“Smiles, everybody, smiles”: TLC and the Sanitization of the Duggar Family

If we accepted the Duggar family, stars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, on the basis of their highly rated and skillfully edited series, they’d seem like modern-day incarnations of the Addams family: a little kooky, altogether ooky, somewhat eccentric, but ultimately harmless. If we accept the Duggar family at their own estimation, they do things just a little bit differently than everyone else.

The Munsters

The Munsters

But, behind that seemingly harmless – even goofy – image, lies a darker reality.

Imagine if the Munsters or the Addams families fueled their antics on a diet of human flesh, or if Laura Ingalls’ family skipped town to avoid paying rent? (Actually, that last one is true.)

Fans of the Duggars – and, as the stars of one of TLC’s more popular shows, the Duggars have lots of fans – extol the family’s happy wholesomeness. The children are so happy, obedient, and polite! Their morals are refreshing! They don’t take any form of government assistance! Sure, they’re old-fashioned, but in a good way!

However, others – from the snarkiness of Free Jinger and Duggars Without Pity to Dan Savage – question the reality behind the happy happy HAPPY facade. Lifting the hem of the below-the-knee skirt, as it were, these critics direct our attention to the bruises and scars that lie beneath.

The Addams

The Addams

Are the Duggars happy? Are they obedient? As happily obedient as one can be, given no other options. From birth, the Duggars and their brethren are taught – through physical and psychological punishment – that happy obedience is their only option.

As infants, the Duggar children learn obedience, through practices such as “blanket training.” As they grow into reason, the Duggar children learn enforced cheerfulness, since any other emotion betrays the presence of Satan.

The Duggar courtship rituals fixate on the ever-present possibility of uncontrolled animal passion. Hand-holding must wait for engagement. A kiss before marriage? You’re asking for trouble. (Indeed, the patriarch, Jim Bob, repeatedly and wistfully refers to his wife’s “baggage” – meaning she had the experience of kissing a boy before God brought them together.)

Hugging? The Duggars give “side hugs,” explaining that full frontal hugging can lead straight to hell – even between family members.

Even privacy is considered unreasonable for a young couple, who must always be chaperoned, usually by a younger Duggar but, in some embarrassing scenes, by the Duggar parents. (In one much-discussed game of miniature golf, Jim Bob’s inability to leave his wife’s body alone was reminiscent of an toddler’s response to his first Hallowe’en.)

But it gets worse.

The Duggars

The Duggars

As Dan Savage has pointed out, Duggar women have no agency – no control – over their own bodies, especially when it comes to matters of sex. They have no right to say “no.” Or, in Michelle Duggar’s words to Us, “Duggar women don’t get headaches.”

Think about that. No “headaches” refers, or course, to the familiar and cliched excuse to refuse sex. Of course, Duggar women get headaches. We all get headaches. However, if a Duggar woman does get a headache, a real one, she still cannot say “no” to sex. She has no right.

No right to say “no.” If I wanted to get really angry, I’d describe the lives of “Duggar women” as one of perpetual rape – except that notions of rape can only exist in situations where a woman’s right to bodily integrity is acknowledged.

Okay, yes, I’m angry: denying a woman’s right to her body is tantamount to suborning rape. There. So, what would generating and receiving revenues from a program that espouses these views be equivalent to?

What to do?

Recently, TLC showed some sensitivity when it cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo after evidence surfaced suggesting the mother of said Honey Boo-Boo had reconnected with a convicted child molester. The network’s actions, it stated, were reflective of its concern for “the children’s ongoing comfort and well-being.”

Aren’t the Duggar children – especially the Duggar daughters – entitled to the same protective concern?

TLC, stop rewarding rape with ratings, royalties, and revenues. Cancel 19 Kids and Counting.