New Duggar family doc should have burned far more than a reality show to the ground

The new four-part docuseries “Happy Shiny People” on Prime Video tells the story of how a family from rural Arkansas, who held strong evangelical beliefs and were not proponents of dating, contraception, or using the internet for television watching, became America’s sweethearts through their pioneering reality television show on TLC channel.

Bill Gothard, the disgraced founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, dedicated the Duggars’ commitment to the fringe teachings, as reported by TLC in 2015. Even promoting pre-marital chastity for themselves and their adult children, this cheerful and mechanical clan’s matriarch and patriarch, Michelle and Jim Bob, concealed this damning history. Including his own sisters, it was a horrific secret that the oldest child, Josh, sexually abused as a teenager. Underneath the idyllic image of the Duggar family, broadcasted as “19 Kids and Counting” from 2008 to 2015, lies this dark truth.

Following the narrative trajectory of “Shiny Happy People,” the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) of the larger political landscape, along with its homeschooling curriculum known as the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), and its association with Gothard and his organization, lacks proper acknowledgment or citation of the recent and significant revelations.

The heartbreaking interview with Jill Dillard, the fourth child of the Duggar family’s 19 children, also exposes the exploitation and abuse suffered by her brother, a survivor of her parents’ abusive labor. This “documentary” series paints a sensationalized and derogatory picture, which is very distressing for us, as we see ill-intentioned individuals and the media hurting these loving people. The Duggars, including Michelle and Jim Bob, along with close friends and Jim Bob’s niece and sister, declined to participate in the documentary’s interviews, but there is a lot to commend in the series.

They bravely confirmed that this situation was akin to a hostage situation, devastating the most “Shiny Happy People.” They claimed during their interview with Fox News’ Kelly Megyn that they didn’t even remember the abuse, which they both forgave their brother for.

Dillard stated that TLC fabricated a fresh reality program, “Jill and Jessa: Counting On,” following the disclosure of Josh’s actions. (TLC did not respond to a comment request.) He previously held the position of executive director at the Family Research Council Action, one of the most influential political groups on the religious right, when news of Josh’s sexual abuse emerged. Subsequently, he found employment at a car dealership in Arkansas, where federal agents uncovered child pornography on his computer, resulting in his current 12-year prison sentence. Federal prosecutors argued for an even lengthier term, emphasizing his “deep-seated, pervasive, and violent sexual fascination with children.” The network was not the sole entity with a tainted reputation. The sisters were obliged to participate in the reality show.

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Despite her objections, the birth of her first child was televised. She and her siblings went unpaid for years while their lives were showcased to the public, as she reveals in her interview. Jill Duggar Dillard’s life narrative highlights the widespread exploitation of children, including sexual exploitation, within Gothard’s organization and teachings.

Former followers of Gothard are provided with details, which are similar to the excruciating experiences that others told me about in 2011 and 2015, regarding a range of abuses: his manipulation of girls, exploitation of child labor, and his teachings that advocate for women’s submission to the authority of men and that place blame on women for rape (Gothard has consistently denied these allegations and did not respond to a request for comment. In a 2011 interview with me, he attempted to assert, in contradiction to his own extensive writings, that he does not promote the idea of wives submitting to their husbands. At the time of the interview, Gothard was 76 years old and later sent me an email stating that he had “made personal vows for purity, such as refraining from kissing until marriage and avoiding any inappropriate physical contact with girls.” It is important to note that he has never been married.).

The filmmakers missed chances to include some of the leading authorities on these subjects on screen. However, they fail to fully explore the extent of Gothard’s homeschooling curriculum’s influence within the larger context of the religious right and the homeschooling movement. Providing a platform for survivors of these traumas to share their stories is crucial, and “Shiny Happy People” accomplishes that successfully.

Gothard, Jim Bob, and Michelle Duggar advocate for Quiverfull, a devout movement that emphasizes wives’ submission to their husbands, fathers’ authority over their daughters (even when they are adults), and opposes the use of contraception in order to increase the number of Christian soldiers for the culture wars. The series briefly touches upon this topic. However, they do not acknowledge investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce, the author of the definitive book on Quiverfull. Similarly, they overlook the larger narrative surrounding the push for and growth of Christian homeschooling, which is a subject that religion scholar Julie Ingersoll specializes in. In fact, Ingersoll is considered such an expert that she provided expert testimony in a trial involving a criminal defendant who had been homeschooled using Gothard’s curriculum.

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Filmmakers fail to acknowledge journalists for their efforts, even on minor aspects. The Green family, the evangelical proprietors of the Hobby Lobby chain of stores, provided financial contributions to Gothard’s establishments, as indicated by the series. However, the contributions made by David Corn and Molly Redden, who covered this for Mother Jones in 2014, are not referenced. Likewise, the series briefly discusses the utilization of a secularized version of Gothard’s materials in private prisons, but overlooks the comprehensive investigative report conducted by Silja J.A. Talvi for In These Times in 2006.

Caucus Freedom, a favorite of the far-right, still represents Florida in the House of Representatives. Webster is often depicted as a checkers player, largely ignoring the fact that he is a staunch supporter of his wife’s teachings and a disciple of Gothard, an opponent of his Republican counterpart, Daniel Alan, during the 2010 congressional election. It is true that they were largely overlooked by the media and experts, along with their former followers, who tried to raise the alarm for many years. However, it is also true that Gothard’s teachings and the Duggars were able to conceal their excesses within the organization’s culture of silence and fear. People correctly point out the Happy Shiny culture within Gothard’s organization as a whole.

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