When I read Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James I expected from the publicity that it would remind me of Joey Hill, but what really surprised me was how much it reminded me of Grace Livingston Hill. You wouldn't expect to find complementarianism* mixed in a book so full of explicit sex and without other moral concerns a concept so assisted with traditional morals. What was it doing in this secular bestseller? What was it doing taking over the plot?
My theory is that this started out as parody, of twilight and also of the romance in general. It was to be collage of all the silly tropes, mannerisms and cliches that are endemic in modern romance novels. One thing you often see is egalitarian and complementarian elements jumbled together in incongruous ways, or the contradictions between are used to create tension in the body of the book and then magically disappear in the resolution. I think James may have decided that what was causing the incongruities was the complementarian elements per se and strained them all out to put in her parody. Once freed of the egalitarian elements, the complementarian ones cohered and made a compelling story. When James went back to make it a straight romance rather than parody some egalitarian elements were laid back in on the surface but the heart of the story and the relationship portrayed remained complementarian.
I wasn’t going to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Not that I haven’t read and enjoyed erotica before but too much of it’s not be good for me and I’ve been trying to cut down. Then I read this review by Amanda Green indicated the sex wasn’t all that good and it didn’t have anything else going for it so I got to wondering how it had gotten so popular. This article from the Atlantic says the secret is that sex is more experimental varied. But while Fifty Shades of Gray tends toward the eroctica end of the romance spectrum it isn’t towards the extreme end. There are plenty of romances that have more sex, with more, detail, kinkiness. It doesn’t make sense that women who are interested havn’t run into sexer stories before.I think both the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and all the incongruous bits of complementarianism that commonly appear in other romance indicate that many women like reading about certain aspects of complementarianism.
*(complementarianism is the idea that men and women are complementary rather than equivalent, they may be equally important but they cannot be interchanged without adjustment for the different gender. It’s associated with churches that don’t ordain women and the idea that the man should be the head of the household.)