Celluloid sisters: femininity, religiosity, and the postwar American nun film

  • Author(s): Rebecca Sullivan
  • When: 2000-09
  • Where: Velvet Light Trap
  • 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).

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