Nunsploitation and the Figure of the Naughty Nun
A quick search on Google will reveal that when most people look up nuns, they aren’t looking to learn more about the vocation. In fact, nuns have become quite the fetish, with images of them sucked in latex and drooling over phallic crucifixes littering the internet. This fetish is nothing new, however. The nun has been a prominent figure in erotic thought since the Middle Ages, appearing regularly in the raunchy fabliaux of the time, as a figure both tantalizing and repulsive.
During this time, it was believed that women were much more lustful than men, and nearly incapable of suppressing their carnal desires, an idea supported by theologians like Isidore of Seville who argued that women’s nature was "very passionate…[and] more libidinous than men”, with this conviction rooted in the dogma of Eve’s inability to deny the temptation of the serpent, a trait that she had apparently passed down to every woman. Due to this belief, a convent was sometimes viewed as an absolute hotbed of licentious behavior. An entire building stuffed with wanton women bound to chastity is definitely a fantasy the mind can run rampant with.
The figure of the naughty nun has persisted to this day, even though the church is nowhere near as pervasive as it was during the Middle Ages. We see her every Halloween on college campuses, on television, and even in anime. If we are still culturally fascinated with the nun, it is not as an embodiment of piety. Instead, we are fascinated with the more fantastical, salacious aspects of the Bride of Christ. Though older than Chaucer, we still see modern interpretations of her, like in American Horror Story: Asylum [there will be spoilers — eds.], or the aptly titled Nude Nuns with Big Guns (Guzman, 2010), which is sadly no longer available to stream on Netflix. The question arises then, why does this figure persist throughout history, and why are we so attracted to it?
I believe that this archetype has persisted simply because she has never ceased to be relevant, as she represents a struggle that many women encounter: that of reconciling personal desires with what society expects. In this way, the nunsploitation film acts as a glimpse into what it would be like for a woman to prioritize the self, by escaping, she thinks, the patriarchal world she lives in, with its marital and maternal duties, and entering the convent, a place not only free of these gendered expectations, but also as a place where she feels she can do meaningful work that is free from the demands of capital-centered labor. But it becomes clear quickly that the convent is not the reprieve it was imagined to be. The convent becomes a place of intense isolation and grueling asceticism, and even worse, it runs rampant with sexual violence. The realization that patriarchal cruelties cannot be escaped even in a place meant to be a sanctuary for women shows the nuns, and the spectators, that the only way to escape is to fight it head on, without mercy.
This fixation on the nun reached a pinnacle of excess in the 1970s with the emergence of the ‘nunsploitation’ film, a subgenre of exploitation films, popular and provocative for their unapologetic use of blood and sex. Some popular examples such as The Nun and The Devil (Paolella, 1973), Flavia the Heretic (Mingozzi, 1974), and School of the Holy Beast (Suzuki, 1974) [yes, there will be spoilers — eds.] show that nunsploitation films have several things in common, such as lurid depictions of female sexuality, the strength of female communities, and the sadistic abuse of power common to oppressive systems of authority, like the Church.
The average nunsploitation film often borders on the pornographic, notorious for its gory eroticism, decorated with images of sadism and religious ecstasy. The films very quickly make the point that the sexuality of the nuns is something of major importance, with the sisters usually falling into one of two camps: either they weaponize their sexuality to gain power, or they completely lose themselves in the pleasures that they had been previously denied. This duality is shown in The Nun and The Devil (Paolella, 1973) in a scene where Sister Julia, desperate to succeed the dying Mother Superior, seduces another nun in an attempt to gain power and loyalty. Sister Julia tells Sister Chiara that she loves her. Sister Chiara responds that she knows that she is being placated with lies, but that she is grateful for that, because at least they can still be together. Here Sister Julia kneels down and begins to unroll the other woman’s stockings, and kisses her way up Sister Chiara’s leg. Sister Chiara submits, well aware that she is simply a pawn, but is shown to still find pleasure in it. This scene shows both of these forces at work: Sister Julia utilizing her sexual power for personal gain, and Sister Chiara allowing this in exchange for sexual gratification.
In a contemporary adaptation of the genre, American Horror Story: Asylum, this motif is still prevalent. The character of Sister Jude, played by Jessica Lange, is seen to wear a slinky red slip beneath her habit. It becomes evident, through her fantasies, that she feels the garment will help her seduce the handsome, and much younger monsignor. Later we witness the possessed Sister Mary Eunice wearing it, singing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to the crucifix on her bedroom wall, relishing in her blasphemy. The red slip becomes symbolic of the potency and complexity of both of these women’s sexuality. For Sister Jude, her sexuality is something that she cannot separate from herself. It is as integral to her person as her religious beliefs. Even though she follows her vows of chastity, it is clear that she owns her sexuality. She doesn’t pretend to be shy about it. By wearing something sexy under her habit, she makes it clear that she still feels desire. Female sexuality is also something that can be seen as destructive, as displayed with Sister Mary Eunice. While possessed, she seduces and forcibly takes the monsignor’s virginity. She delights in the shame he feels for succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh.
