Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture


255 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-3776-3
DDC 305.43'282559'00973




Reviewed by Jay Newman

Jay Newman is a professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph. His
books include Inauthentic Culture and Its Philosophical Critics and
Biblical Religion and Family Values.


Rebecca Sullivan, a communications scholar at the University of Calgary,
contends that in the 1950s and 1960s the American mass media had an
extraordinary fascination with nuns, and although she overstates this
point, she confirms in this monograph that the postwar period was one in
which American nuns’ images of themselves and other individuals’
images of nuns underwent significant changes that were in important ways
both reflected in and also influenced by mass media portrayals of nuns.
Sullivan appropriately sees her analysis as providing insights not only
into images of the nun but also into progress and reaction in postwar
American feminism, Catholicism, and social theory. She surveys a fairly
wide range of examples but focuses on several, including the films The
Nun’s Story, Change of Habit, and Lilies of the Field, the television
series The Flying Nun, and Soeur Luc-Gabrielle, The Singing Nun. She
also considers the situations of real nuns of the period, including
Anita Caspary, Jacqueline Grennan, and Mary Charles Borromeo. She gives
close attention to the emergence in postwar America of the “new nun”
and the mass media’s interest in this striking cultural figure.

Sullivan’s monograph began life as a doctoral dissertation, which is
still evident from the author’s insistence on mentioning even the most
marginally relevant scholars and from her inclination to slide into
modes of expression fashionable in recent cultural studies and feminist
theory. Sullivan gives little attention to the most critical
philosophical, theological, and sociological issues regarding the
general relations of religion and the mass media, but she quite
consistently avoids adopting a condescending and arbitrarily critical
attitude toward creators and promoters of popular cultural products,
although she laments that many of them at key moments have backslid to
outmoded stereotypes of nuns. Her analysis of postwar American
Catholicism will strike some scholars as superficial. Generally, though,
Sullivan brings the requisite erudition, balance, and discretion to a
sensitive research subject. Perhaps on one point she is almost too
discreet, as it would be interesting to know what importance she assigns
to the imposing creative and managerial presence of Jews in postwar


Sullivan, Rebecca., “Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 24, 2024,