Dr. Christy Mesaros-Winckles – In the summer of 2015 the seemingly blissful, perfect conservative lives of the Duggar family, stars of TLC’s now defunct hit reality show 19 Kids and Counting, fell apart as over a series of months their oldest child Joshua Duggar’s
history of sexual misconduct came to light. This began when the American tabloid In Touch uncovered evidence, later confirmed by the family, that during his teen years the Joshua had molested five underage girls, four of whom were his sisters. As if this was not troublesome enough, in August 2015 Joshua Duggar’s name appeared in a massive data hack from the extra-marital affair website Ashley Madison. In the ensuing weeks it became clear Joshua Duggar had been using the account for years in order to engage in extra-marital affairs with women. While never explicitly addressing his use of Ashley Madison, Joshua acknowledged in a public statement he had, “Secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the Internet and this became a secret addiction, and I became unfaithful to my wife.”[i] In the wake of this revelation advertisers began to flee the show, which ultimately resulted in TLC cancelling 19 Kids and Counting in July 2015.[ii]
Just like that, the dark side of the Christian patriarchy movement emerged in a very public way, and it was far from the family friendly image the Duggars had created for America on TLC. While it could be argued that Joshua Duggar was simply an anomaly – one hypocrite gone astray – the reality is much more complex and is intertwined with the ways Christian patriarchy culture defines masculinity, marriage, and sexuality.
Reality TV: Mindless Entertainment, Propaganda Tool, or Both?
The Duggar family first rose to reality television stardom in a 2004 Discovery Channel special 14 Kids and Pregnant Again! which was followed by a television deal and the premier of their (then titled) show 17 Kids and Counting. This iteration of the show went through several title changes as the Duggars had more children and ran for fifteen seasons on TLC, consistently ranking as one of their highest rated shows until its cancellation. During this entire period their show was produced by Bill Hayes and his production company Figure 8 Films, which is responsible for producing many hit shows on TLC, including Sister Wives, Kate Plus 8,[iv] and the new 19 Kids and Counting spin-off about the oldest Duggar Children, Counting On.[v] Hayes and his crew consider themselves “storytellers” who act as “caretakers” to the lives of those they are filming, claiming that they do not interfere just film.[vi] As producer Bill Hayes explains, he always asks his prospective “characters” why they want to put themselves in the media spotlight. In return he says, “They tell me, ‘If I can help one other person get through a similar situation, then it’s worth it’.”[vii] However, it is clear in both 19 Kids and Counting and Counting On that Figure 8 does have a close, and not impartial, relationship with the family. In many cases they allow the kids in 19 Kids and Counting to help film their own episodes with the camera equipment and in Counting On they directly prompt the older Duggar children to talk about their feelings regarding Joshua’s betrayal of his wife and family. So, shows such as 19 and Counting and the Duggar’s follow up show Counting On are not entirely unscripted.
Shows featuring the Duggar family have been immensely profitable to Discovery Communications. Despite the scandals that erupted as a consequence of Joshua Duggar’s sexual behavior, which were in direct conflict with the family’s conservative political and religious values, Discovery Communications was still reluctant to cancel the show. It was pulled from TLC’s lineup in May 2015, but was not officially cancelled until July 2015. The impact of the cancellation of 19 Kids and Counting on Discovery Communication’s ratings and bottom line can be seen in their second quarter profit/loss statement where they reported a $19 million loss due “Primarily to content impairment charges with the cancelling TLC’s of 19 Kids and Counting.”[viii] The cancellation of the show represented a substantial hit to the corporation’s bottom line, especially as viewership had begun to massively increase in the eighth season with the courtship of Jill Duggar and Derick Dillard. The episode when Derrick Dillard and Jill Duggar meet for the first time garnered the highest Tuesday night ratings out of any commercial programming on cable among the 18-49 and the 25-54 demographics with 2.5 million total viewers tuning in.[ix] The wedding of Jill Duggar was also one of the highest rated episodes of the series with 4.4 million viewers watching.[x] In particular, the popularity of Jill and Jessa prompted Discovery Communications to order a spin off show featuring the two sisters and the Duggar siblings who are now adults.[xi]
Reality Television Harmless, Binge-Worthy Entertainment?
