Reality Television’s Year of Reckoning

TLC's long-running association with the Duggars was a ticking time bomb

Reality Television’s Year of Reckoning

“See, when you do clownery, the clown comes back to bite,” comedian Mo’Nique told a contestant on the reality show she hosted in 2007, VH1’s Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School. It was an absurd image of a biting clown made even more so by Mo’Nique’s grave delivery (her words have since been memed). But applied to the medium of reality TV, they were sage, particularly in hindsight. For reality TV, the clown has been coming back to bite repeatedly over the last few years.

TLC’s cancellation of Counting On, the most recent Duggar family spinoff, is the latest example of comeuppance—or something like that. The network announced in late June that it would not be producing further episodes of its juggernaut franchise about the sprawling Duggar family. The announcement came about two months after Josh Duggar was arrested and indicted for allegedly downloading sex abuse material of prepubescent children. “TLC feels it is important to give the Duggar family the opportunity to address their situation privately,” read part of the network’s statement. After Duggar’s conviction earlier this month (which, according to his lawyer, he plans to appeal), TLC quietly removed Counting On from its streaming platform.

Josh Duggar wasn’t actually featured on Counting On—in fact, that show effectively replaced 19 Kids and Counting, which did feature Josh Duggar, in addition to his 18 siblings, their families, and his parents. Setting a template for history to repeat itself, 19 Kids had been canceled in 2015 after news about Josh Duggar and underage children circulated widely. In that instance, it was that Josh Duggar had in his teens, during the years of 2002 and 2003, molested five underage girls, including sisters of his. Counting On replaced it later that year.

Counting On’s cancellation is part of what appears to be a sea change within the reality TV industry, or at least the public’s understanding of it, and it might not have happened without the covid-19 pandemic. One of the lockdown’s unexpected benefits was the opportunity to reassess the effects of popular culture. This manifested in many different ways (think: Free Britney), including widespread criticism of reality TV’s transgressions on social media. Something like America’s Next Top Model’s repeated use of blackface in photo shoots was fucked up from the jump, but finally, years later, it received the scrutiny it deserved on social media.

The scrutiny, in turn, kicked off a larger reckoning—at least a cosmetic one—within a television genre marked by ethical transgression and saturated by scandal. “Those were some off choices,” Tyra Banks tweeted in May 2020 regarding clips from vintage ANTM episodes that recirculated on social media, including the aforementioned blackface and harsh criticism directed at contestants. Bachelor host Chris Harrison left the show after nearly two decades in the wake of excusing contestant Rachael KirkConnell’s racism. In June 2020, Bravo fired white Vanderpump Rules cast members for calling the cops on a Black co-star and falsely accusing her of stealing. Elsewhere, the network has attempted to diversify its lily-white casting, including adding its first Black Housewife to The Real Housewives of New York.

“They’re not sorry—they’re just caught,” said Jennifer Pozer, media critic and author of the prescient 2010 book on the ethics of reality TV, Reality Bites Back. Pozner recalled writing about reality TV’s misogyny and racism since the virtual dawn of the genre, in the early aughts. She said that such bigotry was in reality TV’s DNA, and that while it’s gratifying to see discourse catch up to her decades-old argument, “the fact that we are still taking media companies’ word for it that they are going to change or that they have changed means that I don’t get to be vindicated yet.”

There is probably no better case study in this particular point than TLC’s handling of its Duggar problem. The gigantic religious family was presented to the public by the network starting in 2004 via the same kinds of obfuscation and narrative contorting that distinguishes reality TV from a documentary. A light and breezy freak show about a kooky family spawned from Michelle Duggar’s indefatigable womb obscured underlying caustic philosophies and abuse. When the abuse was no longer ignorable, TLC and the Duggars worked in lockstep to keep up appearances.

