Trolling Facebook a few months ago, one of my friends — a religious sister— posted the news release for Lifetime’s new ‘docuseries,’ The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns. I laughed out loud! The title alone is saturated with incorrect stereotypes and inaccuracies, so naturally, I had to go immediately and see if there was a trailer— and indeed there was. Still, I vowed not to even watch the series (while trying to remember if any of my streaming subscriptions even had Lifetime), chalking it up to another mind-poisoning hour of un-reality television that informs society the “truths” of today. With irritation and a bit of fury, I knew clearly I was going to hate this show.
See, I called this one roughly eight years ago. Recalling the context, I was engaged in some brainstorming with several sisters in my community when I jokingly offered ideas of starting a “specialized cruise line,” a version of a “speed dating” concept or maybe a reality show, all as a way to see if people were interested in religious life. The ideas were crazy — and inevitable fitting the entertainment trends of the last few years perfectly.
So I may have called it a few years ago. The difference? I knew it was a joke.
The trailer ridiculousness began with the language and tone of the overly dramatic Voice-in-the-sky context setting and moved on to the girls’ “uniforms,” the clips of their crying and falling to the floor (in the chapel of course), half-second flashes of working in a soup kitchen and staged prayer silhouettes until it ended with a worm’s-eye camera pan of these formidable nuns standing in a line waiting to receive the five young women.
I should probably back up. I was a Sister in a Franciscan religious community; officially in the community for six years. The discernment phase — the phase portrayed in the series — for me was an on-and-off discernment for a span of nine years. Not unlike the young women we will meet on The Sisterhood, which premieres Tuesday, I was in my early 20s when I started my process, — and it occurred on a very different timeline than the 6-week attention span of the average reality TV binger.
If I had seen a “casting call” offering me the chance to explore my vocation with people, values, a mission, a lifestyle that I know nothing about — and I would do it in a mere six weeks — I would have laughed heartily.
Nonetheless, I took the plunge and viewed Episode 1 with an unapologetic judgmental attitude and a ton of questions. Starting with which congregation? (There is no congregation I know of that has discerners who wear a pencil skirt and matching headbands.) How was this show cast? Were the women vetted (and by whom) in terms of their physical and psychological health — a regular practice of many religious communities? What were the ladies told—about the community, the lifestyle, the process, the show and so on? Were they informed that there are many different “flavors” of religious communities? Were the women compensated? Is the congregation compensated? What motivation does this order of nuns have to agree to this?
I began viewing with a “scorecard” mentality, fully anticipating that there would be few tally marks in the “good” column, and multiple sheets of “bad” and “ugly.”
We begin as the ladies are “on their way” to the convent. Surprisingly, my first check mark was in the “good” column as appropraite context was set of how life is like for the women in their comfort zones: at home, with family members, boyfriend, girlfriends, etc. I was particularly impressed that parents and siblings were invited to share their thoughts about their family members pursuing this experience.
As in many situations where ‘children’ begin to develop into their own person and make independent life choices, parents have questions and concerns — because they want the best and for their children to be happy and fulfilled. The interviews were genuine, not scripted, and they posed realistic and authentic questions, fears, joys and support of their daughters. These interviews also primed the viewers for a sense of how the Catholic faith is practiced within the family, which in turn helps us understand some of the characteristics and understanding of faith and religious vocation of the women themselves. Interviews of the family with genuine responses: +1pt.
Then we are introduced to the women, flashing between interviews in their “natural” habitat and in their uniforms in the chapel (of course). It felt like a set-up — women answering obvious leading questions in their interviews — to set a concrete display of the typed roles each will play in the series. We meet Eseni, the 23 year-old “model” with a boyfriend. Then Christie, a 27 year-old party girl with a naïve and very unique interpretation of relationships and faith. Then Francesca, a 21-year-old princess with an extra-large fondness for d-r-a-m-a. Then Stacey, 26, an actress/artist, who won me over immediately with her maturity and a surprisingly realistic story about why she’d be attracted to give this a try. And of course, this show would not be complete if we didn’t have the “perfect” one — practically a nun of her own making already and instantly superior to her new peers at the old wise age of 26. My impression: the casting seemed fake, unrealistic and, frankly, intentionally dysfunctional. Introductions and casting: -2
Having been a Sister in a community on the other end of the spectrum of “religious life flavors,” it annoys me that the majority of nuns portrayed in the media — factual and fictitious — are typically the more conservative, habited and cloistered/semi-cloistered. It is important to clarify that I have a great respect for healthy religious communities, encouraging women to explore their call in a supportive and healthy manner. Of course a “reality show” would choose an order that only tells half of the story— the one that is most externally familiar on calendars, gag gifts and in the movies—so it’s disappointing to know that the women (and the viewers for that matter) will not experience access to the convents that are reflective of the reality of the different paths available. Stereotyping: -.5
Then we met the nuns via sporadic interview snippets — just enough to get a taste — not enough to know them. Surprisingly, though, I liked them! Their comments were genuine, reflective of their role in the congregation and illustrated the spectrum of personalities one might find in any extended family. Sr. Maria Therese is a gentle, warm, understanding woman—perfect for a role as vocation director. Mother Mark is serious and administrative; she’s the head honcho! She seemed nervous and skeptical throughout (that was refreshing, too). Her interviews were— appropriately — about how the congregation works, what they stand for and so forth.
Mother Mark won me over completely when she talked about these sisters’ habits. Being in or out of habit often is perceived as — or is — a point of and a symbol of “validity” on the degree of “nun-ness” one may have. My community did not retain the habit since the ’60s, so I had been asked on many occasions whether or not I was a “real” religious. Some congregations use the habit as a way to “put on” an identity; others are reflecting a symbol from centuries ago that is no longer relevant and even reflective of oppression of women over the years. Using the phrase “our congregation chose to retain the habit” and further explaining the symbolism for them acknowledged that habit/no habit is a choice, that this decision was thoughtfully considered and that there is a clear reason supporting what it means to have common dress for this congregation. One of my biggest fury-laden snap judgments entailed the preposterous pseudo-habits/uniforms that actually reflect the ladies “living as sisters” as a meaningful part of discernment. Mother Mark addressing this in relationship to the process with which they are attempting to replicate, made good sense. This was the moment that the show transformed some of my anger to intrigue. The Nuns: (a surprising) +2 points
Sr. Cyril adds another +1.5 points. If you watch the show to take away a little bit of reality, it’s her. She rocks (and shocks) —and that’s all I’m saying about her. She’s worth the anticipation.
Final Score: The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns earns a solid 2 on a 1-5 scale. And I’m in … for now. My attitude is better; however, skepticism and fury still linger. The women are obnoxious, each in a forced and stereotypical way, but the congregation appears to be significantly more integrated and healthy than I would have guessed.
Episode one in a nutshell?
Reality factor: 20%
“DRAMA” factor: 80%
Making it: Sr. Cyril
Faking it: Claire
The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns premieres Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 10pm ET/PT on Lifetime. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
About the Author
Katy LaFond was a member of Franciscan community for 6 years. Valuing the discernment process, she continues to discern and explore where “home” in religious life may be for her. Katy is currently completing pre-requisite course work and will apply for medical school in 2015.
Photo: Lifetime/Scott Gries Copyright 2014