‘Insidious organization’: a reality TV family and the dangers of fundamentalism

Amazon series Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets goes beyond the famous family into the fundamentalist ministry they represented

Any casual peruser of American cable television is probably familiar with the Duggar family – if not with the specifics of their juggernaut series on TLC, then with the sheer number of them. From 2007 until 2015, the Duggars, a highly conservative Christian baptist family from Arkansas, starred on a reality TV series titled after their ever-expanding number of children – first 17, then 18, then 19 Kids and Counting. They were the celebrity inverse to the many K-named Kardashians, whose show bottled American capitalism, hustle culture and shamelessness. All 19 of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s children, born between 1998 and 2009, had names beginning with the letter J. The girls all wore Pilgrim-esque dresses and kept their hair long and curly. All were educated at home through faith materials, and all marketed, consciously or not, a vision of benign, rural, wholesome religious conservatism.

This is the jumping off point for Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, a new Amazon Prime series about the family and the larger fundamentalist group their show represented and sanitized. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a show about a family of 21 living in perfect harmony while disavowing the secular world and teaching women polite subservience was not quite as easy as it seemed, nor the harmless curiosity that viewers seemed to think it was.

Indeed, Shiny Happy People covers the family’s many scandals and splinters, which have unfurled publicly since the original show was cancelled in 2015, after it was revealed that the eldest son, Josh Duggar, had molested five young women, including several of his sisters, in 2002 and 2003. Last year, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for downloading images and video of child sex abuse. Several of the daughters, two of whom were trotted on to Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show to publicly forgive their brother for touching them and who starred in a successful spinoff series, have distanced themselves from their family’s teachings (and, to the interest of celebrity gossip sites, begun wearing pants). Earlier this year, Jinger Duggar Vuolo published a memoir criticizing the strict control and fear-based teachings of her upbringing under the influence of a group called the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and its now disgraced leader, Bill Gothard, who has been accused by dozens of women of sexual harassment and assault. (Gothard, 88, has denied all allegations.)

Gothard and IBLP were the shadowy scaffolding on which the Duggars’ celebrity was built, and whose strict teachings (and coffers) were burnished by the spotlight. Founded in 1961, Gothard’s ministry preached to millions a strict hierarchy of male authority leading to him, then God, and an abdication of “temptation” – music, television, dating, alcohol, public schools. The Duggars, who regularly touted Gothard’s seminars, were merely “the front-facing image of this insidious organization”, said the series co-director Olivia Crist.

Over four episodes, Shiny Happy People mimics a rabbit hole of research – a show that is initially about an odd corner of American celebrity morphs into a recounting of abuse within the family, to abuse propagated and protected by IBLP, and to the inroads fundamentalist, authoritarian-leaning Christianity has made in US schools, government and civic life. (The series arrives a month before the first anniversary of the reversal of Roe v Wade, long the goal for the religious right.)

Shiny Happy People is only nominally about the Duggars and their weird, distinctly American celebrity. “We wanted to use the Duggars as a societal touchpoint and not focus solely on them, because they were the gateway in terms of knowing who they were for the average American to bring us into something that’s unknown,” said the series co-director Julia Willoughby Nason (LulaRich, Fyre Fraud). Though the Institute in Basic Life Principles may be unknown to many, it’s not irrelevant. The extreme teachings of Bill Gothard dovetailed with the Christian homeschooling movement in the US, and the politically active religious right in the US. “I think more and more [fundamentalist Christianity] is becoming more mainstream, especially since Trump got elected – there’s this huge underbelly and infrastructure in American culture of authoritarianism,” said Nason.

The series features interviews with several ex-IBLP members who contextualize, often in painful, haunting detail, the teachings polished up by the Duggars’ reality TV series. The parentification of children – pre-teen and teenage siblings taking full-time care of a baby – was whitewashed as “the buddy system”. The immense amount of labor required to keep the household running, all assumed by the girls in the family, was treated as a curious oddity. “Wisdom booklets” from Gothard’s homeschooling program, which instructed children on sinful temptation – the series quotes one which asks children to identify the “eye traps” in different female outfits – are passed off as equivalent education. Cheeky interest in the family’s courtship rituals – entirely chaperoned dates, no kissing until marriage, presentation of a “wedding night” instructional CD the day before the ceremony – put a playful spin on the subjugation of women. According to Gothard’s “umbrella of authority”, women’s faithfulness to God depended on complete submission and subservience to first their fathers, then their husbands; a wedding was not so much a celebration of love as a transfer of power.

18 of the 19 members of the Duggar family in 2008
Eighteen of the 19 members of the Duggar family in 2008. Photograph: Beth Hall/AP

More chilling are revelations of abuse endemic to IBLP. Gothard, like some other fundamentalist Christians, used biblical passages to justify punishment by the “rod” to “break a child’s will”. IBLP advocated the “blanket training” of Baptist ministers Michael and Debi Pearl, in which an infant or toddler is placed on a blanket with toys within reach; parents are instructed to hit the child repeatedly when they reach for one. On-screen, the Duggar children were mild-mannered and deferential. Other than Michelle’s cheery mentions of “blanket time”, there’s no indication of the off-screen methods used to achieve it.

According to former friends of the Duggars, Jim Bob and Michelle were well aware of Josh’s molestation of his sisters before the show aired, just as many IBLP higher-ups were aware of Gothard’s harassment of young women, violations repeatedly swept under the rug and pinned on victims. When the emphasis is always on the perils of temptation, up to disallowing men from changing the diapers of female infants lest they familiarize with female anatomy, the blame never falls on the perpetrator. As Heather Heath, an ex-IBLP member, puts it in the series, “you can’t exist without being accused of tempting a man to attack you”. Jill Duggar Dillard, the only Duggar offspring to participate in the series, recalls with regret the family’s efforts to use her to restore their reputation in the wake of Josh’s crimes: “You just feel like the burden and the weight falls on you to, like, help, because you’re the only one who can.”

“The Duggar family is not a bizarre fascination. It is a horrifying glimpse of a story that was told over and over and over again in so many different families,” says Josh Pease, a pastor and journalist, in the series. As the series argues in later episodes, that story of harmonious obedience flowed through the Duggars, to IBLP, through other fundamentalist ministries and into mainstream American institutions via the “Joshua Generation”, a decades-long project to place fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in positions of power, up to and including the US Senate and supreme court.

The series takes on a dense knot of politics and power, ultimately composed of many people in different relations to the ideology that shaped them, one whose popular understanding was shaped by a reality show. Shiny Happy People attempts to “[flip] the script on the audience a little bit, asking, what are we complicit in? What are we passively consuming without looking deeper into what actually is going on?” said Crist. (Representatives for TLC declined to participate in the series.)

The final episode focuses on a new generation of Christian influencers, some of whom, like 19 Kids and Counting, burnish the reputation of fundamentalism. And some who have “deconstructed” the ideology of their youth, extending far beyond the personal journeys of the Duggar offspring.

“There’s a large community online, as you see in the show, who are standing up and saying, ‘Hey, we were brought up this way, and this was really abusive and not OK,’” said Crist. “But there’s always going to be the opposition to that, and that’s the scary part that I hope our show shines a light on – that fundamentalism in America, whether it exists in social media, whether we’re talking about IBLP [or] any subgroups, are very much alive and well and also in our political system.”

  • Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets is available on Amazon Prime on 2 June


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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