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.