Though I rarely watch TV, as a millennial in a motherhouse, I couldn’t resist tuning in to the “docu-series” about young women discerning religious life. The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns aired on the Lifetime Channel in November and December and followed five twentysomethings (Christie, Eseni, Claire, Francesca, and Stacey) to convents in New York, Illinois, and Kentucky. The title was my first clue this show would be inaccurate since there is a difference between the terms “nun” and “sister.”
An ominous voice over announces at the beginning of each of the six episodes: “At the end they’ll face a choice…follow their calling and become nuns or go home.” The (patently false) implication is that if someone decides not to enter religious community, she has “failed” at discernment. This creates the tension needed to keep viewers tuning in; however, it misrepresents the discernment process. Discernment is listening to that still small interior voice and, as Daughter of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte wrote in response to the show, is “individual, personal and private.” By its very nature discernment is internal and mysterious – between one’s soul and God. Having such an intimate process filmed feels weirdly voyeuristic and even exploitative. Discernment is not a competition and certainly not something that can fit neatly into a six week series.
“The Sisterhood” delivers plenty of meltdowns, crying fits, and (to use the term employed by several of the girls) moments of “bugging out.” One of the girls hyperventilated. Another one stalked off announcing that she wanted to “punch somebody in they (sic) face.” Conflicts are magnified with camera angles, background music, and intentionally scheduled commercial breaks. To the surprise of the girls and the chagrin of the sisters, Eseni’s boyfriend is brought back by the producers in one episode to stir the drama pot even more. During a commercial break, my viewing buddy – a Franciscan Sister of over fifty years – said, “Don’t you think this kind of melodramatic?”
Sister Lisa nailed it: “The Sisterhood” – like all reality TV – is about drama. In contrast, religious life is about inclusion, generosity, service, welcome, and love. Don’t get me wrong – those values aren’t lived out perfectly. Convent life is not free from tension or disagreement, but it is a far cry from the constant histrionics we see displayed on the show.
“The Sisterhood” overall has a feeling of being scripted and contrived. The conversations about chastity take place as the girls and one professed sister are sitting around a pool in bathing suits, and another one happens out in a bar when two of the girls have rolled up the skirts of their “discernment habits.” An exchange between an older professed sister and one of the girls about twerking feels obviously staged. The handing over of the cell phones to the mother superior each time they arrive at a new convent is a fake stunt to create tension. The argument that the girls need to “unplug” to be free from distractions and focus on God rings false when they are being followed around by a phalanx of cameras 24/7.
Some have expressed disappointment that the communities portrayed are conservative and habited. The show offers a portrayal of Catholicism which is not representative of that practiced by most lay and religious US Catholics today. For example, at the archives of the motherhouse in Chicago, a hair shirt and first class relic from the archives are presented in a sensationalized way. Focusing on these more obscure elements of Catholic religious practice is pandering to a secular audience with things that seem exotic and unusual. Then there is the overblown romantic language about marrying Jesus which makes the show seem like the bizarre religious analog of “The Bachelor.” Those unfamiliar with Catholicism would walk away from the show with a definitely pre-Vatican II understanding of our rich and varied faith tradition – not entirely false, but far from the whole truth of contemporary Catholic religious identity in the US.
Beyond this, my larger concern is the portrayal of the girls’ service. From serving in a Chicago soup kitchen to cleaning up the yard of a home bound woman in rural Kentucky to praying bedside with a woman in a hospice, the girls participate in service challenges at each convent. The girls appear to be thrown into the service experiences without training before or processing afterwards.
Apostolic acts of service are at the heart of religious life. They are opportunities to meet God in human beings who are poor and vulnerable, and therein to find our own poverty and vulnerability. These experiences challenge us, stretch us, grow us, and convert us. Great care must be taken to protect the dignity of those being served and not objectify them – something that is virtually impossible when accompanied by a camera crew. When the girls were on the Chicago streets handing out bag lunches to people who are homeless, the goal was not to have genuine and respectful interactions of mutuality but rather to “win” the challenge of handing out their bags the fastest.
I found myself wondering: How must the woman with a disability who had her trailer cleaned by the girls feel when they describe how bad her house smelled? Did the family members of the woman in hospice with whom the girls prayed the rosary give their consent for their mother, grandmother, aunt, to be filmed in her hospital bed in final days? Why are the adults with intellectual disabilities described as “kids” by one of the professed sisters? The treatment of the people served in the show is insensitive at best and ethically seriously questionable at worst.
Furthermore, the girls gave details about their pasts that seem more appropriate for sharing in confidence with a spiritual director than with an entire viewing audience. Though I’m a member of the over-sharing Facebook generation – marked by constant self-disclosure through a variety of media – but on-camera disclosures about experiences of sexual assault or struggles with a serious eating disorder cross the line and make me wonder if the girls felt exploited. In the producers’ defense, this level of deep sharing on camera is the norm for reality TV, so it fits well within the genre.
More than once over the six episodes professed sisters would sternly say to a camera operator, “Don’t film this!” before having a conversation with one of the girls. I found myself cheering from my armchair that the sisters had the sensitivity to hold the girls’ deep sharing with protection in at least some cases. Many times the girls speak about – and are shown on camera – having panic or anxiety attacks. It’s another case of inappropriate painful-to-watch over-sharing. It also makes me question how they would fare in the psychological testing required before entering religious community.
Overall, “The Sisterhood” disappoints – not a surprise since I have fairly low standards of network TV. However, the value of the program is that it has provided much material for conversations among women religious and discerners. As religious congregations seek to be relevant to and reach out to my generation, we can thank “The Sisterhood” for giving them something against which they can push back. Lively conversations on social media as well as in mainstream and religious media have been spurred on. While far from presenting the reality of religious life and the discernment experience, we can be grateful for the conversations sparked about vows, service, community, faith, vocation, and discernment.
In the words of my friend Eilis, a candidate with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary: “Overall, it’s not a realistic portrayal of the discernment process…I think the best part is following the live tweets by other sisters/communities/A Nun’s Life Ministry. People are sharing their own stories and reactions. So, in that way, the show is ‘succeeding’ because it’s bringing religious together and showing others that we exist. If some discerner googles “The Sisterhood,” she might come across these tweets and/or blogs, realize the show isn’t completely realistic, and also realize that there are still people entering religious life.”
For me as a “motherhouse millennial,” “The Sisterhood” and its commentators leave me intrigued by the unorthodox approaches religious communities are taking to engage with young adults through pop culture and social media – and also very grateful that the convent where I live is camera-free!
About the author: Rhonda Miska (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.