Nuns have a presence in cinema as longstanding as the medium itself, including the 1922 horror film Haxan. 2021’s Benedetta, a controversial but successful Paul Verhoeven film, is a recent restatement of the capacity for stories about women religious, or women in vocation normally called nuns, to be the source of powerful and successful works across all conceivable genres.
Statistics show the decline of religion in the western world but religion and its institutions maintain a prominent place in society and in creative outputs. Popular culture interprets, challenges and recreates religious practice and identity. At a time fewer people may be engaging with actual religious organisations or institutions, popular culture is more powerful than ever in shaping perceptions. Sexuality, agency, authority and leadership all register when popular culture turns attention to sisters in religious orders.
Nuns enable a rich array of story-telling types and genres, and character archetypes and stereotypes in both film and television. Nuns are central characters in some of the most popular and notable film and television productions of all time, among them The Sound of Music, Black Narcissus, The Bells of St Mary, and Philomena on the big screen and Call the Midwife and Brides of Christ on television. Alongside these major dramas lurk the disreputable works in the so-called ‘lost continent’ of exploitation and horror, from Silent Night, Deadly Night and American Horror Story to the many films in the ‘nunsploitation’ grindhouse films.
Despite their prevalence in popular culture and the strongly consistent visual aesthetic of cinematic and televisual nuns because of the (often anachronistically retained) habit, the presence and meaning of religious sisters in popular culture has been little interrogated in academic literature. Rebecca Sullivan’s Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism and American Postwar Popular culture from 2005 is an important survey but is limited to the United States. Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (1995) is now nearly 30 years old and takes a far wider focus than women religious. This collection therefore will be a timely and exciting opportunity to explore this multitude of works.
While the type and number of popular culture works about nuns is expansive and growing, especially in the years since earlier works on religion in popular culture were written, the specific focus of this collection will be for chapters exploring the appropriation of the imagery and activity of nuns by popular culture in ways that have often, but not universally, created on-screen nuns as a strange, disturbing or even abusive presence. Central to this collection will be exploration of the tensions between actual and fictional nuns and the potential found in genres from drama to comedy and others to raise questions about the identity, actions, reputations and agency of women in religious orders. In actuality, in the western world at least, the number of women pursuing a vocation as a religious is terminally declining. The nuns who remain are often a visually inconspicuous presence as post-Vatican II and other modernising trends mean religious habits are either reduced or wholly abandoned. Alongside and contrary to this real-world decline and visual eclipse, fully habited remain a major element of popular culture.
Nuns and other religious do retain some prominence but because of the number of official commissions and investigations into historic abuse in convent run orphanages, missions, schools, and laundries and from Ireland to Canada to Australia, stories of actual abuse have emerged worse than any possible cinematic horror. Similarly, non-fictional and documentary film making, have opened up tensions in perceptions of nuns from the laudatory presentation of Sister Helen Prejean in first documentary then film about the abolition of the death penalty to the competing portrayals of Mother Teresa in terms of both her public and private personae.
From these points about the actual and the fictional, there extends exploration of the inherent strangeness of nuns, their vocations and their enclosed lives that frequently registers in popular culture. In short, the institutions western religious orders, the numbers, their viability and their reputations are pursuing complex and challenging trajectories in the modern world. Analogous to these actual issues of identity and practice are the expansive, prominent, and still growing works on nuns in popular culture. In this popular culture, nuns have been many things from the wise and caring presence of Hollywood classics such as The Sound of Music, the sinister and even satanic of horror movies, then sources of female agency, leadership and identity that may be an affront to or challenged by masculine authority such as in Doubt to Two Mules for Sister Sara and Lambs of God, to agents of abuse and neglect seen in The Magdalene Sisters and Philomena. Perhaps most often they are simply a strange and even challenging presence, a stranger to wider society, but still essential to popular culture. It is also important to note that religion is not declining in the global south, and popular culture there may be presenting its own impressions of female religious life.
There is a diversity of genres and works that could be considered as well as a rich number of themes including:
- Comedy (The Flying Nun, Nuns on the Run, Nasty Habits, The Blues Brothers)
- Horror (The Conjuring, The Nun, The Devils, American Horror Story)
- Musicals (Sister Act, The Sound of Music, Nunsense)
- Period drama (Brides of Christ, Call the Midwife, Pillars of the Earth, Extramuros, The Innocents)
- Science fiction (Doctor Who, Warrior Nuns, Revelations, Sarah Jane Adventures)
- Drama (Black Narcissus, Bells of St Mary’s, Nun’s Story, Doubt)
- Crime drama (Father Dowling Mysteries, Sister Boniface Mysteries, Quiet as a Nun)
- The representation of nuns and their environments in period and modern settings
- Iconography and the semiotics of religion
- Feminism and religious authority
- Confronting or perpetrating crime and evil
- Documentary and non-fiction and the examination of religious histories
- Controversies and past injustices
- Celebrity nuns or notorious nuns
- Nuns who singularise
- Public and private lives and the spaces of religious vocation
- Other enclosed communities in fictions (finishing schools, academies, sororities)
We are assembling a special collection of essays that consider addressing the intersection of nuns with popular culture in light of the reflections offered above on fictional and non-fictional representations of nuns and the use and appropriation of their distinctive iconography.
Television and film from different national contexts will be welcome.
Advice for contributors
If you are interested in contributing to this collection, we ask that you submit an abstract of up to 250 words explaining the focus and approach your proposed essay. The proposed volume is intended to be scholarly but accessible in tone and approach. Each contribution should be around 6000 words.
Abstracts should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by March 31st 2023 and contributors with successful abstracts will be notified in mid-April.
Full chapters would be expected by 29 September 2023.
An American publisher is interested in this proposal. Editors are Marcus K Harmes and Meredith Harmes, University of Southern Queensland.