These modern representations show a leeriness towards the realization that a woman’s sexuality can be demanding and even destructive. These two characters, as women who recognize and entertain their desires, are shown to make the male characters in the show incredibly uncomfortable, as they are disconcerted by women who own their bodies and their lusts. Aggressive female desire is shown as even more taboo. Women are the ones meant to be seduced, to surrender, not the other way around. So when Sister Mary Eunice claws at her clothes, demands pleasure, and laughs at the men who cannot sate her, she is seen as a figure of terror.
Following the idea that there is something innately threatening in female sexuliaty, it comes as no surprise that culture demands the punishment of the proudly sexual woman. In both literature and the real world it is expected that women suffer for the sin of pleasure. The proudly sexual woman is another trope as old as the naughty nun, and often her narrative ends in death, a solemn punishment for the crime of liking sex. Think about the appeal of revenge porn, or even the recent leak of celebrity nudes. As these images are passed around for enjoyment, young women are told that if they didn’t want the pictures to be stolen, they shouldn’t have taken them in the first place. Their pain is more enjoyable than their nudity. Acts like these remind women that their sexuality is something punishable.
This trend appears in nunsploitation films, too, with secondary characters being tortured over covert kisses, or crucified for masturbating, showing that it is expected for a woman’s sexuality to be frantically pushed into the sphere of the private, and that there are ramifications for when this code is broken.
Due to this, in the nunsploitation film, the cloister becomes a perverse representation of society at large. Here, a woman can reach a place of influence, like the Mother Superior, but she and the other sisters are still overseen and controlled by a patriarchal figure, usually a higher ranking clergyman. The cloister acts as the nexus of these films, and we rarely see the women leave it except to escape. The cloister, meant to be a safe community, becomes a cage for the women inside it.
The violence inherent to this dynamic is explored in Suzaki’s School of the Holy Beast (1974), where an obviously pregnant nun is tortured after accusing a priest of raping her. Her abuse is classified as a series of tests to make sure that she is telling the truth, but it becomes clear that the torture is meant to be fatal. She is shown to be whipped and stepped on, with most of the blows directed to her swollen stomach. She is forced to drink salt water and told that if she urinates she would be found guilty. She is seen with a rope around her neck in the next scene, blood all down her legs. A baby cries off-screen and we see the pool of blood under her swaying body as her crucifix falls into it. The most interesting aspect of this scene is that her torture is orchestrated by another nun, showing that some women’s internalization of this violence leads to these same women taking on the role of maintaining the social order, and more importantly, that the priest who raped the nun will face no repercussions for his actions, since his victim has been permanently silenced. Scenes like this make very clear that the social hierarchy presented in the film demands the subservience of women. Once this hierarchy is established, the genre then tackles its next hurdle: to dismantle it, by choosing a woman who refuses to submit to her role.
Most often, the heroine’s first act of rebellion is that of asking questions. When she dares to ask why she is obligated to do things she doesn’t want to do, she is instantly branded as troublesome, and the answer to her question is always the reminder that she is a woman. To her male superiors, the mere act of questioning authority is tantamount to full-on rebellion. This element of the nunsploitation genre is exposed in American Horror Story: Asylum, with Sister Jude constantly being reminded of her sex. When her authority is being stripped from her by a male colleague, she warns him in perhaps the season’s most famous line: “I will always win against the patriarchal male,” showing that she is aware that her presence as a woman in a male controlled world is a constant battle.
Today as well, there are constant examples of what happens when a woman attempts to make a female voice heard in a male dominated area with #GamerGate being the most recent example. Anita Sarkeesian received multiple death and rape threats after demanding that video games have female characters that are more than tits and ass. The threats that are thrown at her make it clear that she is hated for the fact that she is an intelligent, outspoken woman who dares to call out inequality when she sees it.
The women on the screen too face punishments for their so called impudence, either by being flagellated till bloody, or humiliated through sexual abuse. The films often show the perpetrators of such violence to be men, highlighting their cruelty by having them take pleasure in the pain they cause. The majority of the male villains in these films are priests. This is not surprising, since the majority of men who would interact with nuns would, of course, be fellow members of the clergy. But this also acts as a not so subtle attack on the power of (male) church officials.
