Amazon series Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets goes beyond the famous family into the fundamentalist ministry they represented
Any casual peruser of American cable television is probably familiar with the Duggar family – if not with the specifics of their juggernaut series on TLC, then with the sheer number of them. From 2007 until 2015, the Duggars, a highly conservative Christian baptist family from Arkansas, starred on a reality TV series titled after their ever-expanding number of children – first 17, then 18, then 19 Kids and Counting. They were the celebrity inverse to the many K-named Kardashians, whose show bottled American capitalism, hustle culture and shamelessness. All 19 of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s children, born between 1998 and 2009, had names beginning with the letter J. The girls all wore Pilgrim-esque dresses and kept their hair long and curly. All were educated at home through faith materials, and all marketed, consciously or not, a vision of benign, rural, wholesome religious conservatism.
This is the jumping off point for Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, a new Amazon Prime series about the family and the larger fundamentalist group their show represented and sanitized. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a show about a family of 21 living in perfect harmony while disavowing the secular world and teaching women polite subservience was not quite as easy as it seemed, nor the harmless curiosity that viewers seemed to think it was.
Indeed, Shiny Happy People covers the family’s many scandals and splinters, which have unfurled publicly since the original show was cancelled in 2015, after it was revealed that the eldest son, Josh Duggar, had molested five young women, including several of his sisters, in 2002 and 2003. Last year, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for downloading images and video of child sex abuse. Several of the daughters, two of whom were trotted on to Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show to publicly forgive their brother for touching them and who starred in a successful spinoff series, have distanced themselves from their family’s teachings (and, to the interest of celebrity gossip sites, begun wearing pants). Earlier this year, Jinger Duggar Vuolo published a memoir criticizing the strict control and fear-based teachings of her upbringing under the influence of a group called the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and its now disgraced leader, Bill Gothard, who has been accused by dozens of women of sexual harassment and assault. (Gothard, 88, has denied all allegations.)
Gothard and IBLP were the shadowy scaffolding on which the Duggars’ celebrity was built, and whose strict teachings (and coffers) were burnished by the spotlight. Founded in 1961, Gothard’s ministry preached to millions a strict hierarchy of male authority leading to him, then God, and an abdication of “temptation” – music, television, dating, alcohol, public schools. The Duggars, who regularly touted Gothard’s seminars, were merely “the front-facing image of this insidious organization”, said the series co-director Olivia Crist.