Between the Lines: Stereotyping of Sisters in the Media


This article originally appeared in Issue# 6

Whether it's for the National Enquirer, People magazine, or the Catholic Digest, nuns are pretty good copy. Stories about sisters always seem to make enticing reading. Pictures of sisters seem to be just the thing an advertiser needs to make a visual point.

The articles and pictures — what are they saying between the lines about sisters, and religious life today? Who makes the decisions about what appears — and how? Its it what religious women themselves consider appropriate? Can we afford to be misrepresented to the women who may be considering religious life, to the church community, to the public we serve?

These are some of the many questions that came clamoring to mind as a result of a study of some fifty articles and advertisements culled from Catholic and other newspapers and magazines between March and December 1917, as material for a university paper. Most of the publications were of American origin; about 10% of the articles ran in Canadian publications. All dealt with 'nuns' — some in one or two column inches, other in articles of a full page or more. All raise questions for us as religious women and as constant communicators.

As distinct from written content, visual images were first considered and five questions posed: What was the age of the sisters portrayed? Clothing? The general emotional appeal of the image? Its connotations? Its realism?

Most of the pictures of actual sisters showed middle-aged or older women. Those who were evidently posed models were of a younger and more glamorous vintage. What does that say to the reader about religious women today? If no young women appear in these realistic accounts, are religious an endangered species? Could a young woman looking at the option of religious life expect to live with comrades of similar energy and interests?

Though many of the sisters have happy facial expressions, some have quite dour countenances, and appear weighed down with many serious matters. What do these kinds of expressions say to someone with little or no contact with sisters?

Twenty-nine pictures portrayed the religious habit. About eight showed regular feminine clothing. The religious habit was used to attract attention and identify the subject in 72% of the samples.

For the media, the habit is still very much a symbol of the North American "nun." Is this an accurate picture of affairs? Or is it that the habit is being used by the media as a familiar "product identification? Is the media aware of our reasons for transition in appearance? They seem often to work in ignorance of, or at cross purposes with, our understanding of the communicative value of clothing. Can we continue to let such public education pass without comment?

Apart from age and apparel, what conntations do the images suggest? What adjectives could be used to describe the sister in the pictures? Though answers to this kind of question must be fairly subjective, independent checking of local media treatment of sisters would probably verify many of the choices here. Sisters do appear as happy, peaceful, caring warm, genuinely spiritual in outlook end professionally capable. Yet they are also portrayed as stern, naive, old, childish, provocative, devious, sanctimonious and irrelevant. Happily, the weight seems to fall in favor of more positive images although we cannot discount the continued impact of the negative ones.

Do these pictures deal with religious life as it is, or with some fabrication of a photographer or editors fancy? If the consideration of the images includes those used in advertising, one has to conclude that almost half of the pictures are a fantasy version of religious women. Do sisters really become ecstatic over the virtues of Mopeds or Icelandic Airlines? How well. can our audiences distinguish fact from fabrication?

The visual images used to portray religious women -- are they what we want to communicate? Who's going to decide how sisters are portrayed? In Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty makes a good point: "The question is which (or who) is to be master, that's all."

So much for the visual image, what about the written content of the articles? Three questions were posed. What were the lifestyles, work/roles portrayed, and were they fictional, actual or a mix of both? What specific topics were treated, and how? What connotations about sisters does a reader get from the article?

"Is the habit being used by the Media as a familiar "product" identification?

At least 14 of the 50 articles dealt with religious life as it was lived a decade ago. Ten of these dealt with lifestyle, and four with work/roles. Forty-four dealt with religious life today; seventeen with lifestyle and twenty-seven with work or ministry. Writers appear to be more concerned with what sisters are doing outside the convent than with how they are living their lives inside, except where the latter can be made shocking or provocative enough to attract readers. The highly imaginative versions of religious life appeared in samples mainly concerned with advertising the 1976 film "Nasty Habits".

It is not just our 'publics" who axe educated by this output. Freda Sathre and friends make a powerful point for us in their bock, Let's Talk. "Sometimes statements… intended only as descriptions become instrumental in changing the persons they describe... We have a tendency to live up to our labels whether they have been applied to us by others or have been chosen by ourselves." If we're being shaped, it behooves us to know by whom and how. What is the media-local, regional, national - telling us that we are? Are we taking the initiative in communicating who we are? What do our vocation brochures say about us between the lines? We need to take a long, penetrating look both at what is said about us, and what we say about ourselves.

Forty-one of the 50 samples have sisters themselves as the topic. There the main topic is education, social justice, feminism, or health care, sisters are included as spokespersons or participants. Fortunately only two of the articles portrayed sisters as concerned with trivial topics.

Only in one sample were sisters considered in an idealistic or theological way. More frequent is the sensationalist treatment. About 15 of the articles were of this time and were mainly generated by advertisers of various products. By and large, accounts are realistic and responsible. Have we applauded the media when they've done a good job?


"Advertising most strongly stereotypes Sisters...innuendoes abound"

What connotations about sisters could a reader get from the articles? Positively speaking, sisters appear energetic, faith-full, flexible, dedicated, and socially-concerned. But the dark side is quite dark. Sisters are anti-authority, cruel, hypocritical, mere pawns, or martyr-masochists. Fortunately, good coverage outweighs bad. How can we handle negative publicity candidly, definitively, and without making it snowball?

Catholic publications are generally positive in their treatment of sisters, but critical judgments are not absent. Usually the criticism is connected with sisters being anti-doctrine, feminist, uninformed, militant, manipulatable or deserters of communities, schools and traditional works. Advertising is the area most strongly stereotyped in its treatment of sisters. Innuendoes abound. Yet stereotyping -- rigidly and universally applying one narrow set of characteristics to the whole genus - seems on the wane. Increasingly sisters are being considered in a personalized way as individuals, yet part of a relevant and effective group.

The study was relatively informal, elementary, and narrow in its sampling. The examples, few and random. The observations, tentative. But it's only a beginning -- a pilot probe, a springboard for further research of a more refined variety on a local, regional, and even national level. Who's saying what? What do we want to say? What do we need to do to communicate effectively who religious women axe, and what they are about? We have among us capable people with the expertise needed for this important task. Let's get on with it!

Author Bio: 

Phyllis Giroux, S.C. has long been involved in religious communications work in both Canada and the US and since 1997 has been the Associate Director of the Religious Formation Conference in Washington, DC.