Maybe you’re like me and you don’t have cable t.v. Good for you. Tell yourself, like I do, that this makes you inherently intellectually superior to the millions of glow-box zombified American scarecrows who have nothing better to do with their lives than exist in an immobilized state guarding the t.v. from the nefarious Corvidae of real life. Or, you could be honest and, like me, admit that you can’t afford cable. But whether or not you have cable, there’s no way to escape the current American cultural juggernaut that is A&E’s “reality-based” show, Duck Dynasty.
The show follows the exploits of “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson, his Vietnam-vet, eccentric brother Si, and his three sons, Jase, Willie, and Jep. The Robertsons live in West Monroe, Louisiana. Phil Robertson is a former star quarterback for Louisiana Tech who turned down pigskin glory to hand craft duck calls in a backwoods cabin. According to people who actually give a damn about duck hunting, Robertson’s calls work pretty darn well. When Phil’s son, Willie, took over control of the Duck Commander company, he turned it into a multi-million dollar outdoor empire and made the Robertson clan into self-proclaimed “redneck millionaires.”
A&E’s Duck Dynasty show is a fairly simple set-up that depicts the daily lives of the Robertson clan, which includes the Robertson women, Phil’s wife Miss Kay, Willie’s wife Korie, Jase’s wife Missy, Jep’s wife Jessica, and their large brood of kids. Yet, as simple as the show is, its a massive hit: as of late August, it’s poised to be the biggest cable show ever. So why the heck is this the case? After all, like any “reality” show, Duck Dynasty’s plot lines are transparently staged, but two things about the show really resonate with viewers: the Robertson’s eccentricity and, perhaps more importantly, their beards.
There’s lots to write about regarding Duck Dynasty as a cultural phenomenon, but this is a history blog, and I’m going to focus on the history behind American beards and why that history is essential to the show’s success. Over at History Scene, Sarah Gold McBride posted a fantastic historical recap of the power of the beard in terms of shaping masculinity in the 19th century. The 19th century was a period of vast changes during which the modern world as we know it was formed. Indeed, many of the cultural, political, and economic tropes that we acknowledge today were first articulated and solidified in the 19th century, and this includes beards and their relationship to masculinity. As Gold McBride writes, with vast social, political, and economic change:
The social and economic roles of men and women changed, too splintering into distinct activities and spaces that could be organized under a system of “separate spheres.” Under this schema, men laid claim to public places like taverns and city streets, while women were confined to private spaces—namely, the home. Even though this binary is more of an ideal than a reflection of reality (as historians like Christine Stansell and Mary Ryan have shown), gender distinction gained a greater importance over the course of the century—particularly in the minds of white men, who began looking for ways to demonstrate a distinctly male identity.
They distinguished themselves from women in politics; a fundamental feature of the new universal manhood suffrage was, of course, the fact that it was only for men. But men also began exaggerating the physical differences between themselves and women. Men’s clothing styles shifted from a corseted, curvaceous look—one not dissimilar from a female figure—to the boxy silhouette of the three-piece suit. Men also began donning another distinct physical feature: facial hair—including side-whiskers, moustaches, and especially beards.
In the 19th century, beards came to define a concept of masculinity in a way that was unmistakably visual to better distinguish them from increasingly public women:
Boxy clothing and bushy beards were reactions to women’s changing role in American public life. Although men in Europe and the United States had long written—even in times of overwhelming beardlessness—about how beards marked the male members of their species as strong, manly, powerful, and wise, it was only once women began entering “their” public that American men started to cultivate the facial hair they had publically revered (but personally scorned) for generations. Facial hair was a visual and visceral way for men to distinguish themselves from women—to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, beards thus emerged as a key method for American men to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, to women, and to each other.
So what does the rise of beards in the 19th century have to do with Duck Dynasty’s popularity in 2013? Much of the show’s popularity stems from its carefully controlled depiction of very generic, supposedly “down home” southern American values like family, Christian religious observance, traditional gender roles, patriotism, humility, good manners, reverence for the outdoors, and general redneck-ness. Thrown together in a pot, these values create a simmering, clichéd stew of good ole’ folk southern identity that harks all the way back to the antebellum South, when sectional divisions over slavery led southerners to double down on creating cultural distinctions between themselves and the North to justify southern values as superior.
Minus the slavery issue, of course, the above-listed generic stew of southern cultural values survived well into the 20th century because these values seemingly offered an authentic alternative to the fast-paced, modern, cold, money-obsessed, industrializing nation that emerged after the Civil War. As historian James C. Cobb observes in Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South, culture is a process, and in the post-Civil War South, southern culture was “an ongoing cycle of interaction” during which some southerners constantly shaped, reshaped, and reformed southern cultural identity to adapt older traditions to the demands of modern life and social change that threatened to leave Dixie and its culture in the dust.* The South’s general cultural, political, and religious conservatism aided this continuing process.
Now, in the 21st century, the vague idea of “southern culture,” defined by traditional religion, gender roles, guns, family values, and patriotism has been mass-produced and sold via shows like Duck Dynasty. The show is consumed by a large segment of the American public that is fed up with what they perceive as the modern world’s assault on traditional values and religion, and they’re willing to commit their time to a little slice of supposedly authentic southern American-ness to combat the secular hordes of social change roaring at tradition’s gates.
The beards in Duck Dynasty symbolize this general, supposedly authentic, but actually mass-produced, southern cultural conservatism. As Gold McBride noted, 19th century beards symbolized masculinity and an affirmation of gender distinctions in an age when gender roles were shifting. Contemporary America is witnessing many of the trends that shaped the 19th century, including growing income inequality and the increasingly public role of minority groups asserting their rights; groups that in today’s context include gays, women, atheists or non-religious folks, and (shudder) liberals of all types.
Duck Dynasty’s bearded male stars offer a symbolic reaffirmation of traditional values onto which many Americans threatened by social change can latch. The Robertson men’s bushy beards, like beards in the 19th century, distinguish them from the Robertson women and symbolize southern masculinity. Just look at the hirsute Robertsons’ favorite things: they do manly activities like hunting, fishing, shooting guns, and praising God. Hell, their entire business is built around the idea that MEN hunt to bring home food and take care of the family.
And what distinguishes all of the bearded Robertson’s activities? For the most part, they happen outdoors, that is, outside the sphere of the home, where the Robertson women reside. When Jase or Willie or Jep return from a days work at the Duck Commander headquarters or a day out hunting, they return to the home sphere to meet the women. There was even an episode where Jase and Willie take their wives hunting, and, in a fantastically clichéd plot line, the thoroughly suburbanized and home-bound ladies act the classic part of ducks out of water (or babes in the woods), unable to fathom how their manly, bearded beaus could possibly derive joy from going into the woods to shoot deer. And just so viewers don’t forget: these are indeed REAL men – they have beards. Bushy Beards.
Duck Dynasty’s bearded display of warm, corn-pone, conservative but non-threatening, down home, southern cultural values resonates with a portion of the American population. Conservatives have taken to declaring the show’s popularity as driving liberals crazy, while regular Christian Americans praise the show as an antidote to the ills of modern culture via its depiction of warm, simple, family values. Thus, the Robertson men’s beards alone do not a successful show make. But their beards do symbolize and invoke a long history of cultural construction based around generic southern American values served up hot and ready to many Americans. These folks want a little something simpler in their lives to combat what they see as a host of uncomfortable modern social changes. All hail the power of beards.
* See James C. Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 1-4.