shots of them disemboweling a deer, wearing overalls, chewing tobacco, and/or drinking Budweiser. Now, if we could just get these five “rednecks” off the golf course for a minute, they’d likely have similar stories to tell.
PS. The school from which some of the Robertsons received their college degrees is Louisiana Tech University, not Louisiana Technical, as Luzer writes in his piece.
Beech, Jennifer. “Redneck and Hillbilly Discourse in the Writing Classroom: Classifying Critical Pedagogies of Whiteness.” College English 67.2 (Nov. 2004): 172-186.
Huber, Patrick, and Kathleen Drowne. “Redneck: A New Discovery.” American Speech 76 (Winter 2001): 434-37.
Huber, Patrick. “A Short History of Redneck: The Fashioning of a Southern White Masculine Identity.” Southern Cultures 1 (Winter 1995): 145-66.