The Learning Channel (“a place for learning minds”) was originally conceived as PBS but with better production values, a station devoted to such high-minded fare as documentaries on animal mating behavior, the rise and fall of ancient civilizations, and the inner workings of satellites. Since the mid ’90s, however, its mission has devolved, and the new focus is on the less edifying, but decidedly more lucrative world of reality TV. The current crop of shows on TLC—now a meaningless acronym just like the SAT—runs the gamut from the horror-inducing (Toddlers and Tiaras) to the excruciatingly boring (Say Yes to the Dress, in which brides-to-be try on an endless series of expensive wedding dresses). But where they’ve hooked me (and millions of others) is in showcasing the fertile glory of large families, premiering with the tabloid fodder, Jon and Kate Plus Eight in 2007, and adding a new show roughly every year: Table for 12, Kids by the Dozen, and, my favorite, 19 and Counting. (In keeping with the directive of its title, the show has previously been called 18 and Counting and 17 and Counting.)
19 and Counting follows the lives of Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, who are raising their 19 children on 20 acres of land in rural northwest Arkansas. A typical episode might feature the eldest Duggar son—Joshua, age 22—getting an at-home haircut from his new wife. Along the way, the family might go on a hunt for a missing pair of scissors or discuss the merits of using a trash bag as a cover-up rather than a salon cape. The most exciting part of any given episode will be getting dinner on the table. The question can’t help but spring to mind: Why is anyone watching this?
The New York Times magazine recently proposed one theory with its feature on the making of OctoMom: Me & My Fourteen Kids, a British documentary focused on the quotidian struggles of Nadya Suleman and her huge brood. Observing the family, John Bowe writes:
Suleman has boosted herself into the pantheon of multi-child, over-the-top television families so dysfunctional and pathologically exposed that they serve as a form of cathartic geek show for the rest of us…all of them willing to serve their own failings as a kind of pride-relief for the rest of us as we try, lamely, stumblingly, to raise families, pay taxes, make house payments.
This captures, in part, the strange popularity of large-family reality TV. There is certainly more than an element of the grotesque in Suleman’s story, with her sordid history of welfare dependence, plastic surgery, and mental instability. Likewise for Jon and Kate, who have shot to tabloid fame with their recent divorce and custody battles. But the happy-go-lucky Duggars, however unusual they are, don’t quite conform to this type.
Most of TLC’s “Life Surprises” shows feature families dealing with circumstances beyond their control and trying their best to live their lives as “normally” as possible. The Roloffs of Little People, Big World or the Arnolds of The Little Couple didn’t choose to be born under four feet tall, nor did Jon and Kate plan to have two sets of multiples, the latter of which turned out to be six bouncing bundles of joy. The Coles family of One Big Happy Family is desperately trying to diminish the morbid obesity that distinguishes them from the average American family. The fascination of these shows is in watching the protagonists struggle their way to some semblance of ordinary life. But the Duggars aren’t “making the best” of a weird situation—they created their circumstances, and clearly enjoy every minute of their intensely wholesome life of home-schooling, church-going, and delivering children. There is a satisfaction in watching a family who has completely figured out their particular way of life, and is proceeding, calmly and surely, to domestic bliss.
That’s not to say mundane tasks like laundry and cooking dinner don’t become fascinating when done for 20 people on a daily basis. Just to get the whole family from one place to another requires a 21-passenger bus. Clearly, the Duggars differ from the average American family with its 2.1 children, but the show’s appeal extends beyond just gee-whiz novelty. By offering their family life up to the national stage that is cable television, the Duggars have provided their viewers with an excellent tableau for almost every current debate on modern American home and family life and a gauge by which to judge our own lives, without quite allowing us to pat ourselves on the back for our superior choices.
Watching the level of coordination and sophisticated time- and resource-management that is required to execute the Duggars’ demanding daily schedule is so compelling office managers should be taking notes. How exactly does one wash and sort all those clothes and have time to do anything else? In one episode, Michelle Duggar took viewers on a tour of her laundry room and I watched, appalled, as baskets and baskets of clothes came into view, sorted mostly by size and function rather than ownership. The clothes likely never see the inside of a drawer, but instead rotate from child to washer to basket to washer and back to child again. As a young single working professional, I do one load of laundry, once a week. Every item belongs to me when I load the washer, and every item, aside from a stray sock or two, belongs to me when I unload the dryer. What for Michelle Duggar is simple household management is totally outside the bounds of my reality.
