Saintly, Seductive or Sadistic? Why We Can’t Make Up Our Minds About Nuns.

From Chaucer’s supercilious Madame Eglantine in “The Canterbury Tales,” with her spoiled lap dogs and secular French airs, to Ryan Murphy’s ruthless Sister Jude in 2012’s “American Horror Story: Asylum,” a woman who wears a red negligee under her habit and is not above indulging in some communion wine, fictional portrayals of nuns have long captured and confounded the imagination. How could it be otherwise? The sisters’ vows of chastity and poverty and the air of secrecy that shrouds their cloistered lives are all intriguingly antithetical to modern Western values of sex, money and fame. Many of us have also encountered nuns in our actual lives — I spent much of fourth grade facing a corner of the classroom at the punitive behest of Sister Rosalia — and are left with what I’d call a primal fascination. But if the aesthetic interest in nuns is an enduring one, it’s also true that every few years, like fashion trends or viral flus, nuns have a particularly concentrated cultural moment. We’re living in one now.

Perhaps the starkest, knottiest contemporary depiction of nuns is the playwright John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable.” First staged on Broadway in 2005, it recently wrapped another run there, directed by Scott Ellis. (Three of the cast members have been nominated for Tony Awards.) The play tells the story of the iron-fisted Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan in Ellis’s revival), the principal of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, who, based on the hunch of a guileless novice, Sister James (Zoe Kazan), accuses Father Flynn, the parish priest (Liev Schreiber), of making advances toward the school’s only Black student (whose mother was played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine). It’s a detective drama with no resolution, a morality tale with an insoluble ambiguity at its heart. Ellis says he was drawn to stage the play because its titular emotion feels more crucial than ever in our increasingly polarized world. “Given everything that we are in society right now, the black and white of it all, the red and the blue,” he says, “doubt is the most important place to live.”

Liev Schreiber as Father Flynn (left) and Amy Ryan as Sister Aloysius in the recent Broadway production of “Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley.Credit…Joan Marcus/Polk & Co., via Associated Press

Rebecca Sullivan, the author of the 2005 book “Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism and American Postwar Popular Culture, says that “in times of deep doubt,” we tend to see cultural representations of nuns crop up. She notes that the cascade of nunsploitation films of the 1960s and ’70s — a campy, provocative, mostly European cinematic subgenre in which nuns are sexualized, tortured or possessed — occurred at a time of great social upheaval. Second-wave feminism was afoot, secularism was on the rise and the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and ’65, had ushered in numerous church reforms: Nuns, for example, were encouraged to get out of the convent and serve the community and were no longer required to wear habits. The liminal status of sisters — they were independent women who also exhibited a “subversive subservience,” as Sullivan puts it, to a patriarchal institution — made them rich and complex symbols, ciphers for exploring the era’s feelings about women at large.

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