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A Question of Habit: Images of Catholic Sisters and Nuns

The Conference on the History of Women Religious has been great. Yesterday we had a preview of a soon-to-be published document called A Question of Habit: The Curious Image of Nuns in Popular Culture by Dr. Bren Ortega Murphy of Loyola University Chicago. I wrote about A Question of Habit project when it was in its early stages back in 2008 when Dr. Murphy gave a lecture at Loyola.

The documentary is fabulous and Dr. Murphy not only provides an excellent portrayal of women religious in the United States, but she gives a commentary on the fascination of U.S. popular culture with nuns. Examples of this fascination include images of the demonized nun (Nunzilla); the sweet, childish nun (figurine); and the sexualized nun (Areala).

Question of Habit

These images can be found in novelty stores, on TV and in movies, in our kitchens, in advertising, and pretty much all over the place.

For good or for ill, these images dominate what most folks (including Catholics) think about Catholic sisters and nuns.

A few questions for you …

What do you think of these kinds of images? What are both the positive and negative messages that these images convey? What are the images or words you’d use to describe a sister or nun?

UPDATE: Listen to the interview we did with Dr. Bren Ortega Murphy at IGF008.


JoyceElaine June 29, 2010 at 3:13 pm

A Sister is supposed to be stern, but humane. The Nun-Zilla,I think comes from the thought that they were mean and rude to little kids or others who didn’t understand their beliefs. The figurine reminds me of what a Child would get after confirmation, and it seems like it may have been put in place to plant the seeds of later discerning. The sexualized Nun really makes me think of those who say “I am religious, I’m a Christian.” and still follow the world.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF June 29, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I received a Nunzilla as a joke, then I found the updated “Cool Nun” version. She wears dark glasses and carries the Bible. I keep them both to remind myself to be who I really am and not to be a charicature, not to walk lock step just because someone else has wound me up. They tell me to be real and not plastic, to be compassionate and not vindictive, to disarm myself from my anger and to arm myself with the Word.

As for the Anime nuns, I thought they were more like super heroes?? Someone sent me a chibi version of our foundress. Didn’t know what to make of that……

Stephanie June 29, 2010 at 8:57 pm

In some ways, I am more interested in the fact that these images exist than what they ‘say’ about sisters. Since it is so rare to encounter a sister in habit nowadays and most people don’t have experience with sisters, I oftentimes wonder why society has any interest in nun images at all, regardless of whether the resultant images are are cute or vampy or whatever. Why the fascination?

I’m sure that at some point, there were people making such images whose worlds actually included nuns and thus made the images as projections (however accurate or inaccurate, flattering or manipulative) off of that reality. But nuns in habit haven’t been part of the average person’s world for a long time. I doubt that most action-figure creators or cartoonists are drawing upon personal or even cultural experience of nuns. Rather, they are putting an idea through different formulations in the same way that a fantasy writer might create variations on the stereotypically magic dragon or vampire unicorn; in other words, I doubt that the creators of these images see their images as referencing any real subject…. Society is interested in nun caricatures precisely because they are fantastical caricatures, not because they correspond to or ‘say’ anything about real nuns. I’d guess that most fantasy cartoonists/writers who perpetuate nun stereotypes would be surprised to meet a Sister of St. Joseph or a Sister of Mercy in the same way that somebody who gets a kick out of imagining crazy spiral-horned sea creatures would be upon finding a narwhal… perhaps somewhat interested to know there actually existed such a thing, but not really concerned with the correspondence between their representation and the reality, since their project is concerned with imagination anyways.

Unfortunately, of course, these stereotypes do have real-world consequences. Sisters really do exist, and so society’s imagined “nun” has retroactive repercussions for the real nun. Since many people are more familiar with the fantastical sister than the actual sister, those extreme characteristics of Nun-zilla are going to inform people’s perception of “nun” long before they’ve actually met a real one. So is the market for Nun-zilla or Areala meant to be malicious towards sisters today? I don’t actually think so… as I said, I don’t think these images are functioning in any realm of perception that corresponds to society’s mostly-nonexistent knowledge of sisters today. But do these nun caricatures then take negative effect upon real sisters? Yes, unfortunately, I’m sure they probably do, if sisters are always having to dispel the imagery of history and fantasy before they can just present themselves in their lived reality – which is so much more normal than most people expect!

Anyways, I think most nun images – even the cute statuette-type ones – are unfortunate because they focus on aesthetics instead of internal depth. I’m planning to enter a religious order and in fact the sisters do wear a modified habit and veil- but I’m entering because of the intellectual and spiritual depth I have found in community, and thus the impression the habit makes is really beside the point. I don’t know why people are fascinated with the habit – maybe the human eye finds the combination of black and white cloth to be aesthetically striking, or maybe the human psyche finds the immediate identifiability of the habit to be a natural focus of interest… who knows? My grandmother has these Hummel-type statues of nuns – sort of like the figurine up in Sr. Julie’s post above – and she thinks they are so cute and loves to collect them. But I don’t really understand them – what is so inherently wonderful about these things? If it is the sculpture, then I’d take a Michelangelo or Bernini any day. If it’s the colors, then it might as well be a zebra. If it’s for memories, then I should just pop “Trouble with Angels” into the VCR and we can settle back with some popcorn and enjoy the unabashed nostalgia of fiction that probably corresponded only tangentially to the actual world of nuns back then in the 1960s, thirty years before I was born.

