Yesterday I went to a great lecture at Loyola University called “A Question of Habit: The Curious Image of Nuns in Film and Popular Culture” by Professor Bren Ortega Murphy. Dr. Murphy is in the process of making a documentary film that examines the wide variety of visual images of Catholic nuns and sisters used in contemporary U.S. popular culture.

For the most part, said Murphy, nuns have been portrayed as one-dimensional characters. You get no sense of who the nun is, her moral agency, her way of life, her ministry, etc.

Murphy noted that in the history of film-making, Hollywood has had great difficulty in portraying women in general. Combine this with Hollywood’s uncertainty of how to deal with religion and one can begin to understand how portrayals of nuns (women+religious) has been exceedingly difficult for Hollywood. The result (however amusing and nostalgic) has been to portray nuns one-dimensionally, often reducing them to blatant caricatures. Sadly you can still see this in many media portrayals of nuns today.

Some examples of caricatures and stereotypes that I’ve seen:

  • mean nuns with rulers
  • hapless nuns
  • giggling gaggles of nuns
  • nuns always in full traditional habit
  • sexually repressed nuns
  • nameless nuns
  • nuns who are theologically unsophisticated
  • unquestioning nuns
  • ethereal nuns who float in and then mysteriously disappear

Murphy said that there seemed to be a resistance, a hesitancy to portraying nuns (and women) as full human beings, with full moral agency, thoughts, questions, joys, fears, strength, etc. in the context of their life. Instead, nuns were dealt with by trivializing them (the hapless nun), demonizing them (mean nun with ruler), or sexualizing them (sexually-repressed nun).

So are there some good portrayals of nuns out there on the silver screen? Absolutely, said Murphy. Among those she noted “The Trouble with Angels”, “Brides of Christ” and “Dead Man Walking”.

Films about nuns coming to a theatre near you … soon: The Mighty Macs and Doubt: A Parable, a play which is being made into a movie. And be sure to look for Dr. Murphy’s documentary A Question of Habit on visual images of nuns today.

And for my own fascinating reviews on nuns in movies check out: The Nun and The Blues Brothers. You’ll also find all sorts of interesting things in the Nuns and Pop Culture.