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Jessica Grose

The Duggar Family and Reality TV’s Exploitation of Kids

An illustration of adults pointing microphones and lights at a child playing with blocks.
Credit...Eleanor Davis

Opinion Writer

There are so many disturbing moments in the documentary series “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” — about the prolific family behind the saccharine reality TV hits “19 Kids and Counting” and “Counting On” — that it’s difficult to pinpoint the most appalling. Over four episodes, the Amazon Original series, out this Friday, is a perpetual unfurling of abuse.

We learn how the patriarch of the Duggar family, Jim Bob, decided to put his brood on television to glorify and amplify his retrogressive beliefs, even after he knew that his oldest son, Josh, had been accused by several of his siblings of molesting them. When asked in 2015 why he put his family on TV, Jim Bob said: “We had nothing to hide.”

We learn about the sexual abuse allegations against Bill Gothard, who led the Institute in Basic Life Principles (I.B.L.P.), which The Washington Post described, in 2016, as a hitherto “influential home-schooling ministry.” And that, according to the documentary, “The Duggars were the poster children for the institute.” (The plaintiffs in a civil suit against Gothard dropped their case in 2018, and Gothard has denied the allegations against him.)

We hear from former I.B.L.P. adherents who describe sexual and physical abuse within their own families, and how the principles of the ministry — which emphasized paternal authority — were used to blame some of them for their own mistreatment.

We learn that in 2022, Josh was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for downloading child sexual abuse imagery.

But the most unsettling thing that the documentary illustrates is how the Duggars’ series — and more broadly, reality TV — amplified a family’s exploitation of its children, and how little agency the children seemed to have, even after becoming adults. While it’s legal to put kids in reality shows, in many cases, it’s hard to see how it’s ethical.

According to Jill Duggar Dillard, the fourth child of Jim Bob and his wife, Michelle, and the only one of the 19 children to participate in “Shiny Happy People,” her victimization was manifold. In the documentary, Jill says the Duggar children were never adequately compensated for the loss of their privacy. She and her husband, Derick Dillard, explain that Jill’s father had her sign contracts without reading them first and that her mother continued to sign for her as if she were a minor even when she was an adult.

Jill had been taught her whole life that her father’s authority was sacrosanct and never to be questioned. I spoke with Olivia Crist, a co-director of “Shiny Happy People,” and she told me that none of the ex-I.B.L.P.ers interviewed for the documentary were surprised that the money was filtered through Jim Bob. “That’s how this whole system is set up, for the men to have just total, ultimate authority over their family,” she said.

“Yes,” Jill says in the film, “we were taken advantage of.”

Jim Bob ultimately offered Jill and Derick a lump sum, they say, but there were strings attached. “You had to sign another deal with my dad — his production company,” Jill says, for a term that “would be like forever. We were automatically like, ‘We’re done.’” Ultimately, the couple say, they had to get an attorney involved to receive compensation after they left “Counting On” in 2017.

I don’t think any amount of money would be adequate compensation for Jill, considering the timeline of events.

Jill and her siblings were reportedly molested by their brother Josh in 2002 and 2003, and Josh was subsequently sent by his father to what’s been described as a Christian counseling program. (According to a 2006 police report, Michelle Duggar said Josh didn’t work with a certified counselor.) In 2015, writing for Defamer, Allie Jones summarized: “When Josh returned home in July 2003, his father and church elders took him to a state trooper to confess what he’d done. The trooper, Cpl. Hutchens, gave Josh a ‘very stern talk’ but did not charge him with any crimes. In Touch reports that Hutchens was later arrested on child pornography charges and is currently serving 56 years in prison.”

By 2015, when In Touch published the police report, the Duggars were household names and Jill was one of the stars of the franchise. The 2014 “19 Kids and Counting” episode featuring her and Derick’s wedding drew 4.4 million viewers — a series record at the time, according to Deadline.

After the allegations against Josh came to light, “19 Kids and Counting” started losing advertisers, and in “Shiny Happy People,” Jill implies that she was coerced into defending her brother — or at least mitigating the accusations against him — in a 2015 Fox News interview with Megyn Kelly, in order to save the family business. In that interview, Jill told Kelly: “It’s very mild compared to what happens to some young women.”

That was then.

“The Megyn Kelly thing … I don’t even like to talk about it. Because it’s not something that I’m proud of,” Jill says in “Shiny Happy People.” “If I hadn’t felt obligated to like, one, do it for, like, the sake of the show and, two, do it for, like, the sake of my parents, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Instead of fully cutting ties with Jim Bob and his family, in 2015, the TLC network canceled “19 Kids and Counting” and spun off “Counting On” to focus on the older Duggar children, who were starting families of their own. “I look at that kind of a thing as just further exploitation of the girls,” said Tia Levings, a former I.B.L.P. follower interviewed for “Shiny Happy People.” “They now are responsible for being the breadwinners, keeping the show going. They’re doing this on the back of their own abuse stories. And at some point you’re like, when is this crap going to stop?”

It stopped only after Josh was arrested on child pornography charges in 2021 and “Counting On” was canceled.

While the Duggars may seem to be a particularly outrageous, egregious example, they’re not the only reality stars who’ve been involved in sexual abuse cases. As Meredith Blake wrote in 2021 for The Los Angeles Times, other adults who appeared with their families on various TLC shows have pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse. (The directors of “Shiny Happy People” told me that they reached out to producers who worked on the Duggar family shows, and they declined to participate in the documentary.)

Children who appear on reality TV may be doing so without appropriate compensation and without adequate legal protection: Children who are “employed as actors or performers in motion pictures, theatrical, radio, or television productions” are exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act. There’s a patchwork of state laws that cover some child performers, though 17 states don’t specifically regulate the employment of children in entertainment at all, and depending on interpretation, reality TV may manage to circumvent even the scant protections that exist in some states.

Reporting for The Los Angeles Times in 2010, Matea Gold and Richard Verrier wrote that the Duggar family “didn’t consider the filming to be work,” viewing “19 Kids and Counting” as, effectively, a documentary — an incredibly self-serving view, even under the best possible circumstances. In the report, Jim Bob is quoted as saying that “The appeal of the show is its observational approach to our daily routine, which is the same with or without the cameras.”

In the fourth and final episode of “Shiny Happy People,” Jill says, “I believe strongly that victims should always be protected. Victims should always be cared for. You’re out there. Your story’s out there.” She adds, “I’d rather have some say in what that looked like.”

While I’m glad she now has a platform to tell her side of the story, I wish she had never been forced to be a public person in the first place. Her parents didn’t protect her. And the reality TV industrial complex, which seemed perfectly happy to profit from televising some of her most personal moments, including labor and birth, didn’t protect her, either.

I hope producers, and the tabloids that continue to promote the stars of these shows, are starting to see the long-term effects of the spotlight on children and young adults. And I hope viewers are taking note of what may be lurking beneath the surface when families present themselves on national television as exemplars of a way of life or set of values — and, when it’s called for, turning away. These shows only get made because someone is watching them.

A correction was made on 
June 1, 2023

An earlier version of this article misattributed a quotation about the Duggar family’s hierarchy. It was Olivia Crist, not her co-director, Julia Willoughby Nason, who said, “That’s how this whole system is set up, for the men to have just total, ultimate authority over their family.”

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