Understanding the Duggar Scandal Without Schadenfreude: A Reading List

The distressing news about the existence of old molestation accusations against reality TV religious scion Josh Duggar — leading to the limbo that the franchise remains in now — has brought several other unpleasant cultural strains to the fore. There’s been a good deal of liberal schadenfreude in seeing a seemingly unstoppable cultural force (that stands for some pretty reprehensible principles) taken down in this particular way. And on the other side, we have seen a rash of salacious stories about religious extremism that seek to gratify the same sort of gossipy curiosity that made the Duggars famous to begin with.

Yet even “Funny or Die” seemed to acknowledge what many commentators are glossing over: there are real victims here, beyond the Duggar family and their belief system. This chilling remark from the faux-Duggars in the site’s parody video at least draws momentary attention to the family’s erasure of the victims: “We did the right thing and immediately waited three years before we called the authorities. It has been terrible for us and Josh, but those are the only three people affected by these mistakes.” Indeed, evidence shows that multiple layers of people, from TLC to local law enforcement, failed the young girls in the case.

A reading list of sensible context and criticism is a good place to start making sense of this story without indulging the media’s undue glee at a possible crime.

  • Investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce spent considerable time among adherents of the Duggars’ philosophy for her book Quiverfull. She wrote a short explanation of the gender dynamics of the movement for Newsweek in 2009, warning that “fans of TV’s novel large families should not overlook their comprehensive ideology that argues that family planning and feminism are cultural scourges to be eradicated, and that women’s highest calling is in becoming prolific mothers and submissive wives.”
  • Two looks at reality TV and its role take different approaches. Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams blames TLC: “As long as viewers tune in, what are the odds TLC will reconsider the kinds of shows it airs and the kinds of families it turns into stars.” Meanwhile the Washington Post dissects the process of background checks for reality stars, showing how difficult it may actually be to find the truth about people who really, really want to be famous.
  • As for how the Duggars should have handled Josh, a long piece at A Paper Bird urges us not to rush to judgment when it comes to the criminal: “Plenty of liberal Americans admit that our cops are racist torturers, our prisons are overpacked, our courts are warped and broken, the system runs on retributive fantasies – until they come up against a crime involving sex. Then those courts are paradigms of fairness, those brutal police our best friends; then it’s lock them up and throw away the key! And they seem almost triply eager to entrust human lives to the corrupt and unscrupulous system when the accused is a fourteen year-old child.”
  • The Duggars’ obsession with sex, says Jill Filipovic on Cosmopolitan, fits with American culture’s mix of prudishness and prurience. “The Duggars, who are simultaneously obsessed with sex and also trying to spread a message of shame around female sexuality in particular, are a reality TV family perfectly befitting us. The outcome of their worldview — the sexual trauma, the humiliation, the misogyny — we knew it was all part of the equation. We tuned in anyway.”
  • A letter to the Duggars from another sexual abuse victims, wishing she could tell them: “That there isn’t a single thing we did to bring it on ourselves. Not our clothes, not our looks, not our personalities. We didn’t ask for it, invite it, nor entice it. That we have NOTHING to be ashamed about. Most of all, I would tell us that we can reclaim the power we lost in those moments.”