That the Duggars’ life would differ from urban singledom is hardly surprising. It is that it so immensely differs from even my childhood family life that causes such amazement. My family tallies under the average 2.1 children, but I doubt my experience deviated too much from the norm. In our house, the TV was available whenever I wanted and could be set to my desired channel, and there was definitely no one screaming, unless I was.
More so than any Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson special—with their delectable cakes and perfect Christmas decorations—19 and Counting is domestic porn: all those people, all related to one another, all in one house, all happily interacting with each other, or having to exert considerable effort to do otherwise. The show makes you imagine the person you might have been had your family been different, had there been more people to contend with, more birthdays to celebrate, more milestones to witness, more life being constantly experienced around you. I share a close familial relationship with a very small circle of people. To extend that circle to include 18 other siblings sounds like an intensely emotional and overwhelming experience. But the Duggar children manage to remain cheerful, calm, and, most importantly, willing to share a bathroom. One can’t help but wonder: Might that person with a bigger family be a better version of yourself, in which you are patient and magnanimous to your many siblings just like the Duggars?
But it’s not only size that distinguishes the Duggar family from the mainstream, it’s also their conservatism and their religiosity. The children are home-schooled by their mother, and don’t participate in any activities that are unrelated to their family or their church. The girls wear their hair and skirts long. Their conservative brand of Baptist teaching does not allow for any physical contact between the sexes until marriage. Their oldest son Josh and his new bride Anna first kissed on their wedding day. They are now the proud parents of little Mackenzie, who is already older than at least one of her aunts and uncles.
Although Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar were always religious, and in fact met through their church, they did not always practice this more extreme form of “let go and let God.” They were married for four years before they had their first child. They then resumed using birth control, but the next time they tried to conceive, Michelle miscarried. The Duggars determined that birth control was the cause of their misfortune, and decided, as pro-life Christians, they would allow God to choose the number of children they would have. Since then, Michelle has given birth about every year and a half.
While the Duggars’ religious beliefs may be foreign to the majority of American television viewers, the show nonetheless presents a church- and family-centric way of living that appeals to even secular viewers. The Duggars don’t engage in taboo practices such as polygamy or marrying off their daughters at the age of 14. Nor are they vulgar trailer trash (despite the patriarch’s redneck name) or members of some exotic sect of Luddites—the kinds of people we popularly associate with large broods and can reject in principle. Their clothes, while plain and buttoned-up, do not look homemade but rather like they were bought in bulk at Old Navy. They don’t reject modern technology or conveniences like TV and store-bought butter. Not only do they live in a 7,000-square-foot house with nine bathrooms, they are the proud owners of a state-of-the-art industrial style kitchen with six ovens, four refrigerators, and four deep freezers. As commercial real estate owners, the Duggars had a healthy cash flow even before they became reality TV stars. Their goal may be the glorious afterlife, but they seem to be having a pretty good time during their terrestrial years as well, and in such mainstream ways that the Duggars complicate the ability of critics to get a hold of them.
19 and Counting is a favorite of online gossip sites, where the family seems to have its share of supporters and detractors in equal proportion. Many in the media have certainly found the family to be an easy whipping post, criticizing them for being nut-jobs, negligent, and too “Jesusy.” A recent blog post on the show’s TLC website updated viewers on the status of Baby 19, Josie Duggar, who was born four months premature after an emergency c-section. So far, it has over 9,600 comments. They range from adulation, with heartfelt tales of commenters’ own preemies, to outrage that Michelle would even consider having more children. (“A mother’s job is to protect her child, born or unborn,” cried on censorious commenter. “She knew very well she [was] putting her baby at risk yet she chose to do it and DO IT AGAIN! This is abuse and neglect of her parental job, it is a CRIME!!!”) The debates inspired by this portrayal of a fantasy that is by now mostly a historical throwback—the gigantic, traditional, and harmonious family—mirror in many ways the conundrums that the mainstream American family finds itself in, as domestic life gives way to two-income parents, and family time means organic take-out from Whole Foods after soccer practice.
