Some of you younger people watching the new Duggar documentary Shiny Happy People are unaware of just what a huge influence the Duggar series 19 Kids and Counting had on feminist life back during the Obama era.
19 Kids and Counting started out as 17 Kids and Counting. The first episode aired on the TLC in September 2008, just a few weeks before Obama was elected president. The show was often used by the nascent racist anti-Obama backlash movement as proof of the superiority of white family values. Right wing Facebook accounts were constantly posting pics of the smiling Duggars (so white that even their kids’ hair never dared to dip a shade darker than sandy brown!) and juxtaposing them next to “welfare queens” or non-white mothers. The Duggars were the saints, living without government assistance while evil single moms with darker features like the Palestinian-American Nadya Suleman did porn and accepted food stamps to feed their kids
Nadya Suleman with her octuplets. (Image copyright MOVI Inc. / MEGA)
I mean, don’t get me wrong, Suleman is an odd duck. But she did raise those kids and apparently they are doing okay. Certainly Nadya’s children seem better off than the Duggars at this point. And I will always applaud any single mom who does what she has to do to make sure her kids have a roof over their heads.
I have already written about the Duggars. I was hesitant about watching the new Duggar Family documentary Shiny Happy People on Amazon Prime. While I’m always down for seeing a far right misogynistic movement get the comeuppance they so heartily deserve, early reviews warned that Shiny Happy People had a lot of straightforward descriptions of child abuse. That sort of subject really upsets me so I needed to just take deep cleansing breaths before switching on the TV.
If you’re looking for a fun tea-spilling tabloid trashumentary, you’re gonna have to look elsewhere than Shiny Happy People. The show is not an easy view by any stretch.
Shiny Happy People is a well-put-together documentary that shows the inherent cruelty that always springs up in a culture where women have little rights.
Back in the early 2000s, while the national media lauded the Duggars’ debt-free lifestyle, feminists were worried about the almost fetishistic way the Duggars treated childbirth. Surely giving birth to children well into your forties wasn’t healthy! And filling the Earth with more people when the planet was already suffering from overpopulation seemed the height of selfishness.
And what the hell was with the whole all-the-kids-names-must-start-with-J thing? That was just weird.
Small feminist blogs discussed fringe Christian movements like Quiverfull in depth. With Quiverfull emotional abuse was integral when it came to pressuring young women to have constant pregnancies, often long past the point of their personal safety. Women warned about how TLC seemed to be normalizing a lifestyle which was quite toxic for girls and women. Conservative media merely scoffed. Feminists were ugly scolds who were abandoned by men. We were all just jealous of the beautiful Duggar women with their full wombs and loving husbands and financially stable families.
Even during the early days of the 19 Kids and Counting show, however, there were signs that the Duggars were more sinister than their sunny exterior implied. The Duggars weren’t just raising their kids, they were homeschooling their children too. Homeschooling, while innocuous on the surface, basically removes a large check when it comes to preventing child abuse. Teachers in the public school systems are mandated reporters. If they see kids arriving with bruises or constantly hungry, the teachers have to report it.
With homeschooling, there are no prying outside eyes. Abuse remains within the family.
It wasn’t just abuse, of course. Homeschooling is extremely unregulated. We are now becoming aware of so many young adults entering the workforce who literally do not know how to read or write because they were homeschooled. The stereotype of homeschooled kids back in 2008, when the Duggar show started airing, was that homeschooled kids were geniuses. All the national spelling bee champions were homeschooled kids back in the early 2000s while the public school kids couldn’t even wipe the drool off their shoes. Now we know differently. Homeschooled children vary widely in the quality of their education, with many “homeschooled” children often just being neglected. Or taught from textbooks that simply do not teach scientific fact. There is far too little regulation of homeschools in the US.
It appears that the Duggar family took advantage of this lack of regulation. There were hints that the Duggar children were being neglected in their education even before the explosive Shiny Happy People documentary showed their secrets. Back in 2022 Jed Duggar, a grown man and new father, revealed that he was unable to tell time on an analog clock. He needed his wife to tell him the time while she was in labor at the hospital.
