Why Do We Weirdly Love Nuns So Much?

In TV, film and literature, we've got a very odd cultural thing going on with nuns.

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The latest round of what we might call Contemporary Nun Lit comes from New York-based journalist Jo Piazza; her book If Nuns Ruled the World was published last month and has had a healthy passage through the review mill. Piazza profiles ten American women who live the kinds of lives we’ve come quietly to expect from modern nuns thanks to their portrayal in TV series like Oz and Orange is the New Black: social workers who stand with the poor and disenfranchised, activists who chain themselves to nuclear power plants, advocates for gay and lesbian rights, crusaders for reproductive justice.

When we’re not enjoying the surprising-but-familiar serving of a staunchly celibate, unconventionally plain, middle-aged woman of holy orders in our favourite TV shows and movies, we’re entertained by news stories like Sister Cristina Scuccia smashing it on Italy’s The Voice or the US’s ‘Nuns on the Bus’ being anointed by Stephen Colbert.

In Australia, we love the nuns who ran the country’s first safe injecting room for drug users and who show up to get arrested in protest against immigration detention. Our first Vatican-sealed saint is a nun, Mother Mary MacKillop, who we particularly love for pissing off the patriarchal Church enough to earn herself an excommunication. We were moved and delighted by TV series like Brides of Christ, and we think growing up to be a nun is an ambition worth protecting. Nuns are also regular fodder for sekksy celebrity celibacy, as the Herald-Sun reminded us recently, and Lady Gaga does regularly.

As some other dear Sisters suggest, all this nun-love runs into some difficulty against the realities of the Catholic Church in 2014. There may be many badasses amongst their number, but nuns also mistressed white European colonisation in Australia, are known as torturers of school children everywhere, and have far from escaped association with the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse by the clergy across the institution. Still (with the possible exceptions of Fathers Rod Bower and Bob Maguire) we are much, much warmer towards, and do much more with, the image of the Catholic nun. Is it just because she is so marvellously pun-able? Because she looks so funny behind the wheel of a car or singing pop music into a microphone?

Whilst there are guaranteed titters at the very mention of a nun, imma venture here that her persistence in our visual culture is not so much about her religiosity as it is her gender: the nun is a figure onto whom we can project our fascination — and worry — about women who do not partner with men nor bear their own children. In Piazza’s book, the nun escapes the usual cultural bonds of the single, ‘childless’ woman as at best confusing and at worst narcissistic, by showing themselves as heroically committed to the needs of others, living only to make the world more compassionate, more just.

In a promo for If Nuns Ruled the World, Piazza describes exactly this escape move by recounting an argument she once had with Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker about how much of a jerk she (Piazza) was, drawing a line from these self-involved ‘jerk’ days to her new embrace of humility and altruism, via the nuns she interviewed for the book. An earlier incarnation of Contemporary Nun Lit, Sister Karol Jackowski’s Forever and Ever, Amen, entered the circuit via endorsement by Sex‘s Executive Producer, Michael Patrick King.

As scholar-of-nuns (nunologist? nun doctor?) Manuela Mourão observes, throughout history the figure of the nun appears as “a way of thinking women apart from society and men”. Perhaps we still can’t face the prospect of a woman living by — and for — herself whilst simultaneously fully inhabiting a community. In the meantime, we love nuns because they might stand up to all the institutions that prevent this.

Ann Deslandes is a writer and social researcher in Sydney. She has degrees in sociology and gender studies, which makes her very annoying to watch TV with.