“They’re not sorry—they’re just caught”

TLC, part of the Discovery Media company which recently merged with WarnerMedia in a coordinated Frankenstein walk toward monopoly, issued a pithy statement when news broke in April 2021 that Josh Duggar had been arrested for possession of child sex abuse material. “TLC is saddened to learn about the continued troubles involving Josh Duggar,” the network said in a statement. “19 Kids and Counting has not aired since 2015. TLC canceled the show on the heels of prior allegations against Josh Duggar and he has not appeared on air since then.” TLC issued no apparent statement upon Duggar’s December 2021 conviction.

The referenced prior “allegations” referred to the accounts of molestation confirmed by Duggar and some of the sisters he molested. Additionally, TLC’s acknowledgement of 19 Kids and Counting’s cancellation was a classic reality TV sleight of hand—it was very technically true but a distortion since the show effectively continued under a different title. Between 19 Kids and Counting’s cancellation and Counting On’s premiere, TLC reported during an August 2015 conference call that it lost $19 million as a result of pulling its highly-rated series from its lineup. When it “canceled” 19 Kids, the network had claimed in a statement that: “After thoughtful consideration, TLC and the Duggar family have decided to not move forward with 19 Kids and Counting. The show will no longer appear on the air. The recent attention around the Duggars has sparked a critical and important conversation about child protection.”

The name game is but one way that TLC gestured toward distancing itself from the Duggars while keeping them on the payroll. 19 Kids and Counting (previously known as 17 Kids and Counting and 18 Kids and Counting, as it charted the Duggar brood’s expansion) is unavailable for streaming on the discovery+ app, and according to a report, was removed from Amazon and Apple in mid-May, weeks after news of Josh Duggar’s arrest broke. Several episodes of the show, however, remain available for purchase on YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. (Similarly, Counting On can still be accessed via YouTube.) If TLC’s cancellation of the show meant anything, surely that meaning is undone by 19 Kids’ continued availability from which the network stands to profit. TLC did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment on the continued availability of a show it had suggested in 2015 would no longer be available.

To illustrate the futility of these public displays of redemption undertaken by networks like TLC, Pozner compared them to restaurants that shut down after failing health inspections. “You can’t bring that restaurant back with the same owners, the same chefs, the same menu and the same backend supplies in the kitchen and think you’re going to get different dishes in the front of the house,” she said. “‘We’re just going to give you new laminated menus that are shinier.’ And somehow the menus are supposed to make you think that you’re receiving something different.”

For the sake of responsible media consumption, and to wrap our heads around TLC’s contradictory gesturing, it’s worth considering the degree to which TLC may have been complicit in Josh Duggar’s crimes. His abuse of underage girls reportedly took place before the network ever broadcast his image—the first of several Duggars-themed specials, 14 Children and Pregnant Again!, aired in 2004. His father, Jim Bob Duggar, reportedly waited over a year after Josh’s confession to report his crime, for which Josh was never charged. Instead, Josh was reportedly given a “stern” talking to and underwent “Christian counseling.” While Josh’s juvenile case was sealed—leading to the family’s expressed surprise when InTouch published Josh Duggar’s police report as a result of a FOIA request in 2015—rumors of his molestation of his sisters had been circulating on the web since at least 2007. Suzanne Titkemeyer, a writer, activist, and survivor of the Quiverfull movement with which the Duggars have been associated, told Jezebel that she knew about Josh’s behavior before it hit the mainstream media via a whisper network and requests for prayers for “the family in Arkansas who’s dealing with their son, touching his sisters.”

Outside of the movement, people knew as well. Per the police report, a planned 2006 Oprah Winfrey Show feature on the Duggars was canceled when Harpo Studios got a tip about Josh’s past predation. If a production company that had a single story planned on this family was able to catch wind of the secret abuse, it’s hard to imagine a network that was going into business with the Duggars not being aware early on in their association.

But the Duggars themselves didn’t disclose the abuse, instead projecting the image of a perfect Christian family. When news broke, some of Josh’s sisters whom he molested went on Fox News to exonerate their brother, with Jessa Duggar saying that the idea that Josh was a pedophile was “so overboard and a lie.” Effectively, a sex abuse scandal was swept under the rug to clear the path for more Duggars on TV.