Critics of reality television have long called the genre “mindless,” a chance to escape for audiences to escape reality and sit back and enjoy “low brow” entertainment. Yet, what is often overlooked is embedded in this “low brow” entertainment are subtle ideologies about what culture has become and what culture should be.[xii] In the case of 19 Kids and Counting what is offered is a fundamentalist ideology disguised as cute family friendly programing.[xiii] While there have been numerous studies on reality television shows and their impact on culture, most have focused on game show format shows, self-help shows, such as The Biggest Loser,[xiv] and social experiment shows such as The Bachelor or Big Brother.[xv] Nevertheless, as scholars such as Leigh Edwards have noted, families or ideals about families are often at the center of reality programming, as is evidenced by shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or Trading Spouses, which come up with sensational premises in order to enter the lives of “regular” families. Yet, as Edwards notes, “Programs that focus on familial settings and themes implicitly make their own arguments about the state of the American family, entering the long- running family values debate.”[xvi]
In the case of 19 Kids and Counting On the values debate is over the state of American culture and “loss” of Christianity as the center of the American home and public life. For the Duggar family the only way to remedy this is by exercising close control over every aspect of their children’s lives until they marry and start their own families. Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar encourage their children to continue breeding large families to out populate the “infidels” who populate the rest of the world.[xvii] Unless one is well versed in the values and theology of this most insular of cultures, these themes are difficult to pinpoint in the show itself. However, the recent scandal surrounding Joshua Duggar illustrates how some of these beliefs have been transmitted (and transgressed) as a result of the Duggar family’s choices to open up their lives and lifestyle to outside scrutiny. Thus, as film theorist John Fiske notes, shows like 19 and Counting should be viewed not merely as entertainment, but as an attempt to disperse the show’s values:
The characters unify disparate actions not through their personal experience of them, but through their discursive structure of embodiment of an abstract value system by which sense is made of the incidents…the characters not only unify scenes within an episode, but episodes within the series, they are “the character” of the series in so far as they bear its distinctive features, its ideological practice, and are the main agents of ‘hailing’ and then interpolating the prospective audience.[xviii]
Because the Duggar family’s shows can be viewed through various lenses and have multiple agendas, when Joshua Duggar no longer was a “character” who could uphold the ideological values of the family, 19 Kids and Counting could no longer create a unified narrative of wholesome and conservative Christianity. Advertisers no longer wanted to promote their products within an unsound narrative structure because the audience was less receptive to the family patriarch Jim Bob Duggar and matriarch Michelle Duggar sharing their ideology to audiences while their oldest son was engaging in embodied action contrary to the values they consistently promoted on the show. Thus, TLC made the decision to cancel 19 Kids and Counting, and instead launch a spin-off show Counting On with the Duggar family’s other children who were still embodying the family’s conservative value system. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar moved to the background of the new show, and the Duggar children became faces and voices carrying on the original intent of 19 Kids and Counting.
Christian Fundamentalism Now the Norm
While the Duggar family is one of the most visible embodiments of Christian patriarchy ideology, the values of patriarchy culture have become part of mainstream American politics since the 2016 election President Donald Trump in the United States. This was most recently evidenced by President Trump’s endorsement of 2017 Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who willingly admitted to dating teen girls with parental consent.[xix] Moore was defended by conservative pastors in Alabama who argued Moore had just returned from Vietnam at the time of the allegations and had a limited selection of “pure” single women to court.[xx] The American media was captivated by Moore’s sexual choices, but failed to look at his connections to patriarchy values and strict beliefs that women belong in the home, not in politics. Moore believes in the repeal the 19th Amendment [giving U.S. women the right to vote],[xxi] and continually denies his sexual conduct as a young man was predatory towards underage women. The acceptance, or complacency, towards a sexual belief system such as the Duggars and Moore, was illustrated in the 2017 Alabama election where Moore lost by only 1.5 percentage points.[xxii]
Yet, despite the recent attention from American media, we still know relatively little about how religious ideologies are influential through reality television shows such as 19 Kids and Counting. Harrison and Rowley have examined how the Christian patriarchy movement has gained traction as a reaction to what many politically conservative Christians see as a decline of family values in the late twentieth century.[xxiii] The women’s rights movement, LGBTQI movement, and the women’s health movement have all attracted families to this counter-cultural community that adheres to a strict Biblical interpretation of gender roles. While the push to breed a righteous army is a far off and unlikely goal, the movement’s anti-feminist agenda has gained traction beyond the small group of patriarchy adherents, and is now being embraced by the broader conservative evangelical caucus in the United States. The movement is not just an abstract ideology or a lifestyle choice that affects only a few; the cunning use of the media allows the patriarchy message to gain more mainstream acceptance in Christian culture.
