On Thursday, news broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the Duggar family's 19 children, had, as a teenager, allegedly molested five underage girls. Four of them, allegedly, were his sisters.
The information came to light because, in 2006—two years before 17 Kids and Counting first aired on TLC, and thus two years before the Duggars became reality-TV celebrities—the family recorded an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Before the taping, an anonymous source sent an email to Harpo warning the production company Josh’s alleged molestation. Harpo forwarded the email to authorities, triggering a police investigation (the Oprah appearance never aired). The news was reported this week by In Touch Weekly—after the magazine filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the police report on the case—and then confirmed by the Duggars in a statement posted on Facebook.
The Duggars, Jim Bob and Michelle, knew what Josh had done; prior to the Harpo incident, however, they had handled the matter privately. But that their sad secret would be revealed because the family did an interview with Oprah seems, in retrospect, appropriate. All reality TV—and reality TV about families, in particular—revels in the systemic collision of intimacy and publicity, the none-of-your-business and the everybody’s-business. All famous families are alike; all famous families are unhappy in their own way.
But the Duggars, whose recent additions to their family have made them, now, the stars of 19 Kids and Counting, also represent a unique strain of reality TV stars. They are, on the one hand, like the Thompsons and the Kardashians and the hair-gelled kids from Jersey Shore: They consider what it means to be a family. These shows, which celebrate and denigrate their stars in pretty much equal measure, would be painfully unwatchable if it weren't for that. And 19 Kids presents a particularly charming answer to the question of family-hood. It offers up a (very large) group of people who enjoy each other, who tease each other, who laugh with each other—who seem to like as well as love each other.
The difference between the Duggars and their fellow reality-TV families, though, has been that the Kardashians and the Thompsons and their fellow families don't claim moral superiority over their viewers. They claim, instead, a moral distance from those viewers. The Kardashians, in some ways the polar opposites of the Duggars, revel in their uniqueness, in their marginality, in the collection of idiosyncrasies that got them their own reality show(s) in the first place. The Kardashians have no interest in making people want to be like them. They have an interest, instead, in making people want to be not at all like them. They have an interest in inspiring fascination rather than emulation. Their weirdness is their capital, and their currency.
Not so the Duggars, who use their fame—their TV show(s), their book(s), their various political appearances—as platforms for evangelism. And evangelism not just for a religion, but for something more basic: a lifestyle. A lifestyle that is so inflected with moral messaging that we might as well call it A Way of Life. The Duggar children are home-schooled. Michelle Duggar, who recently recorded a robocall arguing against protections for LGBT and transgender residents of Fayetteville, Arkansas, doesn't allow her daughters to wear shorts or skirts with hems that fall above the knee because an exposed thigh, she has explained, amounts to "nakedness and shame." The girls generally avoid beaches and swimming pools under the same logic. Jessa Duggar (whose recent wedding TLC treated as a Very Special Event, dedicating multiple episodes to it) married her fiancé not just having never had sex with him, but having never kissed him.
“We really do know that this isn't for everyone,” Michelle admits in a blog she writes for TLC. Still, the overall effect of the show and the books and the overall omnipresence of the Duggars is promotional—and promotional, in particular, of a way of life that rejects the norms of the mass culture in favor a kind of moral libertarianism. 19 Kids and Counting doubles as an extended infomercial for “family values” as the Duggars define them. (Though many have associated them with the Quiverfull movement, they claim that they “are simply Bible-believing Christians who desire to follow God's Word and apply it to our lives.”) And the show, being what it is, spreads the messaging beyond television alone. On TLC's website, the older Duggar children keep "life books": virtual scrapbooks "where you can immerse yourself in the milestone events of Duggar family members who’ve recently had memorable life moments—courtship, marriage, pregnancy, and so on." Michelle has her blog. Jessa has her Instagram account. Josh has his, too—and, until yesterday, a high-profile job at Washington's conservative Family Research Council.
So the Duggars have built a micro-empire by way of the mass media. They are celebrating the rejection of mass culture through the tools of that culture. They have been using their fame; now, they are victims of it. The extremely sad scandal they are now contending with is what happens when family values collide with cultural norms.
What TLC will do with the Duggars is unclear. Earlier this year, the network cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, its alternatively beloved and belittled spinoff of Toddlers and Tiaras, after that show's matriarch, Mama June, began dating a convicted child molester. (He never appeared on the show.) But Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was not morality in the guise of entertainment; with 19 Kids, the stakes are higher. What will TLC do now that the show that so stridently celebrates the wholesome is wholesome no longer? Will the network cancel 19 Kids? Will it deal with the revelations in another Very Special Episode? It's hard to know—though it’s probably telling that the network seems to be scrubbing upcoming episodes from its schedule. Also telling? As of now, episodes of the show are still available, streaming, on the network’s website.