entertainment

"How I was sucked into enjoying a reality show about a homophobic, bigoted cult"

This week, I discovered that I am complicit in supporting a family and a movement that is bigoted, homophobic, deeply misogynistic and that blames girls and women for being sexually abused.

I am deeply ashamed – and I am not the only one.

There’s a longstanding joke in the Mamamia Women’s Network office that I am obsessed with the Duggars, the family who have 19 children and their own hit reality show. Their fame (and fortune) has sky-rocketed in the past couple of years as those 19 children have grown up (if you consider 19 years old to be grown up which I don’t), got married and started having little Duggars of their own.

America’s highest-selling magazine People have been drooling with excitement at having an entirely new franchise of celebrities to put on their covers. So many weddings! So many pregnancies! So many babies! It’s the holy grail of publishing:


You know how when something becomes wildly popular, people who were into it early are at pains to point out they were early adopters?

That was me. For years, way before they had their own reality show, I was mad for the Duggars, mad for them.

I can’t recall how I first learned of them but I was instantly fascinated by the premise of a family with 16 children (this was several children ago, they now have 19), all of whose names began with the letter J and whose parents had no intention of stopping breeding until the Good Lord put a natural use by date on matriarch Michelle’s uterus.

They dressed in an Amish way, they home-schooled and were a quirky object of interest by virtue of the fact they were like a little time capsule of retro in a fast-moving world that was all technology, tits and twerking. The logistics alone were mind-boggling. How do you feed and organise so many children? I had one child when I first learned about the Duggars and I was struggling to manage that.

Reading about them and then watching their quirky little show was like watching the Discovery Channel.

I wasn’t the only one who was captivated. A series of one-hour specials that began in 2009 quickly turned into a series of weekly shows. As their fame grew, they became held up by politicians and conservative groups as beacons of wholesome living. The anti-Kardashians.

Their funny clothes and odd customs became objects of fond curiosity and they were feted for their all-American family values at a time when 40% of children in the US are born to single mothers and 50% of marriages end in divorce. 

Michelle Duggar received a “Mother of the Year Award” in 2010, from a Christian organisation who praised her as having “modeled for millions a passion for God’s gift of the fruit of the womb and a tenderness and wisdom in raising her 19 children that have been downright inspiring.”

Religious dogma aside (the show was always very very careful to edit those bits out to make the family seem almost secular) the Duggars seemed harmless and quaint. An entertaining curiosity.

I shared funny memes about the family like this:

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And this:

Except it’s not very funny anymore.

Yesterday,  the successful Duggar reality show 19 Kids And Counting was yanked off air after it was confirmed that one of the Duggars, Josh, had sexually molested four of his sisters and one other child when he was a teenager and that his parents had helped cover it up.

It’s caused people – including me – to look a little deeper into what the Duggars are truly advocating with their lifestyle and their show and what we are tacitly supporting by watching it.

To be honest, I began to feel uncomfortable about the Duggars a few years ago when Michelle and Jim-Bob Duggar insisted that they would continue to grow their giant family ‘for as long as God wants me too’ despite her last pregnancy ending in near tragedy when their baby was born 15 weeks premature and nearly died. The little girl, Josie, is understood to have ongoing medical issues stemming from her premature birth and one can only imagine the state of mother Michelle’s body after 19 pregnancies, 18 vaginal births and one emergency caesarean.

Despite medical advice that she was endangering her own life by continuing to fall pregnant well into her 40s, Michelle blithely insisted that leaving her 19 children without a mother was a risk she was willing to take. Just to have more babies.

The Duggars are fundamentalist Christians and follow the Quiverful movement that has extremely strict and strident beliefs around, well, most things.

At the cornerstone of their beliefs is this: women and girls are put on the earth to serve men. They must dress in a certain way so as not to ‘tempt’ them. They need not ever seek out a college education or a career. Their lives must revolve around servitude and domestic duties. And, of course, breeding. Lots and lots and lots of breeding. The Duggar girls and women must never exercise any kind of choices around their fertility or any other aspect of their lives.

By keeping women perpetually pregnant and in the home, the Quiverfull movement seeks to relegate them to a lifetime of servitude and subordination. It also seeks to make women responsible for any sexual abuse or assault that may happen to them by accusing them of tempting their abuser with “immodest dress”.

According to an illuminating article on news site identities.mic:

The Duggar girls are victims of abuse — and of a patriarchal cult. It’s hard to emphasize enough how strong a force “traditional gender roles” are in the Quiverfull community. The movement asserts the fundamental supremacy of men over women and promotes the idea that women are sexual property whose sole value after marriage is their fecundity. “The nature of the patriarchy that distinguishes the Quiverfull mindset from other religious extremists,” according to Garrison, “is the teaching that there is a channel of authority, and that it goes straight through the father.”

In the Quiverfull theological hierarchy, God is the ultimate authority, followed by the family, over which fathers wield unlimited influence and power. “There is this cultic mentality that is aligned within the Quiverfull family culture. The family becomes a mini-cult, with the dad as the ruling cult leader,” Garrison told Mic.

