Trading Spaces returned to TLC last week. Generally, I have been opposed to the reboot trend. This is an easy way for television networks to make money without supporting up-and-coming creative talent. The unfortunate success of Roseanne will only make the reboot trend even worse. But, for whatever reason, I am fine with networks bringing back iconic reality shows. In many cases, these reality shows are money-makers that anchor a network (why else is Survivor still airing?), and their overall success is better for a network in the long run.
Something like Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, which also premiered last week, takes advantage of its truly genius casting and reunites the older Shore cast for a 13 episode sequel. It’s a family reunion with people you never knew you missed in the first place. Producer Sally Ann Salsano ― whose knock-off series Party Down South and Floribama Shore have never replicated the mega success of Jersey Shore ― would be remiss to not send the Shore cast on vacations and turn cameras on them at all times.
Now I’ve always been a reality television addict and certain shows ― the ones that were phenomenons without the benefit of Twitter ― hold deeper meaning for me than something like Jersey Shore. Trading Spaces is that show. I didn’t know I needed it back in my life until I saw the reboot’s trailer. Everyone is back. Even Frank, who I swore was 90 years old the first time around.
When Trading Spaces first aired in 2000, I was in middle school. 9/11 hadn’t happened. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hadn’t happened yet. Social media hadn’t happened yet. Almost no one had cell phones. And on TLC ― a network I love more than any other ― we hadn’t been introduced to the Gosselins or the Duggars yet. Honey Boo Boo was a phrase we’d never thought we’d hear. It was a different world.
Two years ago, InTouch Weeklybroke a story about Josh Duggar’s alleged sex crimes and Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s subsequent cover-up of the molestation charges. The scandal led to the cancellation of 19 Kids and Counting, TLC’s most popular and profitable reality series. For nearly 10 years, the Duggars were synonymous with the TLC brand and ending 19 Kidsreportedly cost Discovery $19 million.
In theory, a scandal should keep reality stars out of the spotlight. But not the Duggars. In December 2015, TLC aired Jill and Jessa: Counting On, a three episode series that addressed how the family’s adult children, particularly Josh’s wife Anna, were handling the scandal. Nearly 3 million viewers tuned in to witness Jill and Jessa become the Duggar family’s new standard-bearers.
Counting On debuted in March 2016 and the spin-off has effectively rebranded the family. They are the Duggars 2.0. Josh Duggar is noticeably absent from the series but his wife Anna and children make frequent appearances. Jim Bob and Michelle, whose marriage and child rearing practices were at the center of 19 Kids, only show up when the plot needs to be advanced. (Jim Bob gives his blessing to his daughters’ suitors; Michelle assists during her daughters’ deliveries.)
Counting On has chronicled a few personal milestones in the Duggars’ lives:
Jessa Duggar Seewald gave birth to her second child.
Jill Duggar Dillard and her husband Derrick have been serving as missionaries in Central America. They are expecting their second child.
For the most part, Counting On follows the same episodic structure as 19 Kids and Counting. The Duggar kids go about their daily lives and the women complete mundane household chores. Like 19 Kids, Counting On is about the performance of womanhood within the domestic space. Each task the Duggar daughters complete on Counting On is presented as the normal experience all newlyweds and new parents go through.
And it’s boring. So, so, so boring. But unsurprisingly, Counting On keeps the Duggar brand afloat as they navigate their public lives post-scandal. At the rate the Duggars begin courtships, get engaged, married, and have children, Counting On is guaranteed to have at least one wedding or birth special per season.
All of this just sets the scene for the Duggar family’s latest development. Four of the Duggar daughters — Jill Dillard, Jessa Seewald, Jinger Vuolo, and Joy Duggar — have filed a federal invasion of privacy suit against InTouch,the city of Springdale, Arkansas, and Washington County, Arkansas. The Duggar lawsuit is not unlike the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that brought down Gawker and alleges that the “plaintiffs had no knowledge that the highly personal and painful details revealed in their confidential interviews would be disclosed to anyone except law enforcement and child services personnel. Indeed, they were instructed that their statements would remain confidential and not be released to the public.”
