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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Nun entities

What have the following got in common: the most successful film musical ever made; the second most lucrative comedy ever made; and the most grindingly violent, nihilistic film ever made? Yes, they are all about nuns (Sound of Music, Sister Act, Bad Lieutenant).

For centuries, the nun has been an important landmark in the geography of our imagination. In 1797, for instance, Matthew Lewis popularised the story of the Bleeding Nun, in his novel The Monk. The story goes like this: a young aristocratic girl is sent to a convent by her parents because she is in love with an unsuitable young man. The unsuitable young man hears that the convent is haunted by the ghost of a bleeding nun and persuades the girl that the best way for her to escape is to dress up as the ghost, and simply walk past her holy jailers, who will faint in horror, allowing her to stroll out of the front door, where he will be waiting in his carriage. On the night, the figure of the bleeding nun climbs into the carriage and it is only when he tries to kiss her that the young man realises that this is not his lover, but the actual bleeding nun.

Lewis was a progressive Protestant, writing out of hatred for the feudal Catholic church. But the ideas in his story - sexual repression, compulsion, and the association with death (nuns and ghosts are interchangeable because neither is actually alive) remained part of the cultural definition of the nun for 200 years. The Nun's Story, for instance, is an account of one woman's struggle to lever herself out from under a regime that was repressive to the point of perversion. Even in the pro-Catholic Song of Bernadette, it is clear that Bernadette was coaxed into the wimple by Joseph Cotten, against her own judgement. Once inside, she is denigrated to the point of death by a cadaverous Mother Superior who regards Bernadette's gangrene as an affectation.

Why have nuns come in for such venom when monks (who are a lot worse in Lewis' book) have been relegated to a Derek Nimmo sideshow of red-nosed Christmas bell-ringing? Well, nuns have rejected men and opted for communal living. As such they are an affront to phallocentric, individualistic Protestant capitalism. A very successful affront at that, having been going now for 1600 years (Leninism lasted 72 years). The sexual element, of course, is what gives the idea its power. Men find it impossible to believe that there are women who don't want to sleep with them. Most nuns' stories show that these women are whirlpools of desire, at the edge of insanity. In Black Narcissus, for instance, the sight of David Farrar in a pair of shorts makes Deborah Kerr go all funny and drives Kathleen Byron totally insane. She covers her face in lipstick and pushes another nun off a cliff.

In the fifties and sixties, all this changed. The basic matrix of sex and violence remained but the emphasis shifted to the individual (young, attractive) nun's struggle against the kinky system. This was the definitive Nun's Story. It reached its camp apotheosis with the Sound of Music - a film which drenched the two great sex-fantasy costumes of our age (the SS uniform and the nun's habit) in the stinging disinfectant of innocence.

All these films (there's even an Elvis version I can't remember the name of, but Mary Tyler Moore played the nun) ended with the heroine walking bravely out into the World. The implication here, of course, is that the World is better than the cloister. The World in question was the newborn consumer capitalism, so confident of its own attractions it could seduce the nuns from their cells. In fact, it wasn't even a seduction. It was more of an enlightenment. The World was the Way.

During the eighties, this feeling was still strong enough to make a bestseller out of Karen Armstrong's squalid little rip-off Through the Narrow Gate and you still came across posh ex-convent girls trying to grab themselves a bit of credibility by claiming that they too were oppressed - not by poverty, the police, or racism but by...nuns (imagine telling that one in Bedford-Stuy or Soweto, or anywhere other than Medialand). The phrase 'Catholic guilt' became a big hit with successful lapsed Romans at the time. This was a way of turning the usual middle class guilt into something more exotic and cocktail-worthy. In fact, Catholics don't have guilt. They have confession. Matthew Lewis could have told you that. About 80 per cent of the world's Catholics also have extreme poverty. Guilt is for arts graduates.

Suddenly, all this has changed. On TV there is Sister Wendy Beckett, 'critic, Poor Clare and Wogan Vet'. Sister Wendy fronted the first ever exploitation arts show. Every week, the toothy old sister would stand in front of another modern nude and wax lyrical about its 'lovely fluffy pubic hair' or 'perfect, pert bottom'. As criticism it was at best basic. As TV it was a work of genius.

At the movies, there was Sister Act and Nuns on the Run. In both cases, refugees from the underworld hide out in a convent. In the sixties, this would have led to the nuns putting on mini-skirts and going out on the rob. Instead, the criminals were redeemed and the nuns went on pretty much as before, though in Sister Act, they got a better choir and improved diet. The Mother Superior in Nuns on the Run is an interesting case. Played by the strong, beautiful Janet Suzman, she soon clocked Robbie Coltrane's scam and took his money for the poor, liberating it from Babylon; a course of action that implies a strong opposition to the state as well as sin, in short to the World - which is here presented as tacky and violent. The fact that Coltrane is dressed as a nun makes a young woman confide her troubles in him. So even the derided wimple is presented as an effective agent of good. Just to underline the point, one of the criminals' girlfriends tries to become a nun herself.

The ultimate expression of this comes in Bad Lieutenant, where a nun is raped and then forgives her assailants. Once this would have been an occasion for jokes about how she had liked it really. Here she transcends what the World can throw at her - a kind of spiritual Terminator, indestructible and self-repairing, putting herself back together in front of the broken, impotent Harvey Keitel - a representative of the male, police state.

And now we have Body and Soul (Carlton), which reverses the thesis by having a nun go out into the World and try to save it. The nun figure is glamourised. She is played by Kristin Scott Thomas. She comes from a convent where the sisters spend the evening weaving and singing medieval ballads, and she wears a wimple of such baroque complexity that she looks like one of those naff aliens from a late Doctor Who. In fact, nuns nowadays go for crimplene A-line skirts, sensible shoes and discreet cruciform badges. To say that she is not representative would be to miss the point.

In Body and Soul, the nun as Great Healing Mother aims to save the nation by restoring its manufacturing base (represented by a mill - as in 'there's trouble at t'...'). Just as she has resolved the contradictions in her own life (between body and soul), so she must now heal the contradictions of capitalism by creating a new, more caring, greener version. The mill will be run using natural fibres and dyes. The story perfectly expresses the desires and projects of nineties capitalism. Of course this is good for nuns. But I do think it reflects badly on the nation that the only saviour we can conceive is a knitting nun. God help us.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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