Rebecca Sullivan, Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Buffalo and London, 2005.

Rebecca Sullivan, Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar 

Popular Culture, University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Buffalo and 

London, 2005. $29.95 £21.99 ISBN 0 8020 37763 (paperback), pp. xi + 

226 (or 239 including bibliography)


Review by Yvonne McKenna, University of Limerick, Ireland

The period between 1950 and 1971 was one of tumultuous change in

American society. When we think of America in the 1950s, we think of

bubble gum pop and Mom’s Apple Pie. By 1971, these ‘safe’ images had

been replaced by ones of revolution as individuals and groups rallied

against the order of things both at home and abroad. The debates over

race, gender and war represented America growing up and innocence

lost. In Visual Habits, Rebecca Sullivan explores America’s

transformation over the period by attending not to popular culture in

general, but the representation of nuns within it in particular. The

result is a fascinating investigation of nuns in popular and mass

media, if an ultimately unsatisfactory one of their role and position

in American society.

Over the course of six chapters, Sullivan offers a contextual

overview of the period; explores the representation of nuns in film

and television shows; charts nuns’ foray into the popular folk music

scene; and examines too the literature of nuns in the form of

vocation books published by congregations. Nuns themselves feature

very differently throughout the three forms. On screen (big and

small), we get the sense that the convent and religious themselves

were used predominantly as a trope or devise to explore issues of

wider relevance or appeal. While in certain situations, the realities

and complexities of religious life might have shone through, it was

rarely the motivation of the film or programme maker to do so. As a

means of raising much needed funds, it might have seemed a canny move

on the part of religious congregations to use the wider freedoms

afforded by Vatican II to commercially record their music and song,

and certainly one they should have had a good deal of control over.

The chapter on their experiences of the music industry, however,

highlights more the negative and sometimes tragic consequences of

doing so, especially for the individual recording artist. As authors,

religious had, of course, complete control over the vocation books

they produced and clearly drew on social and cultural anxieties to

present religious life as an appealing alternative to marriage and

motherhood. Falling vocations across the period, however, suggest

that whatever their popularity, vocation books failed in their goal

of attracting postulants to the religious life.

Sullivan’s argument is that over the course of twenty-one years, nuns

were represented in four ways in America’s popular media. Entering

the mainstream of popular culture first in the 1950s as ‘happy-go-

lucky’ and ‘fun loving’, realism finally entered the equation with

the emergence of the ‘modern’ or ‘new nun’.  The media’s attention was

sustained when great numbers of women began to leave religious life

in the 1960s, including many of the ‘new nuns’.  By the 1970s, the

media seemed either unable or uninterested in portraying the

complexities of religious life and reverted instead to stereotype or

fantasy.  Fleshing out her argument, Sullivan proves to be a

perceptive reviewer of film and television and combines this with a

critical analysis of the relationship between vocation literature and

postwar girl culture.  The reader is taken on a journey throughout

familiar and unfamiliar territory in a manner which engages as much

as it does surprise (growing up in Ireland, slightly later than the

period under review, I had mistakenly presumed that The Flying Nun

involved no more a stretch of the imagination than that religious

could fly planes!).

The success of Sullivan’s exploration is definitely in highlighting a

forgotten fact: that in America, religious, during a very specific

period, ‘enjoyed’ a particular position within popular culture not

entirely commensurate with their number, one they had not experienced

previously and have not since.  She manages very effectively to

illustrate the dis-juncture between the myth of religious life as

presented in the popular media and the reality of the lives of

religious – more so through attention to the myth than the reality.

She poses interesting questions regarding why women religious

received no attention in popular media, then received attention, then

were ignored again, and suggests some uncomfortable answers that

scholars in general and feminist scholars in particular should

consider.  And she portrays the entertainment industry as exactly that

– an industry dominated by market forces.

The difficulty, and it is one common to explorations of popular

culture, is the connection she attempts to make between the reality

of the lives of religious and the representation of them within

popular culture.  It is simply not the case, as Sullivan suggests in

her second chapter, that changes within convent life are best

examined through film.  What about the individuals who lived through

change within convents?  Surely their experiences are more relevant to

that question?  But this is not to take away from the value of the

representation of religious in popular culture and the value, in and

of itself, of exploring their representation.  This is not a book

about religious, although they feature a good deal within it.  Rather,

it is a book about popular culture.  By overstretching the context in

which we are asked to read the representations, Sullivan undermines

her own research and its findings.  I think in this respect, and in

this respect only, she does herself a disservice.