Two Years and Counting: How The Duggars Stay Relevant Post-Scandal

Two years ago, InTouch Weekly broke 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 Kids reportedly 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.
  • Jinger Duggar courted and married Jeremy Vuolo.
  • Joy Duggar began courting Austin Forsyth. They are now engaged and their wedding is rumored to be imminent.
  • Joe Duggar began courting Kendra Caldwell.

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.”

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.