Research on Christian Patriarchy Culture
Though having a lot of children is no longer essential to patriarchy culture, the narrative of cultural decline and the battle to arrest it is. In this the discursive power of sex and sexuality are harnessed as a means to amass power and control over the reproductive ability of women. In not talking about sex overtly or in attempting to suppress discourse on sexuality, the movement becomes about sex and the power of sex to disrupt and transgress. Indeed, as Berlant and Warner point out in their influential essay on “Sex in Public”:
Ideologies and institutions of intimacy are increasingly offered as a vision of the good life for the destabilized and struggling citizenry of the United States, the only (fantasy) zone in which a future might be thought and willed, the only (imaginary) place where good citizens might be produced away from the confusing and unsettling distractions and contradictions of capitalism and politics. Indeed, one of the unforeseen paradoxes of national-capitalist privatization has been that citizens have been led through heterosexual culture to identify both themselves and their politics with privacy. In the official public, this involves making sex private; re-intensifying blood as a psychic base for identification; replacing state mandates for social justice with a privatized ethics of responsibility, charity, atonement, and ‘values’; and enforcing boundaries between moral persons and economic ones.[xxvii]
In other words, the enforcement of sexual norms through compulsory hetero-normativity and compartmentalization of desire within conservative Christian culture is performed in service of bolstering a conservative, “family values” status quo. It helps keep the “enemy from the gates” by solidifying individual identity around the nuclear family and closely controlled sexual norms. The problem is, as Foucault reminds us, that sexuality and sexual practices are polyvalent and fundamentally uncontrollable. As the Duggars moved their lives into public, the bounds they put on their discourse, especially around sex, dispersed and became fundamentally uncontrollable.
The laws, which both allow and oppress sexual desire in Christian patriarchy culture, create what Foucault defines as a juridico- discursive framework that can be used to analyze the repression and fulfillment of sexual desire and its relationship to power. As Foucault explains, the juridico-discursive framework’s relationship to power can “Lead to two contrary results: either to the promise of a ‘liberation,’… or to the affirmation [power]: you are always-already trapped.”[xxviii] In other words, power and sex are intrinsically connected through social prohibition or cultural taboo. Depending on how one chooses to relate the two to each other through discourse, new possibilities for sexual repression or liberation and agency become possible.
Therefore, in the rest of this essay I will examine how in the final two seasons of 19 and Counting Joshua and Anna Duggar and Jessa Duggar each perform patriarchy and marriage in various ways on the show using Foucault’s concepts of the juridico-discursive nature of power and sex.[xxix] In each case, the discourse of power based on sexual norms and restrictions is shattered by what Foucault terms the polyvalence of sexual discourse – despite patriarchy culture’s attempts to regulate and police gender and gender relations through sex and sex as a means to power, the discursive power of sexuality localized around the movement is ultimately disrupted in different ways in the lives of the two oldest Duggar children.
[i] Chicago Tribune, “Josh Duggar allegedly had two Ashley Madison Accounts,”
chicagotribune.com, April 5, 2016
[ii] Rothman, Michael & Messer, Lesley, “’19 Kids and Counting’ Cancelled: The Duggars Speak Out,”ABC News, http://www.abcnews.com, July 16, 2015,¶1&2 http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/josh-duggar-19-kids-counting-cancelled/story?id=31243623
[iii] Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: Volume I An Introduction, (New York: Vintage Books, 1978)
[iv] Brophy-Warren, Jamin, “Family Man: Meet the Producer Behind Jon and Kate, Table for 12 and 18 and Counting,” Slate.com, November 27, 2009, ¶ 8
[v] Spargo, Chris, “They’re Back! Jill and Jess land full season order for spin-off series which will feature most their siblings, including sister-in-law Anna, but not shamed, porn addicted brother Josh,” UKDailyMail.com, February 23, 2006, ¶2&3 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3460796/They-Jill-Jessa-Duggar-land-season-order-spin-series-feature-siblings-sister-law-Anna-NOT-shamed-porn-addict-brother-Josh.html
[viii] Savage, Leslie, “Cancelling ’19 Kids and Counting’ Cost Discovery $19 Million.” ¶1&2
CBSNews.com, August 5, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/canceling-19-kids
[ix] The Futon Critic. “TLC’s ’19 Kids and Counting’ Brings in Duggar-Sized Ratings.”
