In the online world as in meatspace, complementarianism is a treasured ideology for the Religious Right. They might use different names for it, like tradwife/tradman, but these regressive marriage rules form a bedrock foundational belief for them. But it keeps failing. More than that, it fails spectacularly.

But its failure isn’t a bug in the system. It’s what the system produces. And since a system’s function is what it does, let’s look at why today’s Religious Right seems so enamored of a system that reliably produces only misery and broken homes. We’ll do that by examining the curious case of an alt-right white nationalist influencer named Lauren Southern, who recently fucked around with complementarianism—and found out in some of the worst ways possible.

(From introduction: How Preston Sprinkle starts with wrong assumptions.)

(This post went live on Patreon on 5/21/2024. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and is available publicly!)

A quick review of complementarianism

Complementarianism is an ideology held by right-wing conservative Christians. Though I’ll be discussing this as mostly an evangelical thing, you can find many Catholics—often converts from some dysfunctionally-authoritarian, power-grabby Protestant flavor—who like it too.

In complementarianism, women and men follow rigid upper-class Victorian gender roles. I can’t even say 1950s gender roles. After all, lots of women worked outside the home in the 50s. No, this ideology’s precepts are more archaic than that—as well as more upper-class in origin. So men work outside the home to make enough money to support their wives and children. Women work inside the home, tending to children and housework so their husbands can return to a clean home to spend the evening in leisure. Most of all, wives obey husbands. No matter how harebrained or hurtful the decision, wives obey.

In the past, we’ve talked about one of the signal failures of complementarianism: Its total lack of accountability measures. Four important dealbreakers arise immediately in these relationships:

  1. Nobody’s gonna make men honor their end of the deal. The entire power structure is built along men ruling women. So there is no tribunal set up to force men to obey complementarian rules. Worse, women facing abuse in complementarianism will find no recourse and no appeal. No matter how badly husbands honor their end of the deal, wives are never let off the hook.
  2. Qualifications not only don’t matter, they can’t matter. If they mattered, women could rule—and men could be disqualified from ruling. Women must be completely disqualified from ruling and men must be completely qualified to rule, and the only way to do that is to reduce rulership potential to one’s sex.
  3. The entire concept of complementarianism rests upon undeserved and unilateral power with no accountability. That creates a very unhealthy dynamic within the marriage. Rulers expect the subjugated to try every trick in the book to seize power, and the subjugated know their rulers will constantly seek to enrich themselves at the expense of those who already have nothing. And so spouses lock themselves into eternal battle with the partners they’ve sworn to love and cherish. The prizes: More leisure time, feelings of power, sexual gratification or successful avoidance of sex (on either side), and more.
  4. The literal only way this kind of marriage can work is if both partners act always and only in good faith. But since both partners hold a dysfunctional authoritarian worldview, you’d have a better shot at finding snow-cone stands in Hell than that.

If I had to set up marriage rules that were guaranteed to backfire and cause nothing but grief and misery for years, I could not do better than the architects of complementarianism have here. It’s truly impressive how well they’ve set people up for failure.

Nowadays, influencers and social-media people have taken to calling complementarianism by a different name. But it’s still the same fetid swill.

An introduction to Lauren Southern

If you’ve spent any amount of time in right-wing media or social media, you know about Lauren Southern. She’s always been a very enthusiastic advocate for traditional marriage, which is what complementarianism masquerades as these days. Often, you see women like her called tradwives. The lifestyle is also often called tradlife. I haven’t seen tradhusband around, but I’ve seen tradmen bandied about.

(Complementarian Catholics of both sexes often call themselves tradcaths. Interestingly, their label comes with a connotation of fervent religious devotion that other trad-labels don’t. One needn’t even be fundagelical to glom onto the trad label, otherwise.)

Thanks to the lovely Nonnas at Lowcow.farm (archive), it’s easy to track Southern’s internet footprints. She has written a book about how much she hates immigrants and Muslims (and Baby Boomers, apparently). In the book, she insists that “the Crusaders did absolutely nothing wrong.” (Emphases, as always, from the source.)

She’s posed for pictures of herself with guns, though she apologized later for it.

She’s advocated for public policies that harm women.

