The Duggar Effect: The End of Hicksploitation TV

After years of mining “real America” for conservative families to exhibit at the reality TV zoo, it’s time to stop exploiting and oversimplifying the heartland for entertainment.

05.28.15 9:15 AM ET

There’s nothing I hate more than when TV lives up to its bad reputation.

In the wake of the revelation that Josh Duggar, the eldest of TV’s most famous litter of children, molested five underage girls—among them his sisters—when he was a teenager, the fate of TLC’s hit series 19 Kids and Counting remains in limbo. And we are reminded of the worst aspects of reality television.

It’s times like this when the medium actually is, as some holier-than-thou critics aggravatingly accuse, the lowest form of culture.

Here we all are: a network that has exploited a morally conflicted and terrifyingly religious family as some sort of zoo exhibit, and we, the audience, who have gleefully gawked at them.

Reality TV has always been branded empty calorie entertainment, the consumption of which we should all feel guilty for.

“It’s all just harmless silliness!” we used to cry in defense.

But the Duggar family scandal—on the all-too-recent tail of the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty controversies—crystallizes just how guilty we maybe should feel. These calories aren’t just empty anymore. They’re poisoned. They’re making us sick. And we’re complicit in our ruin.

Perhaps the circumstances that fueled the transformation of the Duggars from harmless zoo exhibit to participants in a media circus are the impetus we need to blow the tranquilizer dart at the genre, putting down not only 19 Kids and Counting but any reality TV show that profiteers on down-home exploitation.

Perhaps it’s time to no longer be charmed by, amused by, or mindlessly entertained by these “normal” families that constitute “real America,” whose gee-golly, god-fearing goodness we’re exploiting. Perhaps it’s time to stop over-simplifying the heartland: They love Christ and have funny accents, how cute!

Maybe we need to rethink what we’re encouraging by taking advantage of these people, and think more about who these people are that we’re giving platforms to. Maybe we need to bring accountability and social responsibility—and not just exploitation and shamelessness—to the reality TV genre.

Sure, 19 Kids…¸ Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty: These are shows that purported to be rooted in their championing of “traditional family values.” But the recent spate of controversies prove that over-aggressively capitalizing on anything—“traditional family values” included—brings with it a very real danger.

The funny thing is: These series were supposed to save us all.

They arrived as both antidotes and counterprogramming to the vapid debauchery on franchises like Real Housewives and Jersey Shore. Those shows celebrated Botox, Jaeger shots, and catfights. These series trumpeted the importance of family, religion, and love.

Reality TV was shifting from the godless to the godly, and the ratings were so good they were practically heaven-sent. But look at what has come in the wake of their ascension.

It’s revealed that Josh Duggar molested underage girls. It’s revealed that his family and his church knew about it, and rather than devote their time and energy to getting him help, pursued a TV career. More, it’s become apparent that certain network executives may have been aware of Duggar’s past.

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There’s the case of Duck Dynasty, in which patriarch Phil Robertson gave quotes to the press asserting that AIDS and diseases of its kind are God’s punishment for immoral behavior. (For example, being gay.) It’s an alarming level of bigotry from a person heralded by conservative and religious TV viewers as one of the more inspirational and certainly most popular entertainment personalities.

And there’s the rapid fall of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which was canceled by TLC following news that June “Mama June” Shannon, the mother of the titular Boo Boo, was in a relationship with a man who was convicted of molesting a young relative.

To wit, Mama June threatened to sue TLC for treating her family more harshly than the Duggars, pulling their show within hours of the news of her relationship surfacing, yet still not officially ruling on the fate of 19 Kids and Counting a week later. Why should one family’s TV empire be ruined by disgusting behavior, and not another?

Image Post Date:
Feb. 21, 2014
The Duggar family in front of a green screen.


The Duggar Family.

Sure, bad behavior abounds on all reality TV. Snooki gets arrested, and it’s must-see TV. New York socialites argue over who’s invited to brunch, and Twitter explodes with delight over the sordid inanity of it all. There’s certainly a line to be drawn between these transgressions and that of Josh Duggar. But toeing that line is us, the TV viewers, and our own hypocrisy.

