The Duggar Legacy

What lessons have we learned from ‘Shiny Happy People’?

In the months since Amazon Prime first released Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, there have been some pretty clear consequences in the press for the family’s skulduggery. Namely, that the Duggars, a family best known for having a large amount of children and starting a Discovery-branded television branded empire with that backstories in the late aughts…is back in the tabloids. Jinjer Duggar defies her families fundamentalist Christian dress codes by wearing jeans. Josiah Duggar has defied the family’s disbelief in the abstract concept of debt by getting a mortgage. Josh Duggar remains in jail for sex offenses; he recently lost an appeal for his child pornography conviction.

Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets is a neat little show that served as a prescient reminder that the whole reason Discovery is such a powerful media conglomerate that they could afford to by Warner Brothers was because they kept making these weird documentary series about the Duggars, who have lots of kids, and that’s the premise. Also, the Duggars are  open followers of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, an organization which definitely sounds like a cult even if Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets doesn’t actually use that word.

The first Duggar show,  19 Kids and Counting, was just regular cheap reality TV, something which our culture hasn’t considered chic since maybe the early days of Survivor at best. Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets doesn’t really get into the subject of why anyone watched the Duggars, but it at least has the premise of a clear thesis- its focus on the Institute in Basic Life Principles, the basis for the traditional styled homeschool culture the Duggars engaged in; it’s a fundamentalist Christian organization that slips under a lot of people’s radar because of how they proselytize. Rather than making direct political action or appeals, they gain new members by offering support networks to Christians in flyover country areas and putting on a strong front of showing how happy and well-behaved the large families of its members are.

Long before derogatory words like tradwife or breeder entered popular slang this decade to describe people in such situations, 19 Kids and Counting was making an open, affirmative case that such a lifestyle, while unusual, was fundamentally positive and deserved acceptance. The Duggars, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, and The Learning Channel (which the Discovery Channel owned by this point) were really instrumental in normalizing these ideas for people who watch their programming, with just enough conflict to keep the Duggars sympathetic yet engaging.

Indeed, Discovery and its family of channels use almost the exact same format pioneered with 19 and Counting to showcase any number of other nontraditional families, be they polygamists, lesbians, or the Kardashians. Although, technically speaking, I should note that the Kardashians actually predates the Duggars.

While Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets doesn’t get into this directly, the relevance is easy to see. While the Kardashians are huge celebrities who have done excellent work leveraging their brand despite many people not having any idea who they are or why they’re famous, the Duggars are often at the cusp of poverty. Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets lays a lot of this at the feet of family patriarch Jim Bob Duggar. Friends and family onscreen note that his control over his family is exploitative, and of dubious legality. At one point the documentary depicts Jim Bob Duggar bullying his daughter into broadcasting her birth on television, aided by Discovery and its contracts.

It’s a bit odd that Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets blames Jim Bob Duggar so much. He engages in plenty of indefensible behavior, most blatantly with working so hard to cover up his son Josh Duggar’s sex pestery. But the financial numbers that Shiny Happy People mentions are quite paltry compared to the ones we regularly hear in connection to the Kardashians. And given how wealthy Discovery became in the intervening years, it begs the question–exactly how much money was Discovery making off of this? Who stands to lose more from Josh Duggar’s exposure: the family that always has the Institute of Basic Life Principles to fall back to, or the corporation whose already dubious reputation for trashy television would collapse overnight if it came out that they were suborning sexual abuse?

That said, Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets focuses largely on the Institute of Basic Life Principles and their disturbing beliefs, and deserves the strong audience it’s accumulated for that reason alone. But the tabloid response leaves me wondering to what extent this kind of intellectual honesty really matters. Would we really learn anything new from a second season of Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets? Or is the whole idea of learning anything from any of this a fool’s errand? Talking about awful people has a bit of a masturbatory quality after a while, emphasizing our differences rather than our similarities when it comes to consuming a new generation of slop.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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