The 1977 film Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (Franco) overtly connects clerical power with sexual abuse. In one scene, our heroine Maria confesses to Father Vicente that she dreamt of performing fellatio on a boy she knew before joining the convent. She is ashamed and seeks forgiveness. Father Vicente abuses his power and tells Maria that the only way she can be forgiven is if she performs on him what she performed on the boy in her dream. When she resists, he forces her. Later the film takes on more fantastical elements, as Satan himself is summoned by the nuns to impregnate Maria who, due to her virginity (a commodity in this convent), is deemed perfect to “bear the son of Satan”. The Devil emerges from fire, clad in red robes purposely meant to call to mind a cardinal’s cassock. While Satan sets on Maria, the other nuns expose their breasts to him in devotion, encouraging him to “fill the virgin womb with the fires of hell”. Father Vicente looks on at a distance, captivated. While the scene swerves toward absurdity, the point is clearly made: the Devil is welcome in the church, and in fact, he might just run it. The villains are allowed no gray areas; they are cruel, greedy, and unashamed of the fact. The only time they are seen to repent is when they beg for mercy during their death, often at the hands of the woman they have victimized.
If she survives these atrocities, the nun is seen to escape the oppressive walls of the convent, and to renounce the church’s hold on her. She is triumphant and made strong by her struggle. Sometimes she doesn’t survive though. In a handful of films the wayward nun dies a martyr, where the film often times takes a plunge into the torture porn genre, with brutality and nudity overshadowing any genuine emotion, showing that the directors were still keener on the exploitative aspects of the film than the political. Mingozzi’s Flavia the Heretic takes the cake here with the final scene being that of Flavia’s execution. She is given the opportunity to repent, but turns her face from the cross, and accepts her death. However, Flavia is neither crucified nor hanged. Instead, she is strapped to a tree where the executioner cuts a horizontal slit into each of Flavia’s ankles, pushes his fingers inside them for a better grip, and pulls up, removing her skin and exposing what’s beneath. We can see the skin being removed up to her knee, which is when the camera shifts to Flavia’s face, thrown back in an expression that merges anguish and pleasure. It is implied that the executioner will keep pulling up until she dies. It is a savage death, which, through the camera’s unblinking eye, still has the ability to disquiet modern viewers.
Yet it is those who survive that better display the moral quandaries brought up in these often forgotten films. The plots of these films are about women going against the roles that the church and society have created for them, and oftentimes has the sister commit condemnable acts such as murder. Overwhelmingly, the viewer is still encouraged to side with her. The camera sides with her point of view, allowing the viewer to understand her motivations and witness her at her most vulnerable. Her subjugation throughout the majority of the film strengthens this attachment between the heroine and the viewer, allowing her victories to seem personal to the audience. For a female audience, this sympathy may run even deeper, as they may be able to draw parallels between the film and their lives, as these films explore social issues and traumas that overwhelmingly affect women.
Films like Flavia the Heretic are infamous, even in the genre, for its graphic sex and violence. Which brings up the question of why exploitation filmmakers were so keen on this subject, when these same stories could be told without being so explicit, which would perhaps make them more poignant. But it’s essential to realize that the nunsploitation film does not act solely as a social critique, it still has an agenda: making money. The exploitation genre marries the scandalous with the political. The film takes a moral stance on its subject, but it still attempts to stimulate a sense of pleasure in the viewer by letting them witness the whole grisly spectacle. While the nun usually comes out the victor – a ‘liberated’ woman – the genre still caters to overly misogynistic fantasies: grossly theatrical visions of lesbian orgies, vulnerable naked bodies draped in blood, and barely legal, busty virgins suffering under the sexual dominance of her superiors, both male and female. The struggles of the heroine are meant to evoke the Willy Wonka response: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts.” The film is a symptomatic response to the culture, and it still exists inside of it. While it does strive to make a radical point, it is still a means to make a profit, and the smart filmmaker knows that to make money, one must cater to the audience’s socially manufactured desires – desires that are sated by the visual pleasure of seeing the female body as a place where violence and sex can be consummated.
Narratives of female transgression can feel liberating to women, as it shows us in all our intricacies, and is not ashamed to laud us even while we commit vices. The nunsploitation film provides this. It makes visible women who glorify in their sexuality, refusing to be either the whore or the Madonna, and instead allows women to embrace a more complex understanding of sexual identity. The genre also allows women to be justifiably angry and violent. Violence by women is rarely explored, and is instead classified as an anomaly. Even when women have been victimized, they are expected to forgive and let their anger go. Narratives of disobedient women allow the exploration of female anger and even questions its taboo. Do institutions that make up our world fear a woman’s wrath because it has the ability to disrupt their power? Perhaps, we have a collective fear of what a woman could become if she were to renounce social rules, if she were to decide that she will no longer serve.
To transgress means to go beyond a boundary. For a woman, to transgress is to purposely make oneself into an outsider, an apostate. Because of this the figure of the naughty nun is the premium archetype. She is the figure of a woman who rebels against a morality that she feels belittles her, who finds power and agency in pleasure and subversion, a path traditionally dominated by men. She is one man’s nightmare, another’s wet dream, and she will only disappear when we no longer need her.