Shiny Happy People focusses both on the Duggar family and the Institute for Basic Life Principles- or IBLP- which was the larger fundamentalist Christian umbrella organization that dictated the Duggar lifestyle. The documentary features many people who are ex-members of IBLP. The core of the feature, however, is Jill Duggar Dillard. Jill Duggar, who is interviewed sitting next to her husband, clearly is reluctant to discuss all the secrets of the Duggar family. It appears that she feels duty-bound to do the interview since in the past she worked to promote, and cover up, the Duggar family’s scandals
Many people have praised Derick Dillard, Jill’s husband, for being a caring and compassionate spouse towards Jill during this interview. I agree, and I hope this un-cancels Derick Dillard after he misgendered Jazz Jennings. Or at least I hope this will make cancel culture warriors realize that people are complicated and not unadulterated good or evil.
The Duggars have been social media hot topics for a minute now so I found nothing really new about their story in Shiny Happy People. More interesting to me were the stories of ex-IBLP people. The unspoken truth about IBLP, which is only implied obliquely in Shiny Happy People, is how female beauty was seen as a currency among the Christian fundamentalist cult. Long sensuous curled hair was apparently a real fetish for IBLP founder Bill Gothard. He demanded that all the women and young girls wear their hair long and curled while making sure their dresses were modest but very feminine. Gothard’s Christian conservative women dressed in direct contradiction to other conservative religions’ traditions of modest dress. Conservative Muslim and Jewish women are expected to cover their hair. Even non-IBLP conservative Christian groups such as the Roman Orthodox Catholic church demand hair-covering for women in some circumstances.
Shiny Happy People talks about the homeschooling textbooks given to the Duggar children. The textbooks, created by the IBLP, describe to girls that they must not create “eyetraps” for lustful men.
The burden again is placed on women for men’s bad behavior. Rather like how Jill Duggar described her “burden” in protecting her family by downplaying how she was sexually assaulted by her brother. It all ties together.
The IBLP created the idea of women causing “eyetraps” through their own choice of dress because the IBLP did not want women to control their own sexuality. Female beauty was a currency with the Duggars and the wider IBLP, but it was a currency that only men were allowed to spend.
Tia Levings, an ex-IBLP member, tells her harrowing story of how she was married at 19 and abused by her husband. Levings shows her wedding video and she is enchantingly beautiful. Levings looks like a fairytale princess. She could have had any man she wanted, but of course her beauty was not hers to use. Her beauty belonged to the religious patriarchs.
Levings described her abusive relationship with her husband. She was offered no way out. She was taught that being raped and beaten was simply what a wife was instructed by God to endure.
Levings’ story really upset me. Levings had five children with her abuser. Her description of how the baby needed to sleep through the night or her husband would beat her or the children brought up a lot of bad memories on my own part. I have discussed earlier how I was also in an abusive marriage with a mentally unwell person. Sleep deprivation erodes the sanity of even a well-balanced person. The least bit of stress experienced by a domestic abuser will skyrocket the chances of his wife and kids being abused. Being a domestic abuse victim means living in a constant state of placation. Calm him down so he doesn’t kill the kids.
Levings brings this home in a haunting home video she shows. It’s a children’s birthday party. Levings and her kids appear happy at first. A small child yells and suddenly Levings and her son become frightened. You see their eyes bug out and glance in the same direction: Levings’ husband.
Levings is one of the lucky ones. She managed to escape her marriage with both her life and her children. Levings is now a former Christian Fundamentalist and helps counsel other former Fundamentalist women.
That wide-eyed expression of fear was what we feminists knew was lurking behind every adoring glance Michelle Duggar gave her husband on 19 Kids and Counting. We knew. We sounded the alarm. And we were called jealous shrews back in 2008.
We told y’all. And no, being a feminist or a single mom does not protect women from harm. Feminism is no cure-all. Feminism is just an escape hatch. “At least you can leave.”
And that in itself is powerful.