By Ben Hoffman
Nuns: tyrannical ruler-wielding matriarchs or champions of feminism?
Although most now prefer the term “women religious,” nuns have been mysterious figures in society, and more recently the victims of media stereotypes.
Communication and Culture professor Dr. Rebecca Sullivan chose this as a topic for her new book, Revolution in the Convent: Nuns, Feminism, and the Media. Alongside women religious in the media, the book discusses the role of nuns throughout history as moral beacons and feminists.
“It’s a bit of a passion for me, really,” explained Dr. Sullivan. “This was something that no one else had ever written about in quite the same way that I wanted to. So the need for this book became clear to me.”
The subject of women religious has been handled by historians and sociologists in the past, but little research has been done about their role in culture and the media. Dr. Sullivan intends to change attitudes towards nuns with her book by addressing how nuns are stereotyped and what their true roles in the development of culture have been.
“There’s nun porn, and nasty nuns and nitwit nuns all over the place,” Dr. Sullivan cited as examples of the bad rap nuns receive in modern culture.
She said the most offensive example she saw was in a Spin City episode.
“[The nun] never had a word of dialogue,” she explained. “It was just this actress dressed up in a habit wielding a ruler and she would arbitrarily slap people with it for no good reason.”
Despite their modern image, women religious have had a monumental impact on society, according to Dr. Sullivan.
“The whole history of the New World is inextricably linked to nuns and their teaching ministries,” she said. “Nuns were real frontier women, establishing schools, hospitals and asylums across North America.”
Dr. Sullivan suggests nuns are an easy to stereotype because culture “idealizes and denigrates women on the basis of sexuality.”
“While on the one hand their choice to remain celibate makes them ‘safe,’ by spurning maternalism, they become suspect all over again,” said Dr. Sullivan. “And the fact that their celibacy gives them access to a community of like-minded women working together in the public eye also makes them a threat to patriarchy.”