Our pearls are clutched and our pitchforks are out as the Duggar family makes headlines. But we’re laying, shocked and morally outraged, in a bed of our making.

We’re perfectly at peace with shining a spotlight on a family that belongs to a religion that, in all reports since the molestation reveal, is party to practices that we should as a larger society be completely alarmed by. Instead, we publicized them on a TV show.

And when it comes to pass that this religion played a key part in keeping Duggar’s behavior a secret, we’re horrified. But it’s lost on most of us that, just weeks before, we had been amused by this organization, and had written off such practices as bizarre religious curios as they played out on our TVs.

Or with Robertson, we rewarded his extreme conservatism with higher ratings and, ultimately, more money. But when he crossed some ambiguously drawn line by embracing that extreme conservativism, we’re furious. How can we both condemn and condone a person’s point of view and behavior?

Are we to believe that we’re not fully aware what we’re in for when we bring camera crews into the lives of these people? That while we’re game and hoping to put a lens on, and arguably exploit, their down-home, Americana ways that we’re not going to stumble upon other, less charming behaviors that may go hand-in-hand with that?

Are we only acting shocked when those behaviors surface because we don’t want to admit that we, the television-viewing audience, might be complicit in it?

We’ve created a climate where detail after detail of Duggar’s behavior and the ensuing cover-up were revealed, and TLC’s first reaction was to air a marathon of 19 Kids and Counting to capitalize on the sudden mainstream awareness of its cable stars.

Sure, in the days after the outrage-inciting marathon, shit has continued to hit the fan, spraying everywhere. As TLC really started to smell rank for profiting off of this family, it pulled the show from its schedule. But it has yet to cancel it.

What in the living hell?

Duck Dynasty
Phil Robertson in A&E's 'Duck Dynasty' returning for season 4 August 14 at 10PM ET/PT.
Photo by Karolina Wojtasik
Copyright 2014

Karolina Wojtasik/A&E

Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty."

A source even tells People that a spin-off of 19 Kids… is in the works at TLC, presumably to maintain the franchise should the network be forced to officially pull the plug on the series as audience and advertiser backlash builds to a fever pitch.

But to some, TLC’s behavior isn’t insane.

After all, there has been an unsettling amount of people who have excused or normalized Josh Duggar’s actions. They’re not to be grouped with—but certainly can be associated with—those who came to the defense of Phil Robertson as he used the public megaphone he’s been given to spew hate speech against the gay community.

Based on this, there really might be something to the whole “reality TV as the decline of culture” thing.

But reality TV, for all of the negative things it has come to represent and reflect (especially right now), actually started as a noble cultural pursuit.

As hard as it may be to imagine, it’s served as the finest example of the power of television to confront culture, affect culture, and ultimately change culture by portraying the diverse scope of human experience. It was a way for people all over the country, and eventually the world, to access and relate to anyone whose experiences were distantly removed from their own—or maybe even scared or confused them.

The Real World depicted gay culture, race relations, AIDS, alcoholism, and numerous other issues in a way that wasn’t just entertaining, but profound. Even necessary.

You can draw a direct line from that to the recent Keeping Up With the Kardashians: About Bruce specials and E!’s upcoming series documenting Bruce Jenner’s transition to living life as a woman. Through a brave, informative, and sensitive depiction of Jenner’s experience and essential issues facing the trans community, the About Bruce special used the medium of reality TV to facilitate a watershed moment in the LGBT movement.

Of course, that moment was born after years of decrying the rise of the Kardashians as influencers in our culture, once again proving our complicated relationship with reality TV and its stars.

Truthfully, I have written in the past on the virtues of series like Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty, praising their missions to bring so-called morality to reality TV and portray families that obviously care for each other, rather than trade in catfights and conflicts. My own hypocrisy isn’t lost on me now that I’m advocating for an end to those same series, which purported to celebrate “real America” but in turn ended up exploiting a segment of our culture in glaring and, ultimately, disturbing ways.

Perhaps there will always be a certain element of exploitation to reality TV, no matter how high-minded and noble the pursuit. But we can and should be more judicious and selective about who and what we’re exploiting.

We live, we learn, and we evolve in the way we think about things. Truly, that’s reality.