Today, E.L. brings us back to a movie invested in community—though this community is expressed in a somewhat unexpected way. As with all of the movies in our Reel Women series, this one offers up a kind of unabashed pleasure that can be the most radical form of self-care. And, like all movies in this series, this one is best enjoyed with your witch coven by your side.
Welcome back to Reel Women, our series featuring women on film. Last time we talked about the erotics of female competition in Working Girl. This time we’ll concentrate on the erotics of female collaboration in Sister Act.
Whoopi Goldberg, rare EGOT winner and shade-throwing daytime TV hostess, sparkles as a lounge singer-cum-nun on the run. My childhood memories of this movie include the musical numbers and habits, but I had totally forgotten the brilliance of Whoopi’s comic timing. She leads a cast of talented comedians who, dressed in habits, must more or less bring the laughs using only their faces. Considering the use of women’s bodies in mainstream comedy from the 90s, this is an impressive feat. Women tend to exist in these movies as either the objects of lust that reveal the limits of the male protagonist’s own attractiveness (think There’s Something About Mary), or as the undesirable butt of the joke (think every fat woman to grace celluloid since the inception of the film medium).
In Sister Act they are neither. Women’s bodies aren’t played for comedy here, which feels pretty impressive when you begin to count the number of non-normative bodies in this movie—the convent is filled with old women, fat women and a black woman, and none of these are targeted for easy jokes. Dressed in habits, their bodies don’t figure much at all (with a few notable exceptions, including Kathy Najimy’s dance scene). Instead, comedy grows naturally from women talking to each other.
Released in 1992, Sister Act feels like an anomaly. Part of a small cohort of early 90s sisterhood movies such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and A League of Their Own (1992), it is far more interested in the drama of female relationships than the will-they-or-won’t-they of heterosexual romance. In fact, the fantasy offered by all of these films is that of an escape from the stifling confinement and sometimes outright violence of a world with men. At best, the men in these films are well-intentioned but myopic (see Harvey Keitel in Thelma and Louise) and at worst, they are selfish and brutally violent (Harvey Keitel in Sister Act). And even Brad Pitt’s torso can’t soften the fact that the options for male relationships in these films are so much less compelling than those offered by women.
The action of Sister Act begins with the threat of masculine violence that sends us to the most homosocial place on earth. The convent here is at once a refuge from the world of men and a space in which female collaboration can transform the world for the better. Once sex with men loses its capacity to generate action and motivation, what’s left is the powerful, difficult and dynamic society of female friendship.
That’s not to say these female friendships aren’t also erotic. The taut looks that Maggie Smith’s Mother Superior shoots Whoopi Goldberg’s Deloris sizzle with angry energy, and their understated power struggles are nothing if not sexy.
But the true romance, I think, blossoms between Deloris and Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena), the convent’s hot young novitiate. Delores is the worldly older mentor to Mary Robert’s naive but curious pupil, and if Delores were a man we would expect a steamy kiss before the final credits roll.
Their relationship reminds me of another film in which witnessing a gruesome murder sends a worldly metropolitanite to a cloistered religious community. In Witness (1985), it seems obvious to us that Harrison Ford’s cop will end up in the arms of the Amish mother played by Kelly MicGillis, but in Sister Act the convent keeps queer possibilities safely in the subtext. Delores cracks Mary Robert’s shell and frees her voice, and Mary Robert in turn offers Delores a gentle welcome to the convent community and even sneaks into Delores’ bedroom to offer her flower (alarm clock) to keep Delores company while she sleeps.
Mary Robert is almost always shot in closeup to capture her doe-eyed gaze at Delores, and the looks they exchange are always tender and quietly knowing. Beneath their robes Delores is velvet wrapped in steel, gently drawing out Mary Robert whose self-effacing timidity belies her spunk.
The thesis of Sister Act is that really well-arranged choral music can revitalize a neighborhood. In this world, a rollicking arrangement of “Salve Regina” can entice teenage street toughs to Sunday Mass and a dozen nuns in a local church choir can become famous enough to attract the Pope himself for a visit. In this world, the rejuvenation of the church and the community beyond is made possible by the artistic collaboration of a bunch of middle-aged women. In this world, the final reward isn’t the arrival of a man (even if he is the Pope), but is rather the final musical number itself.
Church choir remixes “Salve Regina” in Sister Act (1992)
Community in this movie takes shape around the commune rather than the couple. Sister Act is interested in the possibilities that open up when we shift our attention away from heterosexual sex, reproduction and the nuclear family toward forms of connection that do not need men to thrive. Community spaces and relations are built through joint effort among non-reproductive women rather than through normative family structures, and the aesthetic appeal of the choir’s performances replaces the sex appeal of the female body as the site of community (re)production.
While heterosexual sex ends with Vince chasing Delores with a gun, female collaboration here ends with a bunch of nuns cackling joyfully over contraband tubs of ice cream.
Finally, because I can, I will leave you with this image of one of my favorite moments from the film: Delores dismissively eyeing Vince’s gift of a purple mink jacket while sporting a full-length fur coat. An allegory of heterosexuality if there ever was one.