And what of the women? They are relegated to the roles of caretakers, domestic servants and babysitters, often co-raising their younger siblings in what Michelle Duggar calls a “buddy system.” This means that, in addition to Josh Duggar’s sisters being forced into daily contact their their abuser, they were also likely doing chores on his behalf.

So in our haste to embrace this quirky family and their funny old fashioned values, we missed the part where these are people with abhorrent beliefs. These are people who do not believe in equality, education or reproductive rights for women.. They do not believe in any kind of rights for gay people. In essence and by definition, they are a cult, one that they make with their own bodies.

They imprison their children in a cloistered, oppressive environment. They drastically limit their exposure to the outside world. And they impose draconian codes of dress and behaviour, particularly on their daughters.

All the while, extending their influence as celebrities with their reality show and their growing fame, giving them a powerful platform from which to spread their biggotted beliefs.

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With the revelations around Josh Duggar’s past crimes and the way his parents sought to protect him from any consequences while shaming their daughters who were his victims, perhaps we will see that the Duggar family have been a Trojan horse all along. And that their gosh–golly-gee quaintness has been obscuring something far more sinister all along.

The Duggars look like the picture of purity at Christmas time (post continues after the video)

If you’re been blissfully unaware about the Duggars, here’s what you need to know:

The Duggars are a fundamentalist Christian family from the US who have their own reality tv show. They are Independent Baptists. They do not wear shorts, singlets, or anything above the knee. No beaches. No swimming in public. No short hair. No beards. The children are home-schooled, and the older ones help out the younger ones using a buddy system (the buddies are allocated at birth).

According to mother Michelle, the Duggars feel that exposure of the thighs amounts to “nakedness and shame,” and runs the risk of “defrauding” others by encouraging lustful thoughts.

Jim-Bob and Michelle are fundamentalist Christians. Image via Instagram.

Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar don’t believe in contraception, so Michelle has been having a child every 18 months since they married when she was 17 years old.

Now, there are some very complicated rules when it comes to finding a husband the Duggar way, and they all revolve around a process called courting. Duggar dad Jim-Bob explained it in a recent interview.

Jessa and Ben didn’t kiss until after they were married – and only ever side-hugged. Photo via Instagram.

Apparently, a good girl never dates a guy. She allows herself to be ‘courted’ by him. Basically, a boy calls a girl’s dad (never her mum, only a man can decide) and asks if he can court her. If her dad says yes, that boy then comes over to the girl’s home, and sits in the living room with her and her parents while the two of them talk and pray. Said boy and girl then sit awkwardly in the living room a certain number of times deemed appropriate before getting married.

All four of the eldest Duggar girls, Jana, Jill, Jessa and Jinger, wrote a book called Growing up Duggar: It’s All About Relationships, which reveals just how conservative their views on men really are. And while two of the authors have gone on to marry and have children, it’s not clear whether their relationship advice is all that it’s cracked up to be.

Jessa Duggar, the fifth child, 22, was married on 1 November last year to Ben Seewald. They held hands for the first time when they were engaged. They had a self-imposed ban on contact until their nuptials, and were only allowed to side-hug.

Jessa Duggar is currently pregnant. Photo via instagram.

After the ceremony there were reports that Jessa had sex with Ben after the church ceremony.

But Jessa says no – they didn’t even kiss at the ceremony. They decided it was even too special for the wedding day. So when the pastor said “You may now kiss the bride”… Jessa’s parents had a quick peck instead. But ten days later, the kiss finally happened and Jessa was able to capture it in a selfie and put in on Instagram…

It’s great living life with your best friend! @ben_seewald

A photo posted by Jessa Seewald (@jessaseewald) on

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But this hasn’t been the Duggars’ only kissing scandal.

Amy Duggar, who is technically Jim Bob’s niece, posted an image to her instagram of her and boyfriend Dillon King kissing (and they’re not married). The photo was later deleted.

The photo that Amy Duggar removed from instagram.

The Duggars have been no stranger to controversy. After the death of their 20th child in Michelle’s second trimester, the couple held a memorial service – and the order of service included some images of their dead child. While consistent with their tendency to live their life out in the open, the images were distressing to some.

With the eldest Duggar son Josh confessing to sexually abusing young girls as a teenager, and reports that Michelle and Jim-Bob were involved in the cover-up, it became clear that the Duggar household may have been showing a very different face to the world.

Josh spoke to People magazine about the abuse, saying that “twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends.

Josh (far left) with just some of his family. Image via Instagram.

“I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation. We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counselling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”

So you want to see ALL the Duggars? Here is the wholesome face that the Duggars show to the world…

Looking for more on the Duggar family? Try these:

This is the true face of the Duggar family. And it is ugly.

The 6 most disturbing fan responses to Josh Duggar’s sexual assault confession.

The eldest Duggar son admits to sexually abusing young girls as a teen.

Have you ever watched 19 Kids and Counting? Has this scandal changed how you feel about the show now?

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