“When something like that happens in religious abuse contexts, there is this idea of you have to you have to protect the community,” said Kathryn Joyce, who’s written about fundamentalists, including those in the Quiverfull movement. “You have to protect the reputation of the church or the faith or the pastor or the priest. Ultimately you have to protect God by preventing these shameful stories from getting out there.”

But even if TLC and the Duggars had different presentational goals, based on available information, both entities normalized what was being put forth. Without seriously interrogating or contextualizing the misogyny at play in the purity culture the Duggars came draped in, TLC was effectively promoting a way of life that places all responsibility on women for men’s behavior by prescribing “modesty” to prevent abuse. When women are burdened with the responsibility of saving themselves from men who are just that way, it’s hardly a surprise when abuse occurs and is swiftly forgiven by the men in charge who consider themselves without fault.

“Modesty culture teaches that women hold the keys to the kingdom, they are the gatekeepers of sexuality all the time, even though you’re told be submissive, the woman is the gatekeeper,” said Titkemeyer.

It’s important to note that the exact nature of the Duggars’ beliefs is contested. Many outsiders have observed that they appear to adhere to the Quiverfull theology, which advocates eschewing birth control to have as many children as possible. The Duggars themselves have denied association with the movement (which isn’t associated with any one Christian denomination). In Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s 2011 book A Love That Multiplies, they state that rather than being Quiverfull, they “are simply Bible-believing Christians who desire to follow God’s Word and apply it to our lives.”

Joyce, who wrote about Quiverfull for years and published the book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement in 2009, said that the Duggars’ denial struck her as a “fig leaf,” given how much of the Quiverfull ideology—patriarchy, modesty, large families, homeschooling—the Duggars evinced. Regardless of their caveats, they “are kind of the royal family of Quiverfull,” according to Titkemeyer.

“The Duggars were beloved, sort of quasi celebrities, quasi royalty within the movement,” said Joyce. “People within the movement definitely appreciated them and thought they were a lovely family that was making the movement look good.”

It’s telling that the Duggars did not appear to be beset by the financial difficulties that large families often face. “They weren’t having to live in the way that the people that they were implicitly encouraging to follow their lifestyle would have to,” said Joyce, explaining that the vast majority of large families don’t enjoy brand sponsorships and other subsidies that come with being public figures.

A key feature of Quiverfull is the notion that a large family creates political might—one can effectively populate the world with ideological clones by reproducing. It’s right there in Psalm 127:3–5, which Mary Pride cited in her 1985 book The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, a foundational Quiverfull text. “Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate,” goes part of the Psalm. Disgraced homeschooling guru Bill Gothard, who was accused of sexual harassment by more than 30 women that worked for him, preached a similar message regarding “godly seed.” Gothard was the head of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), whose Advanced Training Institute homeschooling curriculum the Duggars used on their children.

If the Duggars had a specific political agenda in their tireless approach to reproduction, their innocent-seeming show takes on an insidious tone as propaganda if you see past the sunny veneer. (As TLC’s first special on the family introduced them via voiceover put it: “A combination of organization, ingenuity, team spirit, and a heavy dose of faith has helped the Duggars create a world that bears as much resemblance to the Waltons as it does to life here in the 21st century.”) Not only did episodes belabor the family’s philosophy regarding purity, they sometimes came with an explicit intention of influence. During the Season 1 episode “Josh Gets Engaged,” Michelle commented on her son’s refusal to go further than holding hands with his new fiancée, Anna. “Saving that first kiss for your wedding day is like really special. And I hope that it inspires others to consider that as well,” she said.

There were plenty of other examples of this sort of unchecked advocacy that popped up throughout the 19 Kids run:

Whether the Duggars are Quiverfull or not, the sort of squeaky clean presentation that belies abuse is part and parcel of some Christian families’ public image. This kind of image-obsessed lifestyle can help facilitate the covering up of abuse, according to Vyckie Garrison, another Quiverfull survivor, who is now an atheist.