And she seeks attention with revealing anime costumes while decrying the very Western civilization that doesn’t arrest her for indecency while doing it. Behold the final boss of feminism, the ultimate tradwife:

(This is only one of dozens of similar costumes she’s modeled over the years.)

And despite being Canadian, she sure does like to LARP as an American:

She is definitely not really blonde. Nor is she particularly coherent, as we see in a 2017 tweet wherein she complains that immigrants to France don’t speak English.

Moreover, she blames feminism for her own inability to form and keep friendships with women.

Eventually, Patreon deleted her account in 2017. Like a lot of other alt-right figures, she lost other income-generating services as well, including YouTube monetization. But she simply moved to PayPal. Her main target demographic is right-wing men who can’t see past their own boners. They didn’t seem to mind making the switch for her.

I can’t vouch for the veracity of the following comment, but it fits the data so far:

i’ve seen laura southern [sic] a few times around my campus, she’s a functional autist and outcast and nobody takes her seriously.

she pretends she’s a fucking journalist but her audience base is a bunch of neckbeards in a fringe movement imo.

Aside from the info the Nonnas dug up and archived, I can tell you that she’s worked with alt-right media (archive) and Canada’s Libertarian Party (archive). Though she claims she’s totally not a white supremacist, she certainly seems to hang out with them a lot and she supports the causes they like. (This will become particularly relevant—and hilarious—shortly.)

But that was some years ago. Around 2019, she dropped right off the map.

Lauren Southern runs to ground

At first, she simply told her fans in 2019 that she wanted “to pursue this less public life.”

Then, in 2020, she popped up again for a brief moment. She released a video in which she said she actually withdrew from public media because she’d gotten pregnant. After some soul-searching, she decided she also needed to “realign” her beliefs and get away from her previous alt-right extremism. “I’ve taken the real-life pill,” she told viewers.

She also claims that her old extremist stunts were simply a “social experiment.” You know, like every single embarrassed troll has ever used as an excuse. (Real experiments include all kinds of ethics checks that Southern has curiously never, ever utilized.)

Her old pals in the alt-right weren’t fooled by these displays. Milo Yiannopoulos theorized that she’d only run to ground to give her critics time to forget her. He figured she had returned because she wanted to start “milking her beta orbiter followers” once again.

But that’s about all we heard out of her for a few more years.

The complementarian cheerleader returns, chastened

Lauren Southern popped up again in 2023—bearing a harrowing tale of domestic abuse suffered at the hands of her tradman husband. In another trickle truth, it turns out she had married and moved to Australia to be with him. And the whole situation hadn’t worked out for her.

Recently, UnHerd interviewed her (archive). In that interview, we finally learned more about what happened. It’s a terrible article overall, unfortunately, full of both-sides-ism that hardly even seems comparable to the damage complementarianism wreaks on its victims. But delving beneath that stuff, we discover:

  • Southern learned and parroted the simplistic, one-size-fits-all listicle rules about marriage that complementarianism pushes
  • When she met a guy who liked her and seemed to fit the complementarian mold, she married him after knowing him only four months
  • At his demand, she dropped all of her support networks
  • Almost immediately, in keeping with the mold, she conceived
  • She ignored all of her beau’s red flags and warning signs of controlling abuse
  • Once the baby arrived, he amped up his controlling abuse and moved the family to Australia
  • She dropped out of sight in 2019 to help him at work (he had something similar to top secret clearance in Australia, and his bosses rightly counted her as a security risk)
  • In 2020, at his request, she created those weird-ass reconciliatory posts to try to start re-earning the income he now missed
  • After years of mistreating her, her husband finally dumped her for briefly returning to Canada to attend the funerals of two family members
  • Despite her pleading, he refused to reconcile; he even refused joint custody with their child, so she stayed in Canada with the child
  • SURPRISED PIKACHU FACE: Everything she learned about marriage was wrong!

She’s now a single mom on the wrong side of 25. These days, she leads a community of ex-trad women. And she continues to deconstruct her indoctrination about relationships.

How complementarianism shook out for folks decades ago

Nothing about this story surprises me.