The sisters provided an additional statement, telling E! News: “This case is solely about protecting children who are victims of abuse. Revealing juvenile identities under these circumstances is unacceptable, and it’s against the law. The media and custodians of public records who let these children down must be held accountable. This case has vast implications for all our children. We hope that by bringing this case to the public’s attention, all children will be protected from reckless reporting.”
We hope our lawsuit will send a clear message that releasing the names of juveniles is never ok.https://t.co/b6gGUuAu5B
The timing of the lawsuit is particularly noteworthy. Initially, only Jill and Jessa came forward as Josh’s victims. In an exclusive interview with Megyn Kelly on The Kelly File, the sisters detailed the abuse and publicly forgave their brother. In this same interview, Jill and Jessa criticize InTouch, calling the tabloid’s reporting “a re-victimization that’s even a thousand times worse.” These comments are more or less reiterated in the lawsuit
The family did not confirm Jinger or Joy’s involvement until now. It does make sense that the Duggars initially shielded Joy, who was a minor in 2015. But what else shifted? Well, the four Duggar daughters are now married or soon-to-be married. The Duggars are followers of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and the Quiverfull movement. As described by Kathryn Joyce in Newsweek, Quiverfull is a pro-purist lifestyle and its followers view contraception “as a form of abortion and considering even natural family planning an attempt to control a realm — fertility — that should be entrusted to divine providence.” Quiverfull is anti-feminist, patriarchal Christianity that is spread through homeschooling, and most often, the Quiverfull do not identify themselves as part of the movement. (The Duggars do not.) But to paraphrase Heather Doney, co-founder of Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, the Duggars are the Kardashians of Quiverfull.
As followers of Quiverfull, the Duggar women are most valuable when they are fulfilling their divine purpose as women: marriage and motherhood. If Jinger and Joy were revealed as Josh’s victims before entering courtships, it would potentially harm their marriageability. As one friend noted to me on Twitter, waiting until Jinger and Joy were married and engaged to file the lawsuit effectively preserved their future ability to submit to men.
Jana Duggar, the eldest Duggar daughter, is also noticeably absent from these legal proceedings. (Presumably because she is not one of her brother’s victims.) At 27, Jana is unmarried and acts as a second mother figure for her younger siblings, as seen on both 19 Kids and Counting On. Compared to her four sisters, who received television specials for fulfilling their duties as women (successful courtship, marriage, and motherhood), Jana and her domestic labor remains in the background. (Stay-at-home daughters are common in Quiverfull and fundamentalist Christian families.)
The Duggars lawsuit is yet another indicator of how specific hypocrisies sustain their family brand. By claiming “this case is solely about protecting children who are victims of abuse,” the Duggars are reasserting an image of themselves as good Christian saviors. They claim to be protecting innocent victims from careless reporting while denying how their religious practices preserve cycles of abuse. Former Quiverfull followers, such as Vickie Garrison of No Longer Quivering, have written extensively on how the movement keeps women in submissive positions. In one post, Garrison explains, “Quiverfull is a mindset (a very powerful head trip) in which each family becomes a cult unto itself with Daddy enshrined as the supreme Patriarch.” Vice has also reported on the larger Christian abuse problem.
The Duggars might be, as Jessa Seewald told Megyn Kelly in 2015, “just a family that just happened to be on TV”. And yes, we owe the Duggar sisters the same respect we give other sexual assault survivors. But this family has an unparalleled ability to survive scandal and and keep a public presence. They undeniably have had it easy compared to other reality TV pariahs. We must remain critical of the platforms the Duggars are given and the way they frame their own story.
I suppose this was inevitable. The President-Elect, our reality star-in-chief, lashed out against the show that built his celebrity and the network that sustained his brand for nearly a decade.
