Nuns, with their snazzy headdresses and penchant for coordinated song and dance numbers, have always been popular figures in the cultural imagination. Yet not since the era of Fräulein Maria and the von Trapps have we seen a pop-culture Nunnaissance like the one taking place right now.
The Year of Our Lord 2017 kicked off with Young Pope–mania, with Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary serving as the basketball-dribbling, veiled consigliere to Jude Law’s megalomaniacal Pius XIII. Sundance-goers, on the heels of last year’s acclaimed French WWII drama The Innocents, were treated to two convent-based flicks: raunchy 14th-century–set comedy The Little Hours, starring Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza as hard-partying hedonists of the cloth (think Monty Python and the Holy Grail meets Bachelorette) and Novitiate, a coming-of-age story about a teenage nun (Margaret Qualley) and a tough Mother Superior (Melissa Leo) grappling with the church reforms of the early 1960s. Coming up next month, true-crime fans can tune into The Keepers on Netflix, a Making A Murderer–esque docuseries about the unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun and its connection to a sexual-abuse scandal at the school where she worked. And the nun boom will continue into 2018, with Paul Verhoeven’s Elle follow-up, a 17th-century lesbian nun drama called Blessed Virgin, and Conjuring 2 spinoff The Nun, about a demon nun played by Taissa Farmiga. Which raises an interesting question: If every cultural product of Trump’s America is a reflection of Trump’s America, as some critics have suggested, what exactly are we to make of all these nuns?
Rebecca Sullivan, a professor the University of Calgary and the author of Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, believes that today’s Nunnaissance is no mere coincidence. Pop culture’s biggest nun boom was in the late ’50s and early ’60s (The Nun’s Story, The Singing Nun, The Sound of Music, The Trouble With Angels, etc.), which coincided with the modernizing church reforms of Vatican II and the beginning of second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution. “You suddenly had this confluence of events where women’s sexual and spiritual and social well-being had hit the front burner, and nuns provided a safe outlet to explore these issues,” she explains. Nuns are educated, self-sufficient women living in an all-female space, but they’re also confined and limited by the patriarchy—they symbolize a kind of nonthreatening feminine independence. The nuns of midcentury pop culture held out the promise that there “could be some sort of reasonable well-contained version of independence for women; that we’d give them just enough, but not too much to upset the patriarchal status quo.”
Or, as Sullivan puts it in her book:
In the wide gulf between the sexually liberated single girl and lovable domestic goddess, nuns were a third option that fired up dreams of feminine independence while smothering any possibility that the flames might spread out of control.
Sullivan sees similar political and cultural concerns playing out in pop culture today. “We’re back into a space where we’re having these very complicated, fraught, and painful arguments around sexuality and spirituality and economic equity for women, and again we’re struggling with this idea that there is this very strong belief that women should accept a little less and be grateful for it,” she suggests.
In 2017, with the Madonna-whore dichotomy firmly entrenched in political discourse—with Mike Pence refusing to dine with women other than his wife (whom he allegedly calls “mother”) while Trump brags about grabbing women by the pussy—it’s not surprising that we would see a renewed interest in the nun as an allegorical figure. “Nuns represent the interstitial moment between the spiritual and sexual, which we like to keep completely separate,” she explains. “[So we think] a devout woman doesn’t have sex, and a porn performer can’t be devout. And we’re at a moment where issues of the spiritual and sexual are interlacing again around issues of a woman’s fundamental right to exist in public, which is being debated along the lines of their spiritual and sexual presentation. If we’re existing in a world where a woman is equally likely to be attacked on the street for wearing a hijab or a miniskirt, and that the justifications—that ‘they ask for it’—are the same, then we are once again deeply confused about a very simple fundamental right of women’s existence.”
At the same time, nuns provide an opportunity for us to reckon with these complex themes and ideas because they don’t quite feel real to many of us: In 2017, very few Americans encounter habit-wearing, cloistered nuns in our everyday lives, so they become objects of nostalgia, their flaws and complexities flattened into a rosy idyll. “The thing about nostalgia is that it operates as a stand-in for an imagined, simpler time, when difficult questions about justice and rights and independence didn’t need to be addressed,” says Sullivan. “I think the veil, particularly for Catholics, is a very safe outlet to have these meditations on the rights to one’s sexuality and one’s spirituality and the ways these intersect and conflict, without having to make films about Muslims, because of Hollywood racism.”
Of course, nuns were often fundamental instruments of an oppressive and sexually abusive church apparatus, but nostalgia isn’t about truly representing the past so much as about creating a buffed-out history that we can hold up as a counterpoint to the messiness of the present. “I’d say today we are harkening back to a nostalgic past—and most of these films are set in the past—when women weren’t so complicated and demanding,” she says wryly. (So: Make Nuns Great Again?)
Every nun isn’t necessarily a sweeping feminist statement, and the utility of the nun-as-symbol changes from genre to genre. (For instance, nuns have a very different place in horror, which is all about repressed sexual desire, than they do in slapstick comedy.) But in general, our modern preoccupation with nuns has to do with the tension between the static, timeless symbol of the nun and the real woman beneath the veil. “If you look at [all these representations], regardless of what genre they are, they often begin in a soft focus from a distant shot,” says Sullivan. “There’s this sense of a cloister, of unattainable-ness, and then the twist. And the twist can be played for comedy or tragedy, but the twist is the same: Oh my god, these ethereal creatures are real-life human beings with sexual and spiritual conflict just like men, just like normal people. Whatever are we going to do? Women are complicated. Put them in a cloister!”