By Maggie Fipps
“The Duggar family is not a bizarre fascination,” said pastor and writer Josh Pease. “It is a horrifying glimpse that was told over and over again in so many different families.”
A four-part documentary series, “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” digs into the Duggar family of “19 Kids and Counting” and “Counting On” fame, and ultimately the harmful teachings of Bill Gothard, leader of the Institute of Basic Life Principles, or IBLP.
Whether we like it or not, everyone is drawn to the train wreck. The tabloid headline that we can look at and feel a bit better about our lives. Combine that with the Duggars, who loomed large during my conservative Christian upbringing, and “Shiny Happy People” hooked me immediately. I grew up guessing which Duggar I would marry, aspiring to a large family and waiting with bated breath for the wedding extravaganza episodes.
But “Shiny Happy People” gave me more than I bargained for.
Have you ever had the uncomfortable experience of someone telling an anonymous story about you in front of a group? Whether your dad was speaking from the pulpit or your overeager roommate was the culprit, you begin to listen to the story, smiling and laughing at the rather idiotic protagonist. Slowly, you realize that you are making fun of yourself. You are the protagonist, and everyone else is laughing at your ridiculous antics.
I didn’t wear floor-length skirts. I was not home-schooled. I only have three siblings. But Bill Gothard’s teachings spread like ivy through conservative evangelical circles, and its tendrils reached into my life. Echoes of his speeches rang true in things I heard from the pulpit and from my parents.
The first episode of the series follows the rise of the Duggar family, whose show ultimately became the cash cow of the TLC Network. Although the interviews focused on those closely affected by the IBLP teachings, such as Jill and Derrick Dillard, they also included expert perspectives about reality TV and cults, which lent the series a lot of credibility. They began to unpack Bill Gothard’s core teachings, which center around the “umbrella of authority.”
In Gothard’s construction, children fall under the umbrella of their parents, wives fall under the umbrella of their husbands who fall under the umbrella of God. This sounds fairly innocuous to many Christians, but its application within the IBLP became sinister, which they revealed in episodes two and three.
The cycle of abuse, cover-up, justification and repeat displayed within the show felt especially gut-wrenching after so many similar pieces in the past couple of years. The show gave a voice to the many women who dared to speak.
In one particularly poignant moment, they juxtaposed two wedding videos. The first, Anna Duggar’s, was publicized to millions of homes. The second, colored with age, was from Tina’s ____ wedding, a survivor of sexual abuse within an IBLP home. Of course, with the hindsight of Josh Duggar’s criminal history, the moment was powerful.
Episode four, however, was where they lost me. Each previous episode followed a theme, whereas, in the final installment, the producers threw in every cultural buzzword they could find, from politics to influencers. Then at around the 15-minute mark, after crafting a definition of fundamentalism around the Duggars, the producers attempt to lump in all Christians. All of a sudden, fundamentalism goes from skirts and slut shaming to submission and sharing the gospel. This left me with a bad taste in my mouth to end what was truly a compelling storyline.
The ending cannot negate the impact of this documentary, especially on a conservative community like Cedarville. I was left contemplating my stance on Biblical authority and gender roles, unraveling what I was taught versus what God’s word says.
I would encourage you to pull back the curtain on the Duggars and wrestle with what you may find to be your reflection staring back at you.
“Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Maggie Fipps is a junior Journalism student and the Editor in Chief of Cedars. She enjoys playing the piano and thrifting, and you may spot her around campus sporting Packers gear head to toe.
Image courtesy of Prime Video.