Reality Bites

Reality Bites: 19 Kids & Counting

There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

Having a large family has fallen out of favor in recent decades. There are always economic realities to consider when raising children (orthodontia, college tution, bribing them to elope instead of having a fancy wedding reception), not to mention the fact we aren't trying to establish a homestead in Indian country or attempting to repopulate the world after nuclear war. Ever since the 1970s, family size has trended downward.

Unless your last name is "Duggar," that is. I suppose it's theoretically possible not to be aware of their existence, but most of us aren't that lucky. The title of the show 19 Kids & Counting is simply and terrifyingly accurate: Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar intend to have as many kids as possible. And after watching the program for the first time, I know the sinister reason why.

Jim Bob and Michelle are followers of the Christian "Quiverfull" movement. Simply put, these people believe you should continue to produce offspring until God decides you're done. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's because you may have heard of another adherent, Andrea Yates. Obviously, you can't compare the two directly: Yates was legitimately psychotic, while the only mental illness the Duggars seem to suffer from is their belief that an Acme assembly line approach to procreation puts them in God's cool book. But then, there are weirder belief systems.

The Duggars' show has been on the air since 2008, only it's had to change titles every time the couple adds another child (it was originally 17 Kids & Counting). Far be it from me to tell a couple they can't have as many rugrats as they want - provided they can, you know, provide for them - but Michelle's last pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Before that, their 19th (Josie) had to be delivered via emergency C-section due to pre-eclampsia. She was 1 lb, 9 oz at birth. Michelle's 46 years old. If the couple's not prepared to recognize the biological ramifications of this, maybe they should view it as a not-so subtle nudge from the man upstairs and give it a fucking rest.

Of course, the first time I heard about the family, the question that immediately came to mind was, "How the hell do they pay for them all?" Certainly, the Duggars live a very frugal lifestyle (clothes from thrift stores, no credit cards) but have also benefited from the largesse of the media that hovers over every incipient baby bump. Discovery Health finished construction of their 7,000 square foot house and provided furnishings. Sponsors donated appliances and food, and the money from TLC no doubt helps shore up the family's income (rent from Jim's commercial properties).

I suppose you can be of two minds about this. On one hand, they aren't starving, and even I have to admire their system, in which an older child is essentially assigned responsibility for one of their younger siblings. As anyone in management will tell you, delegation is key. The children appear well-adjusted (though the only ones without any self-awareness about their situation are Jackson and Johannah, and the scenes with them are the show's most uncomfortable/informative), and while we have to recognize the standard disclaimer that every reality show is edited to maximize the theme of that particular episode ("Busy Duggars" was viewed for purposes of this recap), Michelle looks like she has a well-oiled household.

On the other hand ... 19 kids? Let's ignore questions of environmental responsibility and how lucky the Duggars have been in not having any children with special needs (a significant risk at Michelle's age) and talk about Dad for a minute. In "Busy Duggars," Jim Bob gives lip service to how much he enjoys spending time with his kids before leading the family on a hike. Obviously he has to mean en masse, because let's do the [home schooled] math: assuming Jim Bob gets eight hours sleep (and why wouldn't he? After all, it's Mom's job to see to the little ones) and works eight hours a day, that leaves eight hours to interact with his brood. Or about 25 minutes per child. I guess the evangelical concept of "fatherhood" doesn't include actual fathering.

Of course, when I say Jim Bob "works" eight hours, I'm assuming he doesn't just drive to the local Chic-fil-A and spend the entire day in the parking lot, sobbing uncontrollably into his peach milkshake.

But I think I've got Jim Bob figured out. For instance, TLC does an admirable job editing out the Duggars' fundamentalist behavior, but it'd be bad ratings in this country to hide the family's love of firearms, and indeed even the little ones are given BB gun practice. Watching that scene brought Papa Duggar's -- and really the entire "Quiverfull" movement's -- agenda into clear focus: he's only a few warm bodies short of a full platoon. Given the Christian right's views on the end times, Jim Bob and his ilk are clearly positioning themselves to be post-apocalyptic warlords, their positions of righteous strength supported by an army of their own children. Charles Taylor would've been proud.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar