How TLC’s Fundamentalism-As-Kitsch Hurts Women

With shows like 19 Kids and Counting and Submissive Wives’ Guide to Marriage, TLC hurts every former fundamentalist who’s been dehumanized and silenced.

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Jim Bob Duggar would like you to know that his son, Josh, is not a pedophile. As an errant teen, he simply touched his own sisters over their clothes while they were sleeping, except for the times he groped them under their clothes when they were awake. But “this was not rape or anything like that,” and Josh is very sorry.

“As a matter of fact, he broke. And he went and asked God to forgive him,” said Jim Bob.

Those statements, uttered on Wednesday during an interview with Fox’s Megyn Kelly, were meant to reassure the public that the Duggar family deserves to keep its hit TLC show, 19 Kids and Counting, on the air. It’s still too early to tell if they’ll succeed, but the network that turned them into millionaires certainly isn’t backing away from conservative Christianity.

In fact, TLC’s developing something of a specialty in Biblical literalists, ranging from fundamentalists like the Duggars to marginally less rigid conservative Evangelicals. The latter star in the channel’s hour-long special Submissive Wives’ Guide to Marriage, which aired on May 17 and was billed as a look at “the private world of submissive wives, who believe a woman’s role is to serve and submit to her man.”

I watched mainly to see how the channel would present its weighty subject. The answer is probably predictable: TLC presents it by pretending it isn’t weighty at all. The titular “submissive wives” are introduced in cotton candy colors, pitted against a soundtrack that sounds like it’s been ripped from The Sims.

The result is kitsch, and it’s painted so thick it nearly obscures the fact that this is a show starring human beings who sincerely believe that submission “is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to a woman.”

The wives dress more fashionably than Michelle Duggar, and their families are certainly smaller, but their views on gender roles are identical to the extreme version of “Quiverfull” Christianity portrayed on 19 Kids.

That wasn’t surprising. But it certainly felt familiar.

Submissive wife Tara Furman and her husband, Tim. Via tlc.com

Although my parents do not practice Quiverfull Christianity — a small blessing, but one for which I am endlessly grateful — they did practice a strict version of Christian fundamentalism.

Fundamentalist girls learn variations of the same theme, and it usually starts with modesty. Modesty standards vary from church to church, but the principle doesn’t: A short hem has the power to transform an ordinary girl into a stumbling block, a purely sexual object that inspires her brothers in Christ to sin.

And everything revolves around those brothers in Christ. I learned that, too, very early, from the absence of women in the pulpit to the way everyone described my father as the head of my household. I wondered if that made my mother the neck, or maybe the hands; no one answered, but I understood the implication. She stood below my father in the hierarchy of things.

When I got old enough to ask why, I met the Apostle Paul — or rather, I met the way he’s been interpreted by Biblical literalists.

Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over men, but to be in silence.

Those words haunted me for years. They haunted me when I went to Christian high school and a classmate told me women shouldn’t be president, and again when a substitute teacher there told me he liked a woman who knew how to keep her mouth shut. At Christian college, I asked the campus pastor why we didn’t have more women speak in chapel services, and he asked if I actually believed women could do that. I said no, of course not, and left.

But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Later, in an abusive relationship, I thought about those words again and they festered, even though I no longer believed Paul spoke for anything but his own prejudice when he wrote them down.

These aren’t scenes in a reality TV show. They’re the events of my own life. I’ve recounted them to myself so often that it’s become something like a mantra — I thought like this, and this and this, but I don’t any longer, today I am all right. And it feels partially true. Today, I am all right.

But it’s a conditional truth. I am all right, until I read Jim Bob Duggar’s words. I am all right until I listen to a “submissive wife” boast that she never contradicts her husband, even when he’s wrong.

I am all right until my secular peers turn both of them into memes.

And I know that TLC is banking on precisely that tendency. 19 Kids is one of the most profitable shows it’s ever produced, and that’s not just because it resonates with social conservatives. People watch it, and shows like it, because what they see makes them feel better about themselves. Channel executives don’t care whether the Duggars are your heroes or your jesters; they profit either way.

By packaging fundamentalism as kitsch, TLC invites you to laugh at the very people it’s turned into millionaires. That exploitation makes them money, but it also obscures what fundamentalism is really like in practice. It has to: The reality isn’t entertaining.

The Duggars have, despite themselves, done victims of fundamentalism a favor. It’s no longer possible to pretend that their beliefs are quaint — or harmless enough to be the butt of our jokes.

That epiphany’s been years in the making, and it’s come at a crushing cost — paid not only by the Duggar children, but by every former fundamentalist who’s been dehumanized and silenced by a collective refusal to clearly recognize this ideology for the intrinsically abusive force that it is.

To be an ex-fundamentalist in a secular world is to live with feet firmly planted in two cultures that should be diametrically opposed to each other. This balancing act certainly isn’t what I wanted when I left the church, of course; I wanted a clean break. I wanted to wall up my memories and leave them to wither behind the bricks.

But that’s impossible, and not just because there isn’t a person alive who’s successfully outrun the past.

The great secret no one tells you when you leave fundamentalism is that the world you’re joining isn’t that different from the one you’ve left behind. Your shiny new secular life will also be full of people who exploit and dehumanize others. Sometimes, their targets will be the sort of Christian that you used to be, and that your family and friends still are.

You will ask yourself, as I’ve done so often these past two weeks, if you should have bothered leaving at all. The answer is yes, despite everything. The grass is still slightly greener.

But the church does not have a monopoly on inflicting trauma.

I feel it every time I remember that it took a child molestation scandal for the public at large to investigate the Duggars. I feel it every time people laugh at submissive wives and backward homeschoolers and flyover states.

I am all right, until.

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