My husband and I looked at each other several times with wide eyes as we watched the explosive new docuseries, Shiny Happy People, ostensibly about the Duggar family, but really about so much more. It was all just so disturbing … and even a little bit familiar.
The Duggars, of course, were the stars of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting, a highly curated glimpse of a conservative, fundamentalist family. Their demure daughters wore modest dresses and were “courted” for marriage via principles inculcated by Bill Gothard and his Institutes in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). We never saw a single episode of 19 Kids, yet we were riveted and appalled by the sugar-sweet Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their approach to childrearing (homeschooling and spanking are pillars), marriage (hierarchical and patriarchal, with Jim Bob being the undisputed head of the household), and the role of women. On the latter, the Duggars espoused their never-married leader Gothard’s views that women were to be submissive to men and find their sole fulfillment in child rearing and the home arts.
One shocking moment came when filmmakers reveal that Gothard taught that women were responsible for sexual harrassment, molestation, or rape if they didn’t cry out to God in the moment they were being violated.
Though this is a radical and extreme teaching, it’s just another spoke in the wheel of a system that ultimately protects abusers and erases or even blames the victims. Gothard himself, now 88 and still posting to Facebook about his “ministry,” has been accused by multiple young women and underage girls of sexual abuse. Gothard, though disgraced, seemingly “got away” with his crimes, but thankfully Josh Duggar, the oldest child of the Duggar family, is serving a 12-year prison sentence for having child pornography on his computer. But he was never convicted of molesting several girls, including two of his sisters, Jill and Jessa. In one of the most harrowing moments, Jill confessed that she and her sister were pressured to go on camera with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and defend their brother, acting as if their molestation, covered up by Jim Bob, was no big deal.
As hard as it is to watch, it is inspiring to witness a clearly traumatized Jill Duggar Dillard’s raw courage in telling hard truths about her famous family. None of the other children are interviewed, though several of the daughters, including Jill, are estranged from their parents and most of their siblings, a sad but necessary step in their healing journeys.
What was most arresting about this film was how it made us reflect on how we and those we knew had been shaped and influenced by Gothard or Gothard-adjacent teachings, filtered down to a more palatable level in our wider evangelical upbringing and college years. I drew a direct line between these teachings and the time the entire female student population at our Bible college were told to get rid of our “stretch pants,” a key part of our casual wardrobes, because a male student had complained that girls were wearing them “too tight” or “too loose,” causing him to lust unnecessarily. We were urged to protect our “weaker brothers” by sacrificing comfortable clothing so they would not be tempted. Clearly, the message was that we as females were responsible for whether or not the guys at school lusted or did not lust. Three decades later, that message persists.
Of the numerous interviews with IBLP survivors, Duggar relatives, and experts of various kinds, Kristin Kobes Dumez—historian, author, and Calvin University professor—stands out for her insights into how Gothard and the Duggars reflect fundamentalism, parts of broader evangelical culture, and even politics. This is why every Christian should tune in to this bracing, disturbing, and possibly clarifying film, if only to reckon with or think about how the cultic and aberrant teachings of one seemingly fringe organization sifted through to influence countless people to this day. (Amazon Prime)