As someone who, as a young boy, was fascinated and weirdly smitten with Sr. Bertrille, aka “The Flying Nun,” played by Sally Field, Rebecca Sullivan’s book was like going into some long-needed therapy. Sullivan takes a deconstructive approach to media portrayals of women religious, exposing as largely false and ludicrous the symbolism and iconic value popular culture placed on these women from the dawn of television in the 1950s to the present day. The critique she offers is in the two-fold interest of modern feminism, which she hopes will come to a new appreciation of women religious, and cultural studies which she faults as having neglected religion generally and convent culture in particular. Her analysis mainly succeeds in presenting women religious as far more than the visual ciphers presented on screen or in magazines.
An introduction to the field of cultural studies and its relation to certain strands of modern feminism provides a context for Sullivan’s ensuing chapters. If this text is used in the classroom, I predict that some undergraduates may be lost in the theory. Sullivan has a tendency to name drop. Unfortunately, most collegians will have had little or no exposure to the particular currents of thought for which these authors are known. Instructors should take care to introduce students to some of this material, which is, as Sullivan rightly notes, highly valuable for understanding the dissonance in popular culture over things like the concept of femininity or the construction of gender.
Sullivan believes that this kind of cultural exposé “isn’t simply about giving credit to the enormous accomplishments of sisters during a volatile period of social change. By examining nuns in the context of postwar popular culture, what becomes apparent is the way that the media responds to and establishes conventions for the representation of women’s struggles for equality and independence. As the example of nuns shows, this was not some hermetically sealed system but one that was schizophrenic in its openness to double meanings, to an ambiguous and even contradictory sense of closure, and to the psychic tension of the lead character, who was torn between two competing worlds of nostalgia and progress” (16). One measure of this is the fact that in 1966, only a year after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the number of nuns worldwide reached its peak at 181,421 (43). Clearly something about religious life was attractive to so many women. Yet the changes in convent life that were fueled by Perfectae Caritatis, the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, meant that there would be no going back to the days of strict obedience to superiors. Communal and shared governance structures befitting each congregation would soon become the norm. Roles would change as dramatically as the habits of each order or the social options that began to increase for women. In American culture, Betty Freidan’s impact helped give a voice to women’s rights, the National Organization of Women formed, and some nuns, like “Sister Mary Aloysious Schaldenbrand, took even more radical steps by publicly aligning herself with the Planned Parenthood Federation to improve women’s access to birth control” (48). And, not incidentally, the numbers of postulants began to decline. According to Sullivan, “by the seventies women religious were in a no-win situation. They were either too radical for mainstream audiences to appreciate or too conservative to be embraced by radical movements” (58).
Consider, as Sullivan does, that the film portrayals of nuns added little to the more vexing realities women religious faced in carving out their own identity. Could contemporaries identify with Rosalind Russell in Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows? Or Mary Tyler Moore (opposite Elvis!) in Change of Habit? If anything, they damaged the otherwise vital and satisfying profession that they chose to live out faithfully and earnestly. And yet, some did not choose to stay. When it was released in 1959, The Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn explored the limits of convent life. Based upon the novel of the same name, this true story of Louise Heberts, a former Belgian sister, spoke of the courage and humiliation behind one nun’s decision to be released from vowed life. According to Sullivan, all the renewal efforts like the Sister Formation Conference which were set up to improve religious life were suddenly “sideswiped” (98).
If Sullivan is critical of these Hollywood films, she is no less disposed to hold back on vocation booklets or singing nuns. There is a sense that throughout her work, Sullivan is relentless, but fair. I found this to be a thought provoking study that was tightly argued from beginning to end. As such, this penetrating and balanced volume will do well in courses on feminist theology or American Catholic studies. I always wondered why the sisters who taught me couldn’t be more like Sr. Bertrille on TV. Now I know why. Though they are not explored in Sullivan’s book, one wonders how the dominant cultural images typified by Mother Teresa or Mother Angelica are affecting today’s media-savvy youth. Will they warm to the new Corita Kents or Mary Luke Tobins? Will they know the Helen Prejeans? Could they be one?