I wonder how much effect the caricatured nun images do have, say, when a person unfamiliar with sisters actually meets a real one… How much do people bring the baggage of past, perhaps stereotypical, images to a new relationship? Do they map those ideas onto the sister, thus closing themselves off from who she really is? Or do they recognizes those past images for the stereotypes they are , so that their preconceived notions mix with new experience in a critical and intelligent way?

Actually, my guess is that other factors make a much bigger difference. When somebody meets understands that a woman is a sister/nun – whether because of dress or by some other knowledge- the primary piece of information that they glean is probably something along the lines of, ‘Okay, so she’s Catholic, and she’s into religion enough to spend her life on it.’ Most people don’t know or care about the politics of the habit, and so the primary marker of “sister” does not, for most people, index where she falls on the spectrum of religious life in the United States, but rather indexes an immediate label of “Catholic.” So if we want to talk about how nuns are perceived, then it’s really a question about how the Catholic church is perceived. And that’s not always pretty. I guess we could work on reducing the amount of kitschy nun-related knickknacks in the world, but I’d sooner work on a Church that is wholesome, keen, intelligent and humble enough to correspond with the reality of “sister” today.

~E June 30, 2010 at 12:04 pm

In my opinion, an image is successful when someone speaks about it, regardless of whether it is a positive and/or negative experience. The fact that these images (featured here) are ones that we are discussing right now demonstrate this because they all have gained enough attention to be featured as a discussion piece and allow us to offer our opinions. Unfortunately, the piece/image may not always be presented in the most respectful, noble, and/or tasteful way, but the beauty of art is that it doesn’t have to. According to Merriam-Webster Online dictionary (2010), one of the definitions of art is described as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” Having said that, art can be viewed individualist as well as collective because a painting shown to 10 people may produce 10 different interpretations, yet it also can support a very solid and similar interpretation by the same 10 people viewing it.

What I have learned through becoming a part of this community is the distinction of “sister” and “nun”. Up until about a month ago, I had thought that a sister was a nun and a nun was a sister and from what I have learned and understand, this may exist to a certain degree, but there is a difference that is important to acknowledge. After all, from what I have understand (and feel free to add and/or advise if I may be off course), a sister is a woman who is devoted to the church and has taken her vows, yet may also wear every day clothes instead of wearing the habit. She lives her life in chastity, obedience, and poverty, but also works and holds a strong presence in society through her work with the poor, schools, and other social institutions. A nun, on the other hand, also is a devoted woman of the church who has taken the same vows of a life of chastity, obedience, and poverty, yet may spend the majority of her time praying and wearing the traditional habit vs. being in such an open social setting. The reason why I bring up this distinction is because I was raised Catholic since birth and honestly had the understanding, until recently, that a nun was typically seen in church and/or working in school, wearing the habit, and that was it. I did not understand that often times sisters are a big part of society, even though we may not always be able to immediately distinguish their presence since they may not always wear the habit.

Perhaps, for some, the exposure seen has not always been openly present and it is why some people felt the need to make their interpretation in the way they have, based on very lil’ information/knowledge. I know when I discovered “A nun’s life” and began listening to the podcasts and watching the Friday’s programming of “Ask a Sister” via the Ustream technology, I was so excited to see a forum where the talk was positive and also enabled the topics of current events to be placed on the table by also providing religious insights. In addition, watching Sister Julie and Sister Maxine dressed in attire that I would also wear and hearing their stories as well as projection of their sense of humor demonstrate that sisters are not a foreign concept, but something very real and present in a time where there is always questions and discussions concerning religious matters. This, I believe, is a positive outlet to allow others who may not be Catholic to see that religious men and women: young and old, from past and present generation, exist and in many ways are very similar to each and every one of us. The only thing I can think of off the top was that a negative outcome of these images is those who are not very knowledge about religious ministry and those who are not part of a religious/spiritual community may believe, unknowingly, that the art is a correct representation (when we all know that is not the case all the time).

Some of the words that I associate with a nun/sister are: respectful, compassionate, loving, giving, stern, and focused. Women who chose this vocation are like anyone else who feels a great calling to be a part of something amazing, in my eyes. Bottom line that I wish to project is that a nun/sister’s image in society may differ and some may even be controversial (like the previous week’s chat of Lady Gaga’s video “Alejandro”), but regardless of this possibility, it is essential to continue to project positive exposure and messages of who nuns and sisters are. In addition, it is important to stand true to one’s beliefs and find ways to educate and inform others who may not know, instead of judging them and pegging them as the enemy because they may not agree with your beliefs. Just my thoughts… what are yours?!