Thefutoncritic.com, May 7, 2014, ¶2&3 http://www.thefutoncritic.com/ratings/2014/05/07/tlcs-19-kids-and-counting
[x] Kenneally, Tim, “19 and Counting scores record ratings with Duggar wedding episode.” The Wrap.com, October 29, 2014,¶3&4, http://www.thewrap.com/19-kids-counting-scores-record-ratings-with-duggar-wedding-episode/
[xi] Spargo, 2006
[xii] Weber, Brenda, “Trash Talk: Gender as an Analytic on Reality TV,” in Reality Gendervision: Sexuality and Gender on Transatlantic Reality Television, ed. Brenda Weber, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 3
[xiii] (Author). “TLC and the Fundamentalist Family: A Televised Quiverfull
of Babies,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 22.3 (2010): Online Journal
[xiv] Jones, Cassandra, “The Patriotic American Is a Thin American: Fatness and National Identity in The Biggest Loser,” The Tube Has Spoken: Reality TV and History, Eds. Julie Anne Taddeo and Ken Dvorak (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2010): 65-80
[xv] Baron, Lee, “From Social Experiment to Postmodern Joke: Big Brother and the Progressive Construction of Celebrity,” The Tube Has Spoken: Reality TV and History, Eds. Julie Anne Taddeo and Ken Dvorak (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2010): 27-46
[xvi] Edwards, Leigh, “Reality TV and the American Family,” The Tube Has Spoken: Reality TV and History, Eds. Julie Anne Taddeo and Ken Dvorak (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2010): 127
[xviii] Fiske, John, Television Culture (London: Routledge, 1987): 129
[xix] Detrow, Scott & Taylor, Jessica, “RNC Restores Financial Support for Roy Moore as Trump Gives Full Endorsement,” http://www.npr.org, December 4, 2017, ¶ 1-3, https://www.npr.org/2017/12/04/568274917/removing-any-qualifications-trump-endorses-roy-moore
[xx] Blair, Leonardo, “Roy Moore Dated Young Girls for Their ‘Purity’ Pastor Flip Benham Says,” November 22, 2017, http://www.christianpost.com, ¶3, https://www.christianpost.com/news/roy-moore-dated-young-girls-for-their-purity-pastor-flip-benham-says-207546/
[xxi] Reilly, Katie, “Roy Moore Co-Authored a Government Course Saying Women Are Unfit for Office,” December 1, 2017, http://www.time.com,¶6-7, http://time.com/5045177/roy-moore-alabama-women-unfit-for- office/
[xxii] Jacobs, Ben & Smith, David, “Alabama election: Democrats Triumph Over Roy Moore in Major Blow to Trump,” December 13, 2017, http://www.theguardian.com,¶2, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/12/roy-moore-loses-alabama-senate-race-doug-jones-wins
[xxiii] Harrison, Laura & Sarah Rowley, “Babies by the Bundle: Gender, Backlash and the Quiverfull movement,” Feminist Formations 23.1 (2011): 47-69
[xxiv] Denson, Juliana, “Quiverfull: Conservative Christian women and empowerment in the home,” LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University 2.1 (2013): 1-29
[xxv] Campbell, Nancy, Be Fruitful and Multiply (San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, 2003).
[xxvi] Stephens, Rebecca, “Supersizing Family: Nation, Gender and Recession on Reality TV,” Gender,ed Vision: Sexuality and Gender on Transatlantic Reality Television Ed. Barbara Webber (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2014): 189
[xxvii] Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Werner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998): 553-554
[xxviii] Foucault, 83
[xxix] Foucault, 81