Thursday, June 4, 2015

Judging "19 Kids"

Oh dear.  Have you heard about the child molestation accusations that have come out about Josh Duggar, the oldest of the Duggar children featured on TLC's "19 Kids and Counting"? This marks the second TLC reality series that has gone down in flames this year due to a sex offender.  The other was "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," where the tiny beauty queen's mother was revealed to be romantically involved with a convicted child molester. 
The internet's wrath was swift.  "19 Kids and Counting" was pulled from TLC's schedules, and debate erupted over how much blame should be assigned to Josh versus his parents versus the uber-conservative Christian lifestyle that they promoted.  We all had a grand old time being distracted from anything actually newsworthy going on - anyone hear about the mess that is the latest version of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement?  No? - and adding fuel to the bonfire being made of the Duggars' reputations.  Plenty of people weighed in who had not only never seen an episode of "19 Kids and Counting," but were quick to ask that outraged question that so many of us have asked about trash television: "Who watches this stuff?"
The answer should be obvious by now.  We all watch this stuff.  Oh, sure, not everyone watches "19 Kids" or "Honey Boo Boo" specifically.  I haven't seen a single episode of either.  But I watched a lot of Maury and Jerry Springer when I was younger, and still find myself poking around online advice columns to read about dysfunctional relationships.  My significant other is an unabashed fan of "Judge Judy."  My co-workers love chatting about horrible crimes and accidents they heard about on the local news.  Several of my very respectable friends know who all the regular players are in the gossip magazines are, though they'd never admit to purchasing them.  And even good old Mom loves chatting about what kind of trouble her friends' kids and grandkids have gotten themselves into this week.  In one way or another we all love drama, and putting in our own two cents on someone else's business. 
I don't know that there's really anything wrong with that fundamental urge.  It's a natural social mechanism to want to judge our peers and shame bad behavior.  Reality stars certainly can't say that they didn't invite the scrutiny, putting themselves in the spotlight for attention and financial gain the way that they do.  There's a reason why privacy laws are different for private citizens versus "public figures."  And since Josh Duggar was an adult when his family's reality show began, you can't say that he was too young to appreciate the risks of putting himself out there, unlike Alana Thompson of "Honey Boo Boo" or the Gosselin kids from "Jon & Kate Plus 8."  Certainly, nobody forced him to pursue a career based on an image of being a squeaky-clean promoter of proper moral values.  And should we really feel guilty for feeling satisfaction at seeing a hypocrite get his just desserts?
The danger comes in the cumulative effect of all this negative attention, particularly as it's magnified by social media and the anonymous nature of the internet.  There's the potential collateral damage that could affect the younger Duggar kids or other innocent family members.  We've seen the internet tear apart people's lives practically at a whim, and the media scrum surrounding the Duggars right now is already getting out of hand.  Many people have been critical of the Duggars since they first appeared in the public eye and already think of them as deeply troubled people living an unhealthy lifestyle.  It is very easy to get caught up in the simple narratives that have been created by TLC and the larger media, with their easy answers and cardboard characterization, and now they've all turned emphatically negative  Situations like this are never simple though. 
The culpability of the various adult Duggars is best left to the authorities, and I don't have much of an opinion on Josh's actions one way or another.  There is simply not enough information available for me to feel comfortable about defending or castigating him.  The show going off the air, however, is something I definitely support.  There's something clearly off about these reality TV families, and TLC's exploitation of their attention-seeking behavior has never sat right with me.  There's a whole lucrative industry built around our worst impulses to gawk at catfights and bridezillas and young idiots behaving badly.  There have been freak shows as long as there have been freaks.
But do the freaks understand that they're meant to be freaks?  That despite everyone's good intentions, the scandal and disgrace were probably expected from the start?  Having nineteen kids isn't normal, no matter how nicely the commercials try to frame it.  And you could clearly tell that there are a lot of other things about the family that aren't normal either.  The Duggars are now a cautionary tale, a prime example of a broken family, which is surely the opposite of what they intended.  And the stigma may never go away. 

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