This shouldn’t be surprising. This is what Trump does. He uses Twitter to distract us from all the other messes he is causing. To distract us from Putin and Russia. But the PEOTUS mocked Celebrity Apprentice for low ratings reveals how Trump is utterly delusional. Here is why:
1. The Apprentice premiered at the height of the early-00s competition reality craze.
In the early-2000s, reality television exploded. These shows were inexpensive to produce, merged real life, entertainment and commercialism, and capitalized on emerging digital technologies. I remember watching the first season finale of Survivor with my parents (the “Rat and Snake” speech is classic television) and feeling like this was a huge moment that millions of people were invested in. (51.69 million viewers watched this episode.) While reality television was not unprecedented, everything about the genre was suddenly bigger. Both the sheer quantity of new shows and the size of the media personalities behind them. Reality TV has since evolved from a fad to a ubiquitous genre.
The reality genre crafted around the ideas of voyeurism. Audiences tune in to reality series because it so unlike what they experience in their own lives. (Are you an Alaskan fisherman? Why are you watching The Deadliest Catch?) Eventually all reality shows reach their expiration date. This is especially true of the game-doc series which become repetitive season after season.
So the classic game-docs still airing – Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, MTV’s The Challenge – are their respective network’s key reality programs. Each show has tie-ins with tabloids, aftershows, podcasts, social media, etc. Their cast members become network personalities (this is particularly true of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and The Challenge, which sees the cast members return for spinoff after spinoff.) And so, these shows depend on spectacle through casting to sustain their ratings and their brands.
7. #19Kids was TLC’s highest rated show. Cancelled because of a scandal. It’s spin-off #CountingOn is nowhere near as popular.
Popular reality shows are also easily derailed by scandal. TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting is my standard example for this argument. For more than a decade, the Duggars were provided a platform to present and normalize their unorthodox family structure and extreme Evangelical beliefs. 19 Kids was TLC’s longest running and highest rated program. This lasted until the scandal forced TLC to cancel 19 Kids. TLC has since launched a Duggars spin-off, Counting On (centered around the Duggars 2.0) but this series is no where near as popular as the original series. It never will be.
9. Then DJT ran for president and turned the presidential election into the craziest media spectacle of all time.
Back to Donald Trump and The Apprentice – On The Apprentice, Donald Trump was the spectacle. Audiences loved watching him in this element and delivering the catchphrase “You’re Fired!” Sure, Ivanka was there but this entire program was built around Donald’s showmanship.
Donald Trump is a spectacle. He always has been. Neal Gabler, writing in 1998, explains that Trump’s blockbuster was so good that not even failure (his bankruptcies, his divorce from Ivana) could close it.
The second Trump announced his candidacy, the 2016 Presidential Election became the most surreal media spectacle of all-time.
10. This is when Donald Trump's reality show peaked.
Now that Trump is the President-Elect, his reality show has peaked. It has peaked because audiences have caught on to the gimmick. We know he is distracting us and gaslighting America.
And so, Donald Trump is the scandal most likely to bring down his own celebrity and the empire he built. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because Arnold Schwarzenegger is a failed movie star. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because they are tired of the Trump brand. And it is better to focus on derailing an unstable President-Elect by doing what he hates most: ignore him and deny him the satisfaction that you are watching.
(Hi, yes, my long hiatus is over. I plan on blogging from time to time. Periodic posts will follow.)
Perhaps you have caught on to the extreme conservatism (and extreme progressivism for that matter) holding the United States hostage right now. The Duggars, as public evangelicals whose sole purpose is to normalize fundamentalist Christianity, are contributors to and a byproduct of the public sphere currently reshaping American politics and ideologies. Beyond that, as I’ve written before, 19 Kids and Counting and now Jill and Jessa: Counting On are part of a larger, complex media system. As much as you might hate the Duggars’ presence, they’re sticking around for a reason. Continue reading “Counting On: Meet the Duggars 2.0”
No other reality TV family has broadcast as many lies, secrets and falsehoods as the Duggars. They are the perfect public figures to build a standard, ripped-from-the-headlines, whodunit narrative around. But this episode of SVU presents an elaborate fantasy. The path the fictional patriarch and matriarch take to healing and redemption is unlikely to ever unfold in the real world space the Duggars occupy. Continue reading “Matriarchy Wins: Law and Order: SVU Takes on the Duggars”