Visual Habits

Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, And American Postwar Popular Culture

Rebecca Sullivan
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 340
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442683112
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  • Book Info
    Visual Habits
    Book Description:

    FromThe Nun's StorytoThe Flying NuntoThe Singing Nun, nuns were a major presence in the mainstream media. Sullivan discusses these images in the context of the period's seemingly unlimited potential for social change.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8311-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction: Gender, Religion, and Culture
    (pp. 3-21)

    When conjuring up images of postwar feminism, one rarely thinks to include nuns. Yet nuns played a key role in a period of great cultural anxiety over transitions in power relations between genders, institutions, and ideals. Their significance lies not merely in the representation of institutional religion but, more importantly, in popular culture mediations about gender roles. Names such as Sister Jacqueline Grennan or Sister Mary Joel Read don’t appear alongside Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem in the annals of women’s history. Nonetheless, they were, along with many other nuns, key public voices in the dawning of second-wave feminism. They...

  5. 1 Cracks in the Cloister: The Changing Cultural Role of Nuns
    (pp. 22-59)

    The fifties and sixties were a time of tumultuous change for everyone, including women religious. In the wake of such revolutionary moments as the civil rights movement, the re-emergence of feminism, and the sexual revolution, the dramatic reappraisal of the religious life for women has received little consideration. Yet what may appear at first to have been a small, self-enclosed effort among religious sisters to reassess their lifestyle did play an integral role in the larger forces of change that swirled around them. This is evident in the number of magazine articles on the convent and so-called new nuns that...

  6. 2 Celluloid Sisters: Nuns in Hollywood
    (pp. 60-94)

    The convent underwent enormous shifts in structure and values as sisters began adapting the religious life to conform to notions of modern independent womanhood. It is perhaps in film that these shifts are most easily identified, for a number of reasons. There were approximately fifteen films about nuns released in the fifties and sixties. The shifts in representation over this period provide a context for further examinations of the relationship between popular culture, the public role of sisters, and changing social values surrounding gender and religion. Film is especially relevant to this study because it was viewed as the most...

  7. 3 Whose Story Is The Nun’s Story?
    (pp. 95-123)

    The Nun’s Storywas one of the most celebrated motion pictures of 1959. It might have been remembered as the most important film of that year if another religious-themed film hadn’t rode in on a chariot and stolen its thunder.Ben Hurultimately went on to break the box-office records set byThe Nun’s Storyand to sweep the Academy Awards. It is interesting to note that the battle for Hollywood supremacy was waged by two films dealing with religion. Clearly, interest in this area was gaining prominence. However, these two films could not have been more different.Ben Hur...

  8. 4 Adventurous Souls: Vocation Books and Postwar Girl Culture
    (pp. 124-156)

    The growing interest in the religious life for women could not have gained such a foothold in popular culture without some effort on the part of sisters themselves. Opening their doors to the media for interviews and profiles, and assisting on films as technical advisers were good options. However, sisters also sought ways to directly connect with young audiences and encourage them to consider a religious vocation. Thus, beginning in the fifties and continuing until just after the Second Vatican Council, vocation books were widely published and circulated within the Catholic school system. These were books targeted at teenage girls,...

  9. 5 Sing Out, Sister! Sacred Music and the Feminized Folk Scene
    (pp. 157-189)

    By the beginning of the Second Vatican Council the role of the nun in the world was just beginning to be formulated. Films and books had yet to find a way to make the revolutionary changes in the convent dramatically interesting. Thus, the religious life was, in the early sixties, still in a fixed state of enlightened feminine industriousness as far as the mass media were concerned. Vocation books did little to help this image, especially with their girlish, near-frivolous approach to the religious life. As a result, the most accessible medium through which sisters could really begin to make...

  10. 6 Gidget Joins a Convent: Television Confronts the New Nuns
    (pp. 190-213)

    By the late sixties sisters were at the peak of their radical experimentation. They were removing their habits, closing down the large institutions, and relocating in small groups to urban, ecumenical ministries rather than only serving a Catholic subculture. They were also refashioning the role of the Catholic Church in the everyday lives of its members through their participation in liturgical reforms and the introduction of popular music. Yet the sentimental image of sisters that some hoped had reached its apogee with The Singing Nun could not be shaken. With the debut of the family sitcomThe Flying Nunthe...

  11. Conclusion: The Return of the New Nuns
    (pp. 214-226)

    At the close of the sixties, the tone of the counterculture shifted from the heartfelt – some might say naïve – optimism of personalism to more radical and oppositional stances against authority structures in society. Many sisters were still willing to join hands with the people in the streets, but their role within the Catholic Church made them suspect. While they had appeared revolutionary just a few years earlier, they were now disdained for being too sentimental and not going far enough. Even sisters felt as if they were putting popularity ahead of integrity with their cosy relationship to the media. Judith...

  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 227-240)
  13. Credits
    (pp. 241-242)
  14. Index
    (pp. 243-255)