The Duggars, stars of TLC’s 19 Kids & Counting, were superficially presented as an eccentric real-life version of the characters from Cheaper by the Dozen. Yet beneath that façade, they were always religious zealots who adhered to an extreme brand of patriarchal Christianity that opposed abortion, disapproved of LGBTQ+ rights, and manipulated women through scripture that encouraged them to be incessantly pregnant. Prime Video’s four-part Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets is a brutal takedown of the Arkansas clan, led by testimony from two of its own.
It’s also, however, an expose about the Duggars’ role as chief promoters of a sexist evangelical crusade designed to denigrate, dominate, and disempower its female members, as well as to spread its message all the way to the corridors of U.S. political power. As such, it’s additionally a damning indictment of TLC and its parent company, Warner Discovery, which helped spotlight a regressive and deeply misogynistic movement.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s faith was a central component of 19 Kids & Counting. Less obvious, though, were their bedrock ties to the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), an ultra-out-there association founded by Bill Gothard. Gothard, as seen in copious seminar speeches and promotional videos, preached a 1950s-via-1800s Christian doctrine in which men were irreproachable heads of households and women were their subservient partners. Be it demanding purity and modesty from girls, dishing out corporal punishment to children (spankings will keep them in line!), dissuading people from reporting mistreatment, or giving fathers—and other male figures—complete authority over daughters’ lives (especially with regards to dating and marriages, which were basically arranged), it was, and remains, a system of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual control and abuse.
Jim Bob and Michelle’s affiliation with IBLP was out in the open, if ignored by TLC’s hit show; the network instead chose to profit off them and their fundamentalist way of life without digging even an inch beneath the surface. Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets does just that, using plentiful archival footage (from 19 Kids & Counting and IBLP materials) to highlight the links between the Duggars and their beloved religious organization. Those connections extended, it turned out, to pedophilia and incest. During the family’s TLC heyday, eldest son Josh Duggar was outed as having molested five underage girls, including four of his sisters, only to have that scandal swept under the rug by Jim Bob and Michelle (replete with a Megyn Kelly-hosted Fox News special that featured his abused sisters defending him). The same was true of Gothard and his brother Steve, who were accused of fondling, assaulting, and raping minors (resulting in Bill stepping down from IBLP), and yet suffered no legal consequences for their alleged misdeeds.
Josh may have gotten away with his initial crimes, but he wasn’t so lucky in 2019, when he was busted by the feds for possessing appalling child pornography. Currently serving a 12-year sentence behind bars, Josh is depicted by Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets as the inevitable byproduct of an evangelical-homeschooling pipeline that obsessively fixates on sex as bad, imparts values of male supremacy and female compliance, and protects wrongdoers and blames victims.
Directors Julia Willoughby Nason and Olivia Crist’s docuseries casts Josh’s conduct as par for this culture’s course. That’s evidenced by the numerous ex-IBLP members (Lindsey Williams, Tia Levings, Heather Heath, Lara Smith, Chad Harris, Tara and Floyd Oathout) who bravely recount their horrendous experiences in Gothard’s de facto cult. They describe being educated with “Wisdom Booklets” that were full of nonsense (“Hands are composed of ‘nonliving’ atoms”) and teachings that instilled fear and shame, along with being menaced and abused by their male compatriots—none of whom they could object to, given that they’d been indoctrinated to think that meek acquiescence was their holy duty.
Elsewhere in the docuseries, Duggar family friends Jim and Bobye Holt discuss their shock and horror at Josh’s actions, and the relief they felt upon speaking out against them at his trial. Still, the biggest “get” of Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets is Jill Dillard (née Duggar), one of Josh’s original victims, who sits down with husband Derick for an extended conversation about living under Jim Bob and Michelle’s roof, the morals she was brainwashed into accepting, and her eventual decision to separate herself from her relatives.
Jill skirts any outright denunciation of Josh, and more than once, she makes clear that she wishes her own abuse had never gone public—an apparent example of how deeply she’s been taught to shield crimes (and criminals). Nonetheless, she’s critical of her upbringing and the show, and the fact that she was never properly compensated for her participation on 19 Kids & Counting or its post-Josh-scandal spinoff Jill & Jessa: Counting On, which speaks to another way that evangelicals take advantage of people: through financial exploitation that often entails child labor.
Jill’s cousin Amy King and Jim Bob’s sister Deanna also take the Duggars to task for their transgressions, lending further inside voices to this censure of the reality TV stars and, by extension, the religious group that used them as proselytizing tools and the entertainment machine that gave them a platform. TLC and its parent company are not-so-subtly damned by Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets for turning this backwards-looking religiosity into something cute and palatable. That condemnation only rings louder once the docuseries, in its final installment, illustrates—through the commentary of lawyer Alex Harris—how the Duggars and IBLP are part of a larger “Joshua Generation” campaign to raise and elevate young evangelicals into the most powerful positions in the country, from the Senate to the White House to the Supreme Court. Far from a blip, the Duggars are portrayed as leaders of a movement (also promoted by a wave of Christian social media influencers) intent on theocratic revolution.
In a 2023 U.S. awash in conservative fanaticism, Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets reveals the Duggars to be not quirky anti-birth control kooks, but insidious radicals with an abhorrent agenda. It’s an expose that resounds as a warning about a rising tide of devout Americans who view The Handmaid’s Tale as closer to a dream than a nightmare.
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