Back when I was Christian in the late 1980s/1990s, evangelicals hadn’t picked up complementarianism yet—and fundamentalists didn’t yet call what they did complementarianism. But that is what it was. Here’s a popular diagram from back then:

For a long time, evangelicals viewed complementarian relationships with great alarm. They felt these relationships sounded like bondage. In this context, that’s not a fun word. It’s Christianese for something deeply unpleasant and exhausting.

But evangelicals soon adopted it. Nowadays, they consider it the only way for TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to conduct a marriage, just like fundamentalists did and more. Hey, it wasn’t Pentecostals clamoring for courtship and purity balls and stupid purity vows/rings and all that. Evangelicals did that stuff.

It’s probably also not surprising that back when I was Christian, I knew only a couple of fundamentalist marriages that seemed healthy and happy. With the exception of the very young folks, everyone was married. But they all seemed miserable. I knew from hints and rumors that everyone in my age group was fighting like cats in a sack: Knock-down, drag-out screaming matches, in between acting civil while in Christian company. My own marriage to Biff was no different.

If you’re wondering, here are the two marriages I knew of that seemed healthy and happy:

  1. My ethereally-Jesusy friend Angela and her husband, both fairly new converts from mainline/Catholic homes. Newlyweds, very Ken & Barbie, utterly fervent and quite happy to inhabit the strict gender roles required for complementarianism. I don’t think they’d had time to start noticing any problems they had.
  2. My second pastor and his wife, who were both lifelong Pentecostals from Pentecostal homes. They’d married very late in life for the first time each, so they were both mature adults with their own careers and lives. I hung out with them often, so I can tell you that they were deeply in love and happy to be together. They were weirdos by Pentecostal standards, but they were #goalz.

Complementarianism didn’t work for anybody else. But as marriages failed and spouses became veteran combat soldiers who regarded time spent together as a battlefield, they all blamed themselves for not working the system correctly. None of them questioned complementarianism itself.

Complementarianism appeals to both men and women for different reasons

Like Lauren Southern, I soon figured out that men liked complementarianism for way different reasons than women did. The ideology granted them complete, unilateral power over the women in their lives. They liked that. They had little access to power in their regular lives. But at home, they could pretend they were kings. Plus, complementarianism gave them an unlimited free exemption from those housework and childcare tasks that neither sex generally enjoys.

That’s exactly what happened to Southern:

Then, thousands of miles from friends and family, she reports becoming “the closest thing to a modern day, Western slave”. With no income of her own, she had to do everything: “The lawns, the house, the cooking, the baby care, his university homework. And I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any support. There was no help changing diapers, there was no help waking up in the night with the baby. I’d still have to get up, to make breakfast before work. I’d be shaking and nervous, for fear I’m gonna get yelled at.”

Indeed, I’m completely certain that Biff converted to Pentecostalism for that exact reason. His regular life had denied him the rewards and the personal power that his malignant-narcissist brain told him were his by right. In Pentecostalism, the god of the universe offered him these things plus many more.

Women, by contrast, got into complementarianism for its dazzling promises. Southern fell for them just like countless fundamentalist women did in my day. Complementarianism promises women happy, fulfilling marriages with husbands who love, adore, and cherish them as long as they do what those husbands want. And that, too, is how things shook out for Southern:

She would pray by his bed when he was angry with her, hoping that if she gave him grace one more time he’d realise the depth of her love and be kinder. And if this didn’t work, she was encouraged to persist by the way online life had conditioned these beliefs into “listicle” form. [. . .] “[A]s long as I put on the high heels and the lipstick when my husband comes home, as long as I cook the best meal, as long as I’m always submissive, and say yes, sir, whatever you want, things will go fantastic.” And if it’s not fantastic? The listicle version of traditionalism would just say she should make more effort.

By design, complementarian ideology has no “or what?” for men. But it sure does have one for women. My own first pastor in Pentecostalism told me much the same thing when I voiced concerns with Biff’s fitness for leadership. If I prayed hard enough and submitted enough and treated Biff like he was already a great leader, he’d become one. He’d be too ashamed not to become one!

That tactic doesn’t work in real life, but it’s dogma in complementarianism.

The ideology that fails more than it succeeds

Over-simplified, childish, un-nuanced, black-or-white, either/or twaddle works marvelously on certain people. Complementarianism isn’t the only example of such twaddle, of course. Others include the so-called “Benedict Option” and Creationism.

