Jim Bob’s Humbug: Freaks, Fitter Families, and 19 Kids and Counting
On May 25, 2022, Joshua Duggar (34) was sentenced to 151 months in federal prison and 20 years’ probation after being found guilty at the end of last year on two counts of receiving and possessing child sexual abuse materials (CSAM). The scion of America’s most famous “Quiverfull” family, Josh Duggar first came to the public’s attention in 2004 when his family was spotlighted on a television program titled 14 Kids and Pregnant Again. Four years and several “specials” later, parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar nabbed a regular series on TLC, 17 Kids and Counting. Few watching this program, which ended its run in 2015 as 19 Kids and Counting, would have predicted that Joshua’s life would stray so far from his Christian upbringing. The Duggars sold themselves to us as an exceptional family living out their religious principles, but Josh is leaving public life with a different accolade: in his statement to the court, Judge Timothy L. Brooks of the Western District of Arkansas Federal Court described the media downloaded by Duggar as “among the worst child pornography images in existence.”
The Duggar juggernaut has its roots in two historic phenomena: American sideshow culture and the Fitter Family contests of the interwar years. Reality television in general can trace its development and success to the fact that we love to find socially acceptable ways to stare at those we find different. Until TLC and other networks got on board, no one exploited that desire quite like P. T. Barnum (1810-1891). By the time he created the modern circus in the 1870s, Barnum had been a showman for almost 40 years, and freakish attractions were the foundation of his renown. Barnum fed Americans’ curiosity with entertainers including albinos, giants, and dwarfs, as well as hoaxes or “humbugs.” Sideshows – plural, because Barnum’s was by no means the only one – proliferated at the same time that America industrialized, urban spaces grew, and a burgeoning American consumer class developed an appetite for the shocking and the marvelous.
Our cultural preoccupation with the Duggars also has its origins in a juxtaposed trend. Some early twentieth-century audiences found voyeuristic relationships with “freakish” persons distasteful and were instead driven by eugenic ideas to seek out views of healthy bodies. Indeed, visitors to the county fair circa 1925 were just as – if not more – likely to see a tent of eugenic education materials than they were to view a freakshow. “Better Baby” and “Fitter Family” displays and contests urged audiences to think about the genetic propriety of their love matches and to prioritize the creation of genetically superior offspring. Couples who produced “fit” children – able-bodied, white – were encouraged to have large families, and these families were put on display so appreciative audiences could learn whom to emulate. If and when there were sideshows of “freaks” in the interwar years, they were presented not as marvels, but as socially undesirable outcomes of dysgenic matches. Like the fictionalized Juke and Kallikak families, mainstays of eugenic propaganda, so-called “circus freaks” served to warn the public about the detrimental effects of “bad breeding.”
The Duggars have straddled these two traditions throughout their public career. Like the Gilbreth family of Cheaper by the Dozen fame, the Duggars are an oddity for their outsized proportions alone. According to Pew Research Center, only 14% of American mothers ages 40–44 surveyed in 2014 had over 4 children, so even if their family size is typical in their Christian subculture, it is far from common in the American mainstream. The clan’s conservative family management style also marks them as outside of the cultural norm. The Duggars are associated with the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), an organization established by Bill Gothard in the early 1960s to encourage Christian patriarchy, homeschooling, and modest behavior and dress. These traditionalist values may seem inconsistent with reality television stardom, but Jim Bob and Michelle used 19 Kids to promote the IBLP gospel of husband-as-headship and wife-as-helpmeet, and to demonstrate the Quiverfull principle that children are “arrows in the hands of a warrior,” and that the man is “blessed . . . whose quiver is full of them.”
While Jim Bob and Michelle have never made claims to genetic fitness for themselves or their offspring, the very act of presenting their family to American audiences implies their belief that having such a large family is morally right and worthy of emulation. Many of their books include advice interwoven with their family’s story. 2009’s The Duggars: 20 and Counting was subtitled Raising One of America’s Largest Families – How They Do It, and 2012’s A Love That Multiplies promised An Up-Close View of How They Make It Work. Episodes of 19 Kids, like “Cheaper by the Duggars” of October 20, 2008, featured tips and tricks for living thriftily. Amid the shopping and housekeeping tips are instructions for how to delegate tasks to teams of children so the household will run smoothly. In other words, the family functions not despite their large size, but because of it. Families who entered their offspring in “Better Baby” contests aspired to become models for others; similarly, the Duggars have assumed that their viewers are interested in them because they want to do as they have done, and this includes the eugenic creation of supersized families.
Pro-natalist assumptions are woven throughout each episode and each book: that people should marry young, that wives should be sexually available to their husbands, and that couples should produce as many offspring as possible. In 2015, Michelle posted on her blog – and then media outlets circulated – her advice for newlywed women, writing that they should stay “joyfully available” to their husbands no matter their own interest in or energy for meeting his “special need.” The Duggars have made clear in speeches that they oppose homosexuality and transgender persons, even going as far as to equate trans women with “men with past child predator convictions.” These attitudes are framed as religious, but they are no less eugenic for being so. In addition, the overwhelming whiteness of the cast lends credence to the observation that the Quiverfull movement is about increasing the number of white babies born, not just babies in general.
From the earliest programs, Josh was represented as the steady eldest son and the personification of fundamentalist integrity. His chaste courtship with Anna Keller was featured on 17 Kids, then a little over a year after their September 2008 wedding they welcomed a daughter. With each successive child – there would be seven more before Josh was sentenced – the couple was presented and re-presented to the public (on The Today Show, in People Magazine exclusives, and the like) as young sweethearts building the wholesome American family. Like all families on display, however, this was political: after all, Josh and his siblings were first thrust into the spotlight while Jim Bob was running for office, and at only 25, Josh was tapped to be executive director for the Family Research Council (FRC). This right-wing PAC, founded by James Dobson in the 1980s, is best known for its opposition to homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. With his bright countenance and corn-fed demeanor, Josh was the new face of some very old ideas, the poster child for what large families, patriarchal leadership, and clean Christian living could do.
In 2015, the fortunes of the heir apparent began to turn. Josh was outed as an adulterer in the Ashley Madison data breach, and he was accused of physical assault by an actress from a strip club. He was let go from the FRC, and TLC canceled 19 Kids, though they renegotiated a contract with Jim Bob for Counting On, which followed the lives of some of the older Duggar children as they courted, married, and began their own broods. Even before charges of possession of CSAM, word resurfaced that a teenaged Josh had molested several underage girls, including four of his sisters. The family had covered up the abuse for years to maintain their clean-cut image. But Josh’s conviction brings two decades of Duggardom to an end as Jim Bob’s humbug has been exposed.
With shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, in the rearview mirror and a potential overturn of Roe v. Wade ahead, it is hard to ignore the role of 19 Kids and Counting in the normalization of the white Christian nationalist values influencing this moment in American history. Behind the aw-shucks candor and wide-eyed promotion of “family values” by the Duggars and their promoters, is a narrative that helped pave the way for MAGA hats, anti-vaxxers, and photos of Republican party notables posing with their children and their automatic weapons. Behind that, too, is a culture of undeniable abuse and neglect, which belies this family’s professed values. Even if the Duggernaut has come to an end, the white supremacist impetus behind the Quiverfull lifestyle and the promotion of this family, in particular, has not. Sideshows come and go, but ideas about what makes families “fit” and attractive will continue to be used to justify white supremacy and radical conservatism.
Cornelia C. Lambert is a historian of science and medicine living in the greater Atlanta area. She is working on a project about families on display. She teaches at Oglethorpe University.