By Michele Yeo
Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, a new four-part documentary series on Amazon Prime chronicles the many problematic things about the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting (and various spinoffs) fame who once dominated TLC’s airwaves. For more than a decade Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their large and ever growing brood were presented to the public as a beacon of family values and righteous wholesomeness. While their devout Christianity and sheer volume of children wasn’t necessarily relatable to all, the family garnered a large and loyal fan base by documenting everything about their family from large milestones like births and weddings to the more mundane like the logistics of preparing food for such a large family and doing laundry. The children were all well behaved and matriarch Michelle a gentle soft-spoken woman devoted to her husband. Essentially the Duggars were held up as a good American family with good American morals and integrity that TLC rode for years all the way to the bank.
The squeaky clean veneer was tarnished in 2015 when it was revealed the family’s eldest son Josh Duggar had, as a teenager in 2002 and 2003, sexually molested five girls, two of which were his sisters. 19 Kids and Counting was subsequently cancelled by TLC but the network didn’t sever its relationship with the family, featuring several members in its spinoff series, Jill and Jessa: Counting On. Jill was one of Josh’s victims and has since distanced herself from her family. Her interview in Shiny Happy People provides a lot of the insight into the family’s disturbing dynamic.
Most troubling is how the molestation situation was handled by the family. After the scandal broke, Jill and fellow victim, sister Jessa, gave a televised primetime interview to Megyn Kelly during which they downplayed their brother’s actions and said they forgave him. In Shiny Happy People, a clearly still traumatised Jill admits she felt pressured by the family to give the interview and minimise the molestation in an effort to salvage the family’s reputation and ultimately their marketability. Josh, by the way, is currently serving time for possession of child pornography, as is the police officer who let him and his allegations off with a warning all those years ago.
Not only did it fall to the family’s sisters to carry the new show in the wake of the cancellation of 19 Kids and Counting, the girls were not paid for their labour. Jim Bob and Michelle signed contracts with TLC on behalf of the family with their children listed as minors even after they entered adulthood. Jill tells the documentary she never saw a single cent for putting her life on camera for years and documenting events like her wedding, pregnancy, and delivery – even though Jill did not want to share that intimate moment on camera. Michelle and Jim Bob profited immensely from their children but apparently did not share the wealth. Kris Jenner gets criticised out for “pimping out her kids” but at least her children are paid for their participation.
TLC hasn’t issued any kind of statement since Shiny Happy People dropped but the network does not come off well. This isn’t exactly surprising when you consider how the channel has devolved into a modern day circus freak show with their slate of exploitative programming like My 600 Lb Life, 1000 Lb Sisters, and Sister Wives. That TLC gave this family a platform in the first place should be questioned. The Duggars weren’t simply an aw-shucks small town religious family with a lot of kids, they were and are part of a larger, more insidious movement. While Shiny Happy People does a deep dive on the Duggars, the series is ostensibly about something more with the family providing a way into exploring the ultra conservative sect of Christianity called the Institute in Basic Life Principles, or the IBLP, to which the Duggars belong.
Founded by minister and speaker Bill Gothard – who has since stepped down in the wake of sexual harassment and abuse allegations – the IBLP is an extremely patriarchal based sect of Christianity which believes in homeschooling -with a very limited and curated curriculum, a focus on extreme discipline or “encouragement” (their code for what’s essentially child abuse) and intense importance placed on purity. Girls and women are instructed to dress modestly so as to not tempt men because “men have a problem with their eyes” and “the solution is to avoid eye traps.” In this extreme sect, “the shorter the skirt, the more vicious the trap.” Women and girls are not equal, falling under men in the “umbrella of protection” which is the IBLP’s framework for asserting male authority in the family. In the super large families with multiple kids, the older daughters are assigned “buddies” meaning they’re essentially tasked with parenting their younger siblings. Older boy children are spared the responsibility and are not to change their siblings, particularly their female siblings, diapers. The implication being, of course, that the boys will be tempted. Shiny Happy People features IBLP survivors and their first person accounts which are troublesome at best and bordering on illegal at worst.
Where this movement gets especially scary is its foray into the world of politics – its attempts to influence policy and legislation and turn back the clock on things like equality and women’s rights. I mean, Jim Bob Duggar ran for senate while his son was on trial for child pornography possession. The hypocrisy and the audacity is truly off the charts. Also chilling is the “Joshua Generation”, an evangelical plot to raise a new generation of homeschooled extreme fundamentalists to infiltrate the highest levels of government and the Supreme Court to bring America back to being a “Christian nation.” This is all some The Handmaid’s Tale shit which once seemed dystopian and far-fetched but, since the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade is becoming more and more frightening. There’s no way TLC didn’t have an inkling the Duggar family didn’t have ties to this movement when they partnered with them and the network should be held accountable for platforming and mainstreaming the family in the first place. That the family was portrayed as anything other than the harmful, abusive, cult-like fundamentalist predators they are is nothing short of repulsive. Shiny Happy People is a tough watch but a necessary one.