(The Waco cult Biff and I nearly joined in the early 1990s fits as well. The harder people tried to live as “1st-century Christians,” the worse the abuse seemed to get.)

But complementarianism remains one of the most illustrative of the lot. It fails far more often than it succeeds because its design simply can’t survive even glancing encounters with reality.

The interviewer for UnHerd had an interesting way of describing this concept:

[P]urist ideologies as such map at best uneasily onto the practical realities of life as a woman – and especially as a mother. [. . .] [A]ny sincere effort to apply these in real life will almost inevitably be the stuff of nightmares.

I liked the term “mapping” here. It evokes images of someone holding a map in their hands, then striding forth to find the road—only to discover the map is worse than useless. It not only won’t get them where they’re going, but it’ll also get them utterly lost.

The Zeroth Error: Why the complementarian roadmap just doesn’t work

Complementarianism, like Creationism, like the Benedict Option, like “1st-century Christian” cults, suffers from an error that is so deeply baked into its fiber that it cannot help but fail. Remember that list of four dealbreakers I described earlier? This is the one that creates all of them: the Zeroth Error that underlies all of fundagelicalism:

THE ZEROTH ASSUMPTION. If something sounds very Jesusy and has a ton of Bible verses to support itself, then it must by definition be both correct AND Yahweh’s perfect plan for humans. It is correct and will work because it was created by Yahweh himself. The only way it can fail is if people don’t follow its rules to the letter. The system works, as long as people work the system.

As a result of this assumption, when I was Pentecostal I assumed that any two opposite-sex fools could make a marriage work—because complementarianism was a divinely-perfect marriage system. All those fools needed to do was follow its rules. Even if they weren’t Christian at all, their marriage would work if they did this.

That’s why I never feared the breakup of my marriage to Biff after I deconverted. That didn’t even occur to me. Of course marriage could work between a Pentecostal and an ex-Christian. Why couldn’t it? The marriage itself had nothing to fear as long as Biff and I both continued onward with it. I knew we’d both have some adjusting to do, but a breakup just wasn’t even a thought in my mind.

Boy oh boy, was I sure surprised when that didn’t happen!

The roadmap of complementarianism describes a whole different realm

These over-simplified ideologies don’t map to reality because they describe a whole other universe. For complementarians, that universe is one in which a real live god hangs out and meddles with humans. In that universe, their god talks to humans, guides them, and helps them develop into better people.

That’s not our universe.

That is the Zeroth Error.

No gods hang out here, much less meddle with humans or even talk to them. Unfortunately for fundagelicals, without a real live god inhabiting our universe and doing stuff within it, nothing forces or compels either spouse in a complementarian marriage to act only in good faith. No gods will chide them. No bolts from the blue or cosmic spankings will punish the disobedient. And no afterlife of torture or Purgatory of purification awaits those who abuse their spouses or make them miserable.

Without real-world penalties and accountability, complementarianism simply doesn’t work. It naturally objectifies and subjugates women for the pleasure and rule of men, who then abuse their power in predictable ways because who’s gonna make them stop?

Not Jesus. That’s for damn sure. Perhaps he is sleeping, or on a long journey, or using the potty. It’s anybody’s guess, really.

Now to really cook those noodles: Failure is the function of this system

A system’s function is what it actually does. For complementarianism, what it actually does is create dysfunctional, unhappy marriages. And that is just fine by the religious leaders and influencers who push complementarianism.

Let me explain.

When I was Pentecostal, I was not a member of the Cool Kids Club. The pale, willowy, sunken-cheeked blonde girls were. They were all lifelong Pentecostals, hand-reared like baby parrots by Pentecostal elites. Their fate: to be matched up with the sons of other elites to form dynasties.

These were not happy girls. They all clearly knew that Pentecostalism was a load of horseshit and that they were missing out on the best years of their lives. Alas, their parents were extremely strict with them. So they evolved a lot of ways to disobey their parents’ and pastors’ rules without getting caught.

One of these rules involved not ever cutting their hair. Women had to keep their hair uncut and long. Married and/or older women almost always styled their hair into a bun or braided confection, while unmarried young women got away with letting it spill down their backs. At the time, the late 1980s, juice-can-curled bangs were in style, as well as some poufy height up top and a mane of thick, fairly tight, thickly-hairsprayed curls. Here’s a good example of circa 1987 at my high school (my friend Angela was naturally like the second row, last pic, dammit):

These hand-reared Pentecostal maidens wanted to achieve this style too. All of them had something like it going on.

