I’ve been a subscriber to Entertainment Weekly longer than I’ve been a subscriber to America. (And a confession: sometimes I enjoy their articles more than I do our own.) They’ve got a terrific stable of writers (which now includes the priceless Libby Gelman-Waxner, aka Paul Rudnick); provocative interviews with actors, directors and writers; some of the best movie and TV reviews in the business; creative and clever photography (like their fun "morning-after" Oscar photos); an always-changing and always-eye-catching layout that most magazines could take cues from; surprisingly solid book reviews; and a waspish end-of-the-book feature called “Bullseye,” which takes aim at the current hits and misses from the week in pop culture. It’s a fun read that I look forward to getting in my mailbox every week.
This week, however, I felt like tossing the magazine across the room. As soon as I saw the cover, with the actress Jessica Lange wearing a Catholic sister’s habit, with a crucifix dangling from her neck, brandishing a cane and wearing fire-engine red lipstick and painted nails, my heart sank. In the wake of the Vatican’s investigation of women’s religious orders, and its critique of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group of Catholic sisters in the United States, sisters finally seemed to have rounded the corner when it came to ugly stereotypes. Instead of endlessly mocking portrayals of ruler-wielding nuns or stupid sisters, the media was starting to feature more thoughtful portraits of caring sisters who worked with the poor and the marginalized, who devoted their live to prayer and service, and who did so while living simply and, in many cases, right alongside the poor, both here and abroad. I wondered if the era of anti-Catholic stereotyping was over.
EW’s cover story this week focuses on the new season of FX’s “American Horror Story,” a rather baroque series that I found nearly unwatchable last season. (I'm no prude, but any series that features a man entirely clad in a rubber body suit is a bit too bizarre for me.) The cover features the tagline: “You Thought Last Season Was Scary? Wait Till You Enter the Asylum. Jessica Lange returns. This time as one terrifying nun.”
Inside, the writer Tim Stack outlines this season’s premise, which centers on Briarcliff, a home for the “criminally insane” run by “the Catholic church and Lange’s Sister Jude.” Oh wait, I forgot. Before that summary, Stack treats us to a preview of one scene: “Jessica Lange is in a nun’s habit spanking the bare bottom of her bound and shackled co-star Evan Peters with a cane.” (That’s the same cane she’s brandishing on the cover.) More: “Lange storms about in a circle, her long black robe whooshing behind her, like she’s a prizefighter just waiting for the bell to go off so she can unleash holy hell on her opponent. When that moment comes, costars Sarah Paulson and French newcomer Lizzie Brochere--both playing residents of Briarcliff--cower in the corner of the head nun's office, grimacing at the torture. At one point Paulson's Lana turns to Sister Jude and, in a severe understatement, notes, 'You're so twisted.'”
I’ve not seen the show, so I don’t know if it’s going to traffic in such gross stereotypes every week. On the other hand, it is hardly reassuring when EW describes Sister Jude as a “scarily stern woman of faith…and a fan of corporal punishment…who has a penchant for red lingerie and vivid fantasies about her superior, Monsignor Timothy O’Hara.”
"Clearly she's attracted to the monsignor for his grace and religiousness [religiousness?],” says Joseph Fiennes, who plays O’Hara, “the monsignor might play with that, manipulate that.” Great. Slutty nun. Manipulative priest.
The show’s co-creator, Ryan Murphy says, “I’m scared of aliens and I’m scared of Nazis and I’m scared of nuns.”
Anti-Catholicism (especially in grotesque portraits of sisters and nuns) has a long history, is alive and well, but is often overstated by some sensitive Catholics. And of course it's quite subjective. One person's good-natured ribbing is another person's offensive stereotype. But it’s always a good thought experiment to imagine the lines about, say, Lange's sadism rendered with another religious or ethnic group. Instead of nuns, substitute “rabbis” or “imams,” or “Muslims” or “Jews,” or “African-Americans” or “gay men,” in that sentence. So reread those lines about the spanking with those groups in mind. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
How does that sound? Do you think it would make it past many network execs or the editors at EW? Well, maybe, but should it?
Of course Hollywood is an equal opportunity offender. A new movie called “The Good Doctor,” opened this weekend, starring Orlando Bloom as a wicked physician who poisons his patients. (Bad Legolas.) So Catholic sisters aren’t the only vocations to have their reputations besmirched. It's as fair for filmmakers and TV producers to feature the occasional mean priest, bad bishop, and silly sister as it is to feature crooked cops, devious lawyers and messed-up parents. And Hollywood even turns on its own: check out the brilliant "Episodes" starring Matt LeBlanc as an addled, well, Matt LeBlanc.
But that a sadistic, slutty, screwed-up Catholic sister is the centerpiece of a show's entire season on a mainstream network is depressingly retrograde, especially when real sisters are trying hard to be seen as women worthy of dignity and respect. It’s a lazy trope and an offensive one, too. And I’m always amazed that editors and writers and producers and screenwriters and photographers don’t see that.
Perhaps the show will turn out to be more “The Sound of Music” than “Maria Monk,” and not as offensive as it sounds. For his part, the show's creator has message for worried Catholic groups: "We show people who are really devoted to Catholicism and believe in its powers," says Murphy. "For the most part, the religious people in the show are making an attempt to do their best in very difficult work." Like torture, I guess. But even in its own coverage, EW offers up, sans comment, a number of anti-Catholic stereotypes, gleefully listing a cabinet of horrors in its subtitle, describing the series as “...a macabre mash-up of nuns, Nazis, aliens, a serial killer named Bloody Face and the lead singer for Maroon 5.”
Nice to have nuns and Nazis on the same line. I won’t be cancelling my subscription to one of my favorite magazines, but neither will I be watching “America Horror Story.” The article was horrifying enough.