Of nuns, habits, chainsaws, and why the combination is less than 'nuntastic'

A screenshot of recent Google Image results for the search terms "hurricane" and "nun"

When the effects of Hurricane Irma dominated the news cycle in early September, one of the feel-good stories that circulated across virtually every media platform was a picture of Sister Margaret Ann in full traditional habit, wielding a chainsaw so she could clear away debris. As CNN put it, such an image "can renew faith in even the most downtrodden."

Within hours, the story was picked up in outlets across the country, trended on Twitter, made it onto "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," and even was featured in Stephen Colbert's opening monologue at the Sept. 17 Emmy Awards.

As someone who studies nuns and calls literally hundreds of sisters my friends, you would think I might applaud such a phenomenon. And, to be sure, Sister Margaret Ann, a member of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles and principal at Miami's Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School, seems to be a likable woman who handled the unexpected (and, no doubt, unsought) publicity with humor and aplomb.

So why do I find this whole business more annoying than amusing? Why did I not welcome the multiple repostings by friends to my Facebook page? Why was I accused of being humorless? Or if I could not laugh, why could I not simply ignore the whole thing?

For too long, habited nuns have been used in media — including but not limited to the news — as quaint, and frequently infantilized, curiosities. Otherwise unremarkable women become objects of fascination and fantasy simply because of the clothing they wear. Most of the time, they remain unnamed, and even the particular community they belong to goes unidentified.

At the same time, the far more numerous sisters, at least in the West, who have worn secular clothing for about half a century now go unnoticed and largely unappreciated. For instance, the many vowed women who did what they always do in reaching out to the poor and needy after both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remained mostly unacknowledged because they are visually unremarkable.

Consider, for instance, a story about the (unhabited) Adrian Dominican Sisters who, like Sister Margaret Ann, live in southeast Florida and spent days after Irma visiting homes and shelters. Their story did not get worldwide, or even statewide, circulation.

Media outlets that should know better, including The New York Times, Huffington Post, Salon and the websites of major television networks, regularly use stock photos and cartoonlike drawings of women in habits even to accompany stories of sisters who have not worn such outfits in decades. The anachronism is not only frustrating, but it perpetuates the implicit sense that "real" or "authentic" sisters wear traditional garb while those who do not are somehow less worthy of recognition or appreciation.

Many of the sisters I know, who are from various communities and not all from the United States, share my frustration. As one put it in an online forum: "Most [sisters responding to the hurricanes] are probably dressed in very practical, ordinary clothes, so they don't look 'cool' or picturesque or stand out in any way. They're just getting on with the job, and probably working incredibly hard, too, away from the limelight, whilst the internet goes mad over 'a nun — wow!!' cutting a few branches."

And she was far from alone in what she said.

As another online commenter put it: "There is a trend of romanticizing nuns in habits as these ethereal innocent feminine wisps."

And a third remarked, "The picture is (cheerfully) patronizing. Please note that no-one is criticizing the nun for helping — only for putting herself at risk in wearing clothes inappropriate for the task. The main issue here is the public stereotyping of women religious."

One person on Facebook asked why I could not simply join in the "innocent amusement."

The answer is simple and, I think, important. Vowed women in the church deserve more than our fascination, our giggles, and our objectification. They deserve, instead, our appreciation — and, more importantly, our respect.

[Margaret Susan Thompson is a professor of history at Syracuse University, where her research focuses on the history and contemporary concerns of American sisters.]