Yet condemning the Duggars is not easy, even for their natural enemies. Feminists who would oppose the patriarchal stranglehold of raising so many children still concede, like Newsweek’s Kathryn Joyce, that Michelle Duggar appears quite satisfied with her lot in life. Still, based on the online comments, many women watch the show fairly limp with relief that they can choose not to have 19 children. Others seem to enjoy the show more for the opportunity of venting their indignation at the very idea of any woman having 19 children. One commenter describes the family as a cult who would “take women’s rights back 100 years…They are groomed to obey a man and into arranged marriages.” Women have fought hard to be viewed as more than a vessel for baby-making, to exercise agency in deciding what their reproductive limits are. For many, the headaches that result from negotiations with bosses and babysitters are worth the right to come home from work in the evening to their 2.1 children and watch the Duggars (conveniently aired at 9 p.m. on a weeknight). This affirms a lifestyle choice, but also allows one to indulge the fantasy of never again missing a parent-teacher conference because a client meeting ran overtime.
A similar dilemma faces “equal marriage” proponents, who argue that husbands and wives should make an identical investment in their work and home responsibilities. The Duggars have clearly rejected this ideal, and yet, none of the discord, bitterness, and dysfunction that equal marriage advocates predict in unbalanced couples has plagued them. Michelle, impossibly sweet and good-natured, is all deference to her husband, the family breadwinner. Michelle exercises her authority instead in scheduling household chores and educating the children. There are no power struggles because each has clearly delineated areas of responsibility. These are derived from Biblical teachings, which, when interpreted strictly, don’t leave a lot of room for discussion. Jim Bob’s role is to be the moral authority of the household and provide resources for his ever-growing family. Michelle’s role is to be the vehicle to grow the family and provide the loving support that keeps it functioning. Those who would find this maddening, myself included, can still marvel at the peaceful household dynamic it engenders.
Perhaps the most interesting debate to spring from the large-family show phenomenon is the question of a “proper” environment for children. Is it possible that all those children are able to receive the amount of love and attention from their parents they need to be happy? This pop-psychology route provides the easiest path to publicly censuring the family—it avoids the touchy subjects of their religious faith or their decision to procreate, but claims instead that theirs is a “scientifically” unhealthy situation for children. Child psychologists are asked to offer their expert opinions that there simply are too many Duggar children. A doctor recently told People magazine that, “I think that’s too many kids. From a family resource perspective, there is no way you can give the emotional and financial resources you would need to support that may children.” Much has been made of the 15-minute sign-up sheet posted in the kitchen, for use when one of the kids wants one-on-one time with their parents. Many of the interviews also question the “buddy system” the family uses, in which each older sibling is responsible for helping a younger sibling with their school lessons and generally making it through the day. Children, it is said, should not be raising children.
But even this line of attack can’t quite undermine the Duggars’ appeal. It’s true that if most contemporary families—those who struggle to find enough time for each other between school, work, and social life—had 19 children, they would not be able to properly care for them. The Duggar children, however, are home-schooled, they don’t hang out at friends’ houses, they don’t have to come home at 7 p.m. after a grueling football practice to do four hours of AP Calculus homework, and they aren’t sent away to summer camp. They may be missing out on many aspects of a typical American childhood, but they certainly spend a lot of time with their parents. One can’t help but be amazed at Michelle’s calm and good-natured parenting style. She characterizes the attitude of her home as “serene chaos,” and anyone who doubts this should tune in. Her kids are appallingly well-behaved, well-adjusted, and well-mannered.
There is a paradox when one is not allowed to watch cable TV, but lives one’s life on it. It may be true that the Duggars have sold their privacy and foregone their children’s best interests by putting them on display. Any of the growing number of families that sell their day-to-day domestic interaction as entertainment has to grapple with the heady ramifications of exposing their intimate lives for public scrutiny and evaluation.
The easiest way to doubt someone’s sincerity is to introduce money into the equation. How can we tell what’s real and what the producers decided would sell best? Can one ever have justifiable motives for appearing on a reality show? Cynicism makes us look for and hope to find elements of the “dysfunctional and pathologically exposed.” As sympathetic as I am to the Duggar family, I must admit that I am a little curious about what would happen if one of the kids decided to exercise their teenage inclination to rebel. (My money’s on 16-year-old Jinger Duggar to run away to an East Coast college, cut her hair, and become an environmentalist.)
Barring some kind of torrid Jon and Kate implosion in the near-future, time may be the only ally that large-family critics have. Maybe 20 years from now, the Duggar children will be drug-addicts and porn stars, and the costs in well-being of having too many children and inegalitarian parental roles will become clear. But maybe they’ll go on to do no worse than the average product of the secular 2.1-child household, and the Duggars, in some less public, less extreme form, will continue to pose a permanent alternative to elite fashion, seeming economic imperative, and the advice of experts.
Alexandra Squitieri is a writer living in Washington, DC.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kaavya Ramesh