Friday, July 28, 2023

Who's Grooming Who?

I started this piece the weekend the documentary premiered on Amazon Prime, but got distracted by a variety of things, including the rather traumatic collapse of my bedroom ceiling...which is now the story of how I spent my summer in case you were wondering 😩

Since y'all have been saying it LOUD and PROUD (how much you hate the rainbow people) and June is almost done, tell me why you haven't descended on the Duggar Family compound and burned it down to ashes? Because after the documentary I watched earlier this month...

A few weeks ago in a rare instance of me sitting down to watch whatever happened to be trending in real time, I saw #ShinyHappyPeople trending on Twitter, and I thought, oh really so now y'all hate R.E.M. and the B-52s??? Or just the Sesame Street parody (since it took about 6 hours for the backlash to this post to get underway). Then I clicked, and oh my, where to begin?

Let's start with the fact that I was skeptical about the Duggars from the very beginning. Call it my spidey senses for whenever certain shows on cable tend to glorify a particular kind of family structure that reinforces "values" that would have been labeled as dysfunctional or pathological had those families come from my hood. In other words, of course a suburban white family from Arkansas with 19 children (and counting) would star in a hit reality show whereas a Black or Latinx family would have been derided as irresponsible drains on societal resources. (I can only imagine if the Duggars weren't white, y'all would have been complaining about your tax dollars going to support all of those children, regardless of their economic situation. Furthermore, someone would have either called Child Protective Services or found some way to launch a criminal investigation to catch the family engaged in welfare or immigration fraud.)

So no, I was never interested in anything about them. I knew what I knew about the way that certain themes could be sold as wholesome depending on how blonde and blue-eyed and All-American it was packaged to appeal to certain demographics. In that same vein, a show like Teen Mom (originally called 16 and Pregnant) could become a hit on MTV, but if it had aired a single promo on BET, Black Church Mothers United™ would have demanded Bob Johnson's head on a platter.

The Duggars offered a twist on Eight is Enough with the prairie ethos of Little House on the Prairie. I imagine it was the kind of stuff that folks who reminisce about the good old days eat up like a dessert with whipped cream and a cherry on top. We heard a lot about family values in the early aughts, perhaps as a response to the social changes brought by the 90s (racial and ethnic diversity, women changing the modern workplace, expansion of LGBT rights before more letters were added to the acronym). For my part, I had declared my refusal to watch any reality TV programs that gave off even the slightest stench of resembling a circus act, so I had no interest in watching these modern-day Waltons

Instead of focusing on them (right now), I want to talk a bit about their subliminal proselytizing for the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), the religious organization that was referenced throughout the docuseries. Because whew, I had more than a few flashbacks to some of the stuff I was exposed to while growing up. Now, before anyone gets upset and suggests that I am mis-remembering or mischaracterizing things, I want to issue this important disclaimer: I was NEVER sexually abused, nor am I accusing anyone of doing that to me or anyone I knew. What I will address is how the ideology I encountered parallels some of the teachings that the Duggars followed and as was represented in the documentary. Thus, the second part of my disclaimer: I was NOT raised in a cult.

I was raised in the Baptist church in the 1980s and many of those churches, particularly in the South, tended to be evangelical. Although that was not our official affiliation due to the historical racism of the Southern Baptist Convention, I would characterize the theological leanings of my church as influenced by many of the same traditional fundamentalist teachings. While I don't believe that any of the material developed by the IBLP was formally incorporated into what was offered to us in our youth-centered fellowship, it is accurate to suggest that we were exposed to teachings that were consistent with its more conservative leanings with respect to the role of women and girls.

For example, as teenagers we spent our Friday nights in fellowship with like-minded church kids in chaperoned activities. We were encouraged to date the young men in our peer group (and in hindsight it is ironic to recall that not a one of those church-arranged couples ever married each other). Young women from our church who did get married were expected to include the word obey in their wedding vows. Those who got pregnant out-of-wedlock were brought in front of the congregation to apologize for their promiscuity and fornication (never saw where any young men were similarly punished). It was expected that the girls would serve as ushers, in the choir, and as the youth clerk (which I did), but never as the worship leader. 

Women served under similar restrictions as most churches did not ordain women or allow them to preach. My pastor did not allow women in the pulpit except on Women's Day, and those speakers were never licensed ministers. Women who felt they were called for more than teaching Sunday School typically left for progressive congregations. Or they stifled their ambitions, accepted honorary titles, and channeled their spiritual gifts to other forms of service to the Lord as assigned.

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are older than I am, but we grew up in the same era. Obviously, their upbringing in small town Arkansas differed from mine, but I'm assuming that they had access to the same pop culture that I did in the 70s and 80s. In church we were constantly told that what we enjoyed as entertainment contained demonic messages and inappropriate themes; therefore, they would show these Christian movies at our youth retreats and gatherings. They were terrible, more akin to Christian horror even though they were packaged like Afterschool Specials. Imagine being eight years old and watching a film that claimed barcodes were the mark of the beast (Satan) and that half the people you knew were going to Hell

Even worse, I had relatives who held the same strong opinions against pop culture, so if I was allowed to watch television at their homes, it was only Praise The Lord (PTL) or some other televangelist (ditto for listening to the radio--only Christian radio programs). You want to know what was more traumatic than missing The Superfriends or Looney Tunes on a Saturday morning? Having to sit through hours of Tammy Faye Bakker's singing, Jimmy Swaggert's histrionics, or watching some preacher speak in tongues (because that was supposed to make more sense than talking cartoon rabbits and ducks). 