But you can’t make that style happen with uncut, super-long bangs.

So these girls would literally scorch the ends of their bangs to make them shorter. They used super-hot curling irons or flames to do it. One fine morning, I caught them scorching their hair in the church bathroom. It utterly shocked me. But they didn’t need to tell me why they did it.

It took many years to realize that they’d put forth this hairstyle, which could not be achieved by following Pentecostal rules, for a reason.

Keeping the rubes busy in the shop

If a girl followed those rules, even if she had a super-short haircut at first, she’d eventually lose the ability to recreate that hairstyle. And thus, the cool girls could look down on her as a nerd—and avoid her for various reasons, including fear of snitching.

(I never told on them, by the way. But I can easily see them fearing that someone like me might.)

That’s what is happening in complementarianism. When a marriage runs right off the rails in this system, the spouses don’t second-guess the system. They blame themselves for not working the system correctly, or enough, or whatever else. And the solution to this problem is, of course, to throw money, time, and other resources at learning how to work the system correctly.

As long as one or both parties are running themselves ragged trying to work the system, that keeps it alive and enriches those who preach its message. The system propagates through fundagelicalism like a meme.

Cherchez la femme l’intérêt personnel

For the complementarian women who are good at pretending complementarianism totally works for them, it gives them a way to look down on the nerds who fail at it. It also gives those pretenders an income, as it did in Southern’s case and in the case of other conservative influencers, as she said in that UnHerd interview:

“There are a lot of influencers who are not in good relationships, who are still portraying happy marriage publicly, and bashing people for not being married while being in horrendous relationships.”

Those women still push the message despite lying about how it has worked out for them. They can’t recant or reject that message without losing their income and community standing.

Picking and choosing which elements of the script invalidates the script, anyway

And the hilarious part is that at least one big group of tradmen are aware of what a fake LARP it all is. They’ve noticed for years that many rapidly-aging women on dating sites call themselves tradwives to attract tradmen, but they pick and choose which elements they’ll follow. To them, that is a huge red flag.

Remember, Southern herself doesn’t seem much like a tradwife. She dressed in cosplay costumes that would cause tradmen to reject her instantly, engaged in a livelihood that’s diametrically opposed to the tradwife ideal of sweet, meek, humble, and accommodating domesticity, interacted with way too many men for tradmen’s liking, and only rejected tradlife after being burned hard by it.

And just to put a cherry on this sundae, let me add that her husband isn’t white. That doesn’t matter at all to me, but it sure does to tradmen. Remember how she was a white supremacist just five years ago? Well, she sure doesn’t!

Sargon of Akkad/Carl Benjamin, a popular alt-right commentator and attempted politician, criticized tradlife in a video uploaded on May 8th:

The lived act of being part of a married couple is analyzed and dissected to death by people who have no firsthand experience of it, formulated then into an ideology. And then someone attempts to craft a real life that resembles the abstract ideal, which appears to be what Lauren did in this case.

This video is astonishingly even-handed, to give credit where it’s due. Sargon agrees that the “fetishization” of complementarianism’s ideal marriage system leads to serious problems for women—and he adds that it imposes some very unreasonable demands and expectations on good-faith men as well, though he forgets that bad-faith actors will simply ignore or subvert these. He also describes his own marriage in ways that indicate that he and his wife greatly respect each other and often help each other out in ways that significantly deviate from the official tradlife script.

His main problem with Lauren Southern seems to be that she rushed into marriage too quickly with someone whose red flags she ignored. Then again, he recognizes that extremists try so hard to make their ideology work that they often make mistakes like that.

Overall, I wasn’t expecting such a nuanced take. I don’t think the trad crowd will care, though. The ideology is so seductive to them that they’ll ignore every valid criticism of it in the hopes that it’ll shower them with its promised rewards. For every trad-person who awakens to the sheer impossibility of making complementarianism work in reality, another hundred seem to hop on board. So this ideology might change names upon occasion, but it isn’t in any danger of going away any time soon.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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