“The most important thing in the fundamentalist Christian mind is: What is our witness to the world? What are they seeing?” she told Jezebel. “It’s all about appearances: ‘I don’t want to bring a bad name onto Christ by being caught being found out with what you’ve done.’ And so rather than go through the proper legal channels, they’re going to say, well, this is something that has to be dealt with spiritually.”

It sounds a bit like showbiz, doesn’t it? With the Duggars, television production and a religious family’s desperate attempts to keep up appearances collude.

“A lot of reality television has been baldfaced propaganda for a wide variety of ideologies,” observed Pozner, who pointed to the way The Apprentice made Donald Trump out to be the “biggest, most effective, most respected authority figure in the business community that we have in America… the ultimate connoisseur of good business judgment.”

To Pozner, any nefarious objective of the Duggars by putting their best side on television to promote their ideology is beside the point.

“TLC was complicit from the beginning of the franchise in promulgating an outmoded set of ideas about who women and men are,” she said. “TLC not cutting ties with the Duggars immediately [after the news about Josh broke] is a good example of how entrenched the idea of sexual assault being an acceptable cost of doing business is.” The entertainment industry has been slow to acknowledge this notion, though it did become more widespread in the wake of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

With the Duggars, the methods of a TV show and family desperately attempting to keep up appearances collude.

Regardless of TLC’s intentions or knowledge, this is what their product has ended up meaning to those willing to put the pieces together and avoid being misdirected. For Titkemeyer, it’s a reminder of the life she left, and an uncomfortable one at that.

“Watching this [situation] with Josh has just triggered me all over again,” she said. “And I’m not the only one. We’re being extremely triggered by what’s going on with Josh because we’re seeing this is the ultimate play out of Quiverfull denial of sexuality.”

Whether TLC’s cancellation of Counting On constitutes an actual cutting of ties with the Duggars—or sets the stage for another change of title and little else—remains to be seen. Public responses from various Duggar family members have ranged from anodyne (Jim Bob and Michelle’s statement read in part: “The wonderful experiences that filming has provided us will be treasured always, and we look forward to discovering what’s next for our family and sharing more with you along the way!”) to supportive (Jinger and her husband Jeremy Vuolo on Instagram: “We wholeheartedly agree with TLC’s decision not to renew Counting On and are excited for the next chapter in our lives”). In a post on their website titled “Statement On Counting On Cancellation: Better Late Than Never,” Jill Duggar Dillard and her husband Derick Dillard, who have not appeared on Counting On in several seasons, claimed that during their time on the show they “faced many pressures and some unexpected challenges which forced us to step away from the show in an effort to gain more control over our own lives and to do what was best for our family.”

Similarly, Amy Duggar, a cousin to the Counting On family and a featured player on the shows herself, recently asked on Instagram, “Once a show is canceled, does that mean that if anyone has signed an NDA, is that canceled as well since there’s no show to protect? I have a feeling that things are going to get very interesting.” Could it be that this reality show is in for a cold dose of actual reality?

For years, many of us have watched reality TV knowing that it’s ridiculous and fake, and in fact enjoying its synthetic essence. It’s like giggling at an image of real-life as reflected in a funhouse mirror—the fun is the distortion. But ethical transgressions may be at last catching up with the genre, and a case like the Duggars and what their show promoted and concealed makes it clear that for some shows, that joke simply isn’t funny anymore. The packaging of the Duggars and the palpable political agenda that lay just underneath the surface crystallizes the difference between reality and documentary. What distinguishes the former from the latter is an exuberantly explicit rejection of ethics. A true reckoning of reality TV—one that goes beyond social media outrage and ensuing corporate gesturing—would contend with this very issue. It would disrupt the bedrock on which an entire genre has been built. Could reality TV even withstand the shakeup?

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