Celluloid sisters: femininity, religiosity, and the postwar American nun film
From the late fifties and through the sixties, Catholic women religious--or nuns, as they are more colloquially called--became dramatic fodder for a number of Hollywood films. During this time at least fifteen films featuring nuns were released, and many more reached early development stages before being abandoned. Critics suggested that a level of artistic cachet had emerged for women willing to don the habit: "Actors are known for their desire to play `Hamlet.' Lately, it seems that actresses long to play nuns" (Cue). Comparing one great role for men to a generic character type for women is a telling comment, for it speaks to the problem of feminine identity during the postwar era. Too often women in films were relegated to types rather than clearly defined roles, and this was certainly the case in the plethora of "nun films" which circulated in the postwar era. Women who were dissatisfied with their opportunities for education and careers found an outlet--albeit tightly controlled--in films depicting nuns as independent heroines engaged in meaningful labor and experiencing great adventures. As Brandon French has argued, the fact that these heroines were enrobed from head to foot in the religious habit and vigorously guarded their chastity served to limit the radical potential for women's liberation at which they broadly hinted (122).
While French's analysis is useful, it does not go far enough in determining why Catholic sisters were selected to fulfill this quasi-emancipatory role in films rather than, for example, Protestant missionaries like Katherine Hepburn from The African Queen (1950). The answer lies in the changing status of Catholicism in American society and the reappraisal of religion in relation to everyday life. By shifting the focus of attention away from America per se and onto American Catholicism, films featuring nuns could widen the scope of critique while at the same time diverting it from any direct confrontations with American cultural hegemony. To many in the postwar era Catholicism represented traditionalism, submissiveness, and passivity. It was the antithesis of the American ideal of independence, freedom, and democracy. Not by coincidence were these traits gendered so that the Catholic mentality could be associated easily with the feminine and the American with the masculine. It is this process of feminization of religion in the postwar period, most specifically of Catholicism, that provides a deeper texture to the significance of the nun film and can go to some lengths in building a bridge between gender and religion in popular culture.
It would be going too far to suggest that nun films are a specific genre, but the trend in interest about the convent during the fifties and sixties was a particularly imaginative way to come to terms with seemingly unrelated issues of gender and religious identity in postwar America. I am referring to the potential of nuns to problematize the discourses of femininity, what Dorothy Smith calls the network of signs, symbols, and practices which gender social relations. At the same time, the inherent traditionalism of the nun as invested...
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