Anyone who claims to be an avid fan of the Duggar family’s meal ticket, TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, and is surprised by the scandal that has rocked Josh Duggar and the rest of the brood over the past couple of days, probably hasn’t watched the show as closely as they should have.
Because I have watched the show closely, very closely in fact — and I wasn’t shocked in the least to learn that eldest child Josh Duggar has been accused of child molestation. Now, that doesn’t mean I saw him exhibiting any sort of kid-touching behavior — or, while I’m being completely honest, that I was ever a fan of the show. I freely admit that I have harbored a fascination with this family ever since they started appearing on my TV. I won’t go so far as to say that I “hate-watched” 19 Kids and Counting (even though I pretty much did) because I’d like to keep the word “hate” out of this post as much as possible. The Duggars themselves have left enough hate behavior in their wake anyway — matriarch Michelle Duggar recorded a transphobic robocall in 2014; Josh Duggar, up until yesterday, worked for the anti-gay lobbyist group Family Research Council, which likes to post bogus “studies” like this one.
For all of TLC’s attempts to present the Duggars as a wholesome, squeaky-clean Christian family who “may do things a little different,” there have been cracks in the veneer for years. Perhaps now that the cable network is being forced to re-examine the future of one of its biggest moneymakers, they will reconsider exactly what kind of message the Duggar family has been putting out there all this time. (TLC’s official statement is as follows: “Effective immediately, TLC has pulled all episodes of 19 Kids and Counting currently from the air. We are deeply saddened and troubled by this heartbreaking situation, and our thoughts and prayers are with the family and victims at this difficult time.”)
It doesn’t matter how much TLC dressed up the Duggar girls in flip-flops and brightly colored “modern modesty” chic for the show. The Duggars were always far removed from most of modern America, and the rest of the world. They are adherents of Bill Gothard‘s Institute of Basic Life Principles, which, looky-here! likes to put any sort of sexual-abuse blame on the victim! And before the TV cameras came along, this family could’ve appeared as extras in the HBO series Big Love — that’s how high the prairie-dress quotient was. THIS is what the Duggars looked like when they were the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary called 14 Kids and Pregnant Again back in 2004. (Timetable reference: So this was after the alleged molestation took place, but before the 2006 documented investigation.)
Even as recently as this past Tuesday, when TLC aired 19 Kids and Counting’s season finale, the relatability factor was dwindling rapidly. The finale consisted of a big family interview moderated by NBC’s Erica Hill, where the Jim Bob Duggar-led clan talked about the importance of side hugs and saving first kisses for marriage. But interspersed between the Duggars’ smiley judgment on anyone who might be tempted by the devil’s kiss, were regular folks on the street (shot in cities like New York and Washington, D.C.) being interviewed about the same topics and flat-out dismissing the necessity of such extreme limits on physical contact. Whether or not this was just TLC trying to present anything outside of Duggar-land as straight-up Bacchanalia, the bottom line is, there is a very, very wide cultural gap between the Duggars and the rest of the world, and no amount of visits by glamorous mainstream journalists to Arkansas is going to change that.
When it comes to the traumatizing events that occurred between a 14-year-old Josh and his five victims (some of whom may very well be his own sisters; the names are redacted, but if you read the police report, the victims in question have parents named “Jim Bob and Michelle”), the blame here needs to pointed at the Duggar parents. That doesn’t mean Josh shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions, Facebook apology or no, but, given both the information that has come to light about how his father, Jim Bob, handled the situation, and the repressive nature of the Duggar children’s upbringing — which has been documented on 19 Kids and Counting — the fault here lies with Mom and Dad.
Jim Bob and Michelle’s botched treatment of their son’s actions has been written about extensively, so I’ll just summarize: After Josh confessed his transgressions to his father, Jim Bob sat on the information for a year, instead of reporting it to the authorities (the Duggar family patriarch’s behavior here is appalling no matter what, but the fact that the victims could be his own daughters just makes this story all the more sickening. But, as mentioned above, Jim Bob apparently adheres to the strict rules of victim-blaming). Jim Bob also opted to seek guidance from church elders in lieu of professionally trained counselors: Josh’s “counseling” consisted of doing remodeling work for a family friend (read: not a certified therapist or counselor) for four months.
Now, molestation is inexcusable at any age, but it’s not like any of the homeschooled Duggars have received anything resembling a healthy version of sex education. In the 19 Kids and Counting season finale, Jim Bob waxed poetic on how he and Michelle regularly kissed before they were married and how deeply he regretted getting so frisky with his future wife. When Jill Duggar went to Nepal (with Jim Bob in tow, natch) to meet her now-husband, Derick Dillard, for the first time, TLC repeatedly aired a clip of Derick innocently putting his arm around Jill and Jim Bob swiftly moving his daughter out of Derick’s reach. A few months later, as Derick returned home to the U.S., he and Jill were so overcome with emotion upon their reunion at the airport that they gasp! had a full-frontal embrace — and much was made of this infraction by both Duggar parents in the episode. These kids have been taught to fear human contact so much that it wasn’t a question of “if” a Duggar would get into trouble for inappropriate physical behavior, but “when.” The more Jim Bob and Michelle emphasized “self-control,” the more confused these kids became.
I have held the same feelings about the Duggar children ever since I started watching 19 Kids and Counting, which is that no matter how many times they might traverse the globe (“The Duggars Go to Israel and Learn About a Mystical Religion Called Judaism!”) and superficially try to learn about other cultures (all the Duggar girls started sporting Star of David necklaces after their Israel trip, but many of their travels have been “mission trips,” i.e. attempts to convert others to their version of Christianity), they have been given an extremely narrow view of the world around them. And if that narrow view results in harming others, which I certainly feel it has in the case of five young women, then perhaps TLC should take a long, hard look at what kind of families it wants to showcase to its viewers.