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.

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Counting On: Meet the Duggars 2.0

Jill and Jessa 2

You probably heard by now, TLC has ordered a full season of Jill and Jessa: Counting On. If you didn’t know, I’m sorry to ruin your day. (But are you really that surprised? I did tell you this could happen and be successful.) But do not dismiss TLC’s continued commitment to the Duggars 2.0; this family and every nuanced aspect of their brand matters more than ever before.

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”

Matriarchy Wins: Law and Order: SVU Takes on the Duggars

Law and Order: SVU - Meet the Bakers. Starring the dad from Two of a Kind.
Law and Order: SVU – Meet the Bakers. Starring the dad from Two of a Kind.

In October,  NBC announced  Law and Order: SVU would tackle the Duggar family scandal. In spite of almost never watching SVU, I immediately knew this episode would capture my attention. (Gee, I wonder why?)

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”

19 Kids and Counting: Why A Duggar Spinoff Could Work

I’ve never understood this marketing campaign.
I’ve never understood this marketing campaign.

The Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting are many things. They are an unorthodox family. They are Conservatives. They are public Evangelicals. They are hypocrites.

In the week since InTouch Weekly published the police report about Josh Duggar’s acts of child molestation, tabloids, advertisers and networks have been quick to respond. You can no longer stream episodes on either Hulu or TLC.com. The latest issue of People, typically the Duggars #1 fan, also covers the scandal.

Casually pretending to not have a symbiotic relationship with the Duggars.
People Magazine: Casually pretending to not have a symbiotic relationship with the Duggars.

There are also rumors that TLC is considering developing a 19 Kids and Counting spinoff, which would focus on daughters Jill and Jessa.

I know what you’re thinking. How can TLC possibly be considering a spinoff? Hasn’t this family already gotten away with enough hypocrisy?

First, as I have previously written, 19 Kids and Counting is TLC and Discovery’s most profitable show. The network and mass media company will go to great lengths to keep any Duggars on television. Second, a spinoff centered around the Duggar daughters could be intriguing reality television and a potentially genius move.

For those not up on the lives of every Duggar, Jill and Jessa are both married and starting families. (Jill gave birth in May; Jessa is due in November.) They are also presumed to be two of their brother’s victims.

Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard
Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard

After 200 episodes, 19 Kids and Counting has become boring reality television. Like really boring. When the Duggars 2.0 began courtships, engagements, and families of their own, the show’s plots became redundant. There are only so many wedding and birth episodes a viewer can take. Even before the scandal broke, the show needed a major shake up. Obviously a child molestation scandal is a terrible way to generate new story material and interest in a long running series, but that is exactly what is happening. (Or at least, what TLC is presumably hoping will happen.)

Now consider this. The Duggars have gone to great lengths to keep much of their public lives and agenda separate from the image purported by their reality show. Even as the Duggars 2.0 began using social media (something they can’t do until they begin a courtship) and revealed their strong conservative political/social beliefs, the show itself remained rooted in the idea that the Duggars are just an abnormally large family living the American Dream. But the truth has come out and the aftermath is potentially devastating for both the Duggars and TLC.

For a spinoff to be successful and worthy of any viewers time, Jim Bob, Michelle and Josh must be removed completely. Josh Duggars deserves no platform to redeem himself. Neither do Jim Bob or Michelle, who have little purpose on their own show. (Their oldest daughters do most of the actual child rearing.)

If the focus does shift to Jill and Jessa, then the sisters must be as open and honest about their past as possible. The spinoff cannot keep any secrets from audiences anymore. Abuse is an unspoken reality about life in as an Evangelical. Because Evangelical churches are patriarchal institutions, abusers are protected from ramifications. For any Duggar to publicly discuss their experiences as abuse victims would rock the house of Bill Gothard, so to speak.

19 Kids and Counting has spent nearly a decade masking extreme patriarchy behind a veil of Christian family values. So yes, a Duggar spinoff centered around the Duggar women would be revolutionary. And if handled properly, it is the kind of show that might actually earn the (some) Duggars actual respect.

(An alternative scenario for a spinoff, and there are many, is perhaps more likely. But I prefer to imagine a Duggar spinoff as close to Breaking Duggar as possible.)

The Unseen Realities of 19 Kids and Counting

“Reality TV promises its audience revelatory insight into the lives of others as it withholds and subverts full access to it.” — Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture

19 kids and counting

It finally happened. After almost a decade of being America’s favorite oversized Evangelical family next door, the Duggars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting are experiencing a scandal for which there might actually be repercussions.

Here is (some of) what we know so far:

  • On Thursday May 21, InTouch published a police report indicating allegations that oldest son Josh Duggar was accused of child molestation in 2006. His father Jim Bob waited more than a year to report the accusations.
  • Josh Duggar has since apologized and resigned as Executive Director of the Family Research Council (FRC).
  • Various blogs and websites are now uncovering many of the less often discussed aspects of the Duggars religion and lifestyle. Buzzfeed, for instance, has a post on the homeschooling practices the Duggars promote via 19 Kids and Counting.
  • Other media outlets have reported that the allegations about Josh Duggar have been circulating on the Internet for years. (This is true. I first heard about the allegations some time ago.)
  • TLC has pulled, not canceled, episodes of 19 Kids and Counting. You can still watch full episodes on TLC.com and there remains significant demands for cancellation.
  • As of May 27, 19 Kids and Counting has lost advertisers including General Mills and Walgreens.
  • While it seems that the scandal has simmered down over the long weekend, expect more news to spiral in the coming days until TLC makes a definitive decision on the future of 19 Kids and Counting.

Coincidentally, I wrote a final paper on 19 Kids and Counting for my Media, Culture & Power in International Communications course two weeks ago. (Snaps for grad school.) For the past month, I have been researching everything from the Duggar family and the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) to representations of extreme lifestyles on reality television to the branding of TLC and Discovery Communications. Needless to say, I have been following this scandal more closely than I ever paid attention to the similar fallouts that occurred with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Jon & Kate Plus 8.

Much of what is being written across the Internet right now focuses on the scandal itself – especially the cringeworthy behavior of various Duggars over the years. Yet what is not being discussed is how a show like 19 Kids and Counting is an integral part of a complex media system.

When you examine a show like 19 Kids and Counting, you quickly realize that more is going on than you could ever imagine. These are the main points we should focus on when we talk about the Duggars, the media empire they’ve built, and what is at stake for TLC/Discovery Communications.

Continue reading “The Unseen Realities of 19 Kids and Counting”