Thankfully, my parents didn't impose restrictions on our entertainment options based on religious beliefs. In fact, I don't believe they even knew some of the extremes of what we were being exposed to, and I certainly don't plan to tell them now! In particular, my Dad would have objected to any whiff of fundamentalism even as a previously lapsed Catholic, now ordained Deacon. Any objections he had to aspects of popular culture were always political or ideological (because he's been woke since the 60s). As for my Mom, I think she conveniently ignored certain things in order to keep the peace since the fundamentalists were her kin and she was a Preacher's Kid. Perhaps she figured that a little fire and brimstone would keep us appreciative and humble, a clever manipulation tactic in case we thought the grass was greener elsewhere.

The key word here is exposure, as opposed to indoctrination. No one ever said, this is how you must live, and these are the rules that you must follow in order to make it into Heaven. Instead, these were general ideas and concepts that even the most holy and supposedly sanctified folks were willing to ignore if they were impractical. Most of the women worked outside of the home. There were only a handful of families where there were more than four children. Rarely did anyone come to church dressed like Laura Ingalls and no one was sent home for wearing a short skirt (ask me how I know). For all of the talk about demonic influences in the secular world, no one was home-schooled. In fact, at least half of us attended Catholic school, but that is a rabbit hole for another time.

My point is, for people who were raised in a biome of wholesomeness as opposed to those of us who were living in the city, there were always people who had similar concerns about our mortal souls. The divergence in our paths came down to the choices that we were allowed to make for ourselves. No one expressed any qualms about me choosing college instead of marriage after high school, nor did anyone object to my choice to pursue a profession in a male-dominated field. The social changes that came as the decades progressed were disruptive for some of the people in my orbit, but most of them adjusted. I can only surmise that for those who reluctantly had to accept the reality of women having the agency of choice (and not just with respect to having children), the Duggars were the embodiment of their nostalgia for simpler times. 

From my perspective, however, the Duggars are no more authentic than the characters on most TV sitcoms. Even a classic show like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was scripted--it starred the Nelson family of actors in various fictional situations. We all know that reality television is staged to maximize interest, so even if the Duggars were this wholesome ideal family on camera, the truth behind the scenes is far from what they portrayed. Half of their children were raising each other while the others were shooting footage for the show for little or no pay. It is rather convenient that the network "found" them right after Jim Bob's political ambitions had been derailed; lucky for him to have had an heir-apparent in eldest son Josh.

It was also lucky that Josh's sexual assault victims, his SISTERS, weren't in a position to demand that he be prosecuted. Instead, they smiled for the cameras and helped him plan his wedding, with the promise that they would soon be of age to be courted and married off* to the delight of millions. By the time the full story of his transgressions against them would be brought to light, the statute of limitations had run. The very idea that a subsequent derivation of the show kept going as if writing Josh off in lieu of getting him therapy or until he finally got convicted for much worse, is...

Exactly the kind of "family values" we ought to exemplify??? Forgive me for regarding Michelle Duggar as the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe instead of some kind of paragon of ideal motherhood. In fact, judge me for wrinkling up my nose and changing the channel when she announced baby #20 on the TODAY Show. And remind me why these people deserve anything other than scorn for the way they trapped Anna Duggar, their own daughters, and are trying to ensnare other young women in their Cult of True Womanhood!

Since you're not reading this in June at the height of the hysteria against the celebration of PRIDE, you've had more than enough time to consider an honest answer to the question posed by my title. Who is being 'groomed' if the worst thing that happens after a drag story hour is your child having questions about makeup? How does being exposed to someone different translate into vandalizing clothing displays at Target? Meanwhile, after watching the Duggars scam that poor girl into marrying their child molester son who also happened to be a used car salesman...

* For research purposes, I went searching for footage of Josh Duggar's wedding to Anna Keller and came across this first video linked above of their wedding planning. I didn't notice the name of the account until after I had watched about 10 minutes, and then noted that there was a second part of the wedding planning and a betrothal video. I am posting those here without comment. Until I sat down to watch the documentary, I had no idea that the Duggars popular enough to fuel an entire cottage industry of tabloid media interest, much like Hollywood celebrities and the British Royals. But also so that everyone is clear, I am not judging their beliefs since I recognize that how God speaks to each of us is personal. The fact that the Duggars and I are on opposite ideological ends of the political spectrum and hold different views on the function of our faith isn't surprising. What did surprise me is what prompted this piece--how exposure and choice impact our outcomes in this life. Regardless of what I was exposed to as a child, I was ultimately free to choose my path in life, and that would be true for most people.

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