‘Shiny Happy People’ review: Duggar doc exposes Christian fundamentalists danger
Jill Duggar Dillard

At some point, the limited documentary series Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets transforms from an engrossing exposé on the reality television show family The Duggars, to an all-too-real true-crime exploration into the insidious world of Christian fundamentalists and their aim at world domination. That may sound dramatic, but the four-part series paints a vivid picture of just how this strategy is being carried out in the political and cultural sphere.

The series makes the compelling case that the Duggar family and their media influence is backed by organizations steeped in religious dogma who want to wield power that puts democracy itself in peril.

Rise and fall of a TV family

Directed by Julia Willoughby Nason and Olivia Crist, Shiny Happy People documents the rise and fall of a Christian fundamentalist television family, The Duggars. The family’s show, 19 Kids and Counting, was something of a cultural phenomenon when it began back in 2008 on the TLC network.

The series followed parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar as they raised their 19 biological children and practiced their Christian faith. The Duggars avoided birth control, claiming that after a miscarriage they decided to allow God to determine the number of children they had.

All of the children were homeschooled and allowed little access to entertainment, movies and television. The docu-series explores how The Duggars’ facade of the perfect wholesome family was fictitious, covering up abuse and repression.

Shiny Happy People then goes on to correlate this abuse within The Duggars to the group they belong to; the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Ex-IBLP members also share their stories, describing the years of abuse they suffered within the organization, informed by repressive ideology under the guise of religious purity.

Shiny Happy People could have stuck to the controversy surrounding Duggar son Josh and the allegations of child molestation (two of his sisters were among his victims), his later conviction for downloading child pornography, and how family patriarch Jim Bob essentially covered for his son in order to maintain the television series and glowing public image. A focus on these happenings alone would probably satisfy anyone’s craving for scandal, but the docu-series sets its sights on larger prospects.

The series doesn’t want to just look at The Duggar family as a one-off celebrity fall from grace. Rather, the clan is used as a jumping off point to a far more sinister plot. This is where the real heart of the story is.

When Jim Bob agreed to do the show on the TLC network, it is stated in the docu-series that he insisted that he would still be allowed to showcase his faith. This is a key point of information, because as The Duggars became America’s new favorite family, Jim Bob and Michelle were able to showcase ideology from IBLP on national television in a consumable package. What we learn in the four episodes is that this ideology is one heavy with repression, sexism, and misinformation.

Founded in 1961 by Christian minister Bill Gothard, IBLP is an organization that serves as an umbrella organization for several ministries. The stated purpose of the organization is to provide instruction on how to find success in life by following biblical principles.

Much of the advice Gothard has given involves Christian couples having lots of children, homeschooling those children with the IBLP program (a curriculum the organization sells to parents for a hefty price), and that males—in particular the patriarch of a family—are the superiors, and that females are expected to obey men in every way.

Showcased for national audience

The Duggar clan, being large influencers within this organization, were able to showcase these teachings for a national audience. Of course, this was done in a way so as to be less controversial.

In chilling detail the documentary episodes go through what is taught in the homeschool program. This includes victim shaming women and what they wear, “debunking” the Big Bang Theory, and teaching that men are the highest form of authority—only second to Bill Gothard himself and then God.

There is also an understanding that parents are to rigidly punish their children with harsh physical spankings to bring them into submission. Furthermore, parents are supposed to have as many children as possible in order to indoctrinate them with IBLP teachings so that they can go forth in the world and be “warriors” for the Lord. This is where the idea of world domination comes into play.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the series deals with the continued influence of IBLP in the new generation of young people and politicians. The series, through ex-IBLP members, explains how they were all being molded into people who could push for legislation in order to influence government and culture to reflect the organization’s repressive values.

It is through this aspect that we understand that we are not just dealing with a controversial celebrity family, but with a movement that aims to push agendas that are steeped in anti-science and inequality. This is especially relevant today as a number of policies and laws pushed by right-wing politicians have resulted in attacks on the rights of women and individuals in the LGBTQ community.

It was the religious conservative right-wing Supreme Court Justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. As of today a total of 19 states have moved to ban or restrict abortion following the Supreme Court’s decision to end all federal protections, with more likely on the way.

Much of these decisions are put under the guise of protecting the so-called unborn child, with no regard to the very living female who is being forced to carry the pregnancy to term. Shiny Happy People makes viewers privy to the fact that Bill Gothard, and conservative Christian leaders like him, have had their hands in laying this repressive groundwork for some time.

Jim Bob Duggar, who was presented on the show as simply a loving unassuming father, has a long history in Republican politics. Duggar has held a number of seats in public office.

From 1999 to 2003, he served in the Arkansas House of Representatives. Duggar was vice chair of the House Corrections and Criminal Law Subcommittee and also participated in the committees on Insurance and Commerce and Judiciary. He even attempted to mount a campaign for State Representative during his son Josh’s trial for child pornography.

It would appear that Jim Bob thinks the legislative spreading of the gospel must continue no matter what the circumstances. Shiny Happy People makes the case that child abuse is not a bug in Christian fundamentalism, but a key feature. And that ultimately this repression has nothing to do with God, but with money and power.

There’s a lot to unpack within the docu-series, particularly with how it pertains to our current political terrain in the United States and abroad. It’s engrossing, if not chilling. Although each episode runs for only an hour, it is packed full of interesting information and revelations. It is four hours of time that viewers won’t regret giving to this relevant topic.

Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets is currently streaming on Prime Video.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.