Every fan of cult or schlock cinema has heard of the “nunsploitation” genre, dramas which purport to expose the sleazy activities and atrocious lusts that over-active imaginations desperately hope run rampant inside cloistered religious institutions…
Many of these films were made in Europe, in countries long under the sway of the church and hence far more susceptible to the resentments that foster rebellious genres like nunsploitation. Interestingly, the genre is also big in Japan, even though that’s not a Catholic country; one explanation is that it’s used there as a underhanded way for the East to puncture the pious bubble of the Western nations whose missionaries tried to convert the Japanese to Christianity…
But America has its own tradition of nunsploitation, which goes back to the early part of the nineteenth century. Anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment, expressed by “nativist” groups like the Know-Nothings, set the stage for the 1836 publication of Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, a purported memoir of a young woman’s sexual and emotional mistreatment at the hands of nuns and priests in a Canadian convent. It became a huge bestseller, but it turned out that Maria’s story was completely fabricated by her guardian, an anti-Catholic activist, and a group of ghost-writers, all of whom ended up fighting over the profits of the book. It was revealed that Maria was mentally defective and emotionally unstable due to a childhood injury (she apparently rammed a pencil into her ear), and that she had never been in the convent she was supposed to have written about. Left destitute and discredited, she drifted into obscurity, had a child, married a man who left her, and died at the age of 33 in 1849 after being thrown in jail as a pickpocket.
Even though her story was shown to be fabricated, the book went on to sell 300,000 copies by the time of the Civil War, and as recently as the 1970s, her sensational “claims” have been republished and presented with an aura of legitimacy in modern editions.
The thing that’s interesting is how this trashy book became so widely read in the very strait-laced America of the 1830s. Obviously, its supposed concern for hypocritical outrages made its muted pornography acceptable to genteel readers; though not explicit in the manner of modern smut, I imagine that its restrained intimations of illicit sex behind convent walls were enough to make many readers stir moistly in their breeches or petticoats.
A few years later, in 1847, a statue of a female nude called The Greek Slave became very famous in America, and made its creator, Hiram Powers, the most acclaimed American sculptor of his day.
The slave is a Christian girl captured by the Turks, stripped, chained, and presented on the auction block. Her demure posture and forbearing expression balanced out the obvious titillation factor of this lovely presentation of alluring feminine flesh…
Here was the sculptural equivalent of Maria Monk, a girl still chaste in her heart despite her predicament, her sexually oppressed image presented for the polite delectation of the masses. The sculptor explained what he meant by his creation:
“As there should be a moral in every work of art, I have given to the expression of the Greek slave what trust there could be still in a Divine Providence…with utter despair for the present mingled with somewhat of scorn for all around her. She is too deeply concerned to be aware of her nakedness. It is not her person but her spirit that stands exposed, and she bears it all as Christians only can.”
“…with somewhat of scorn for all around her.” (My italics.) Was this a slip of the pen? Did Powers not realize the scorn of the Greek slave could be for the crowds that paid admission to view her? Well, obviously the irony was lost on most people of the time. It became a visual symbol for the abolitionist movement to wipe out slavery in America…and ministers urged their congregations to view the statue at exhibitions. Countless miniature reproductions were sold, and often stood under glass in parlors across the nation.
Personally, I like this sculpture very much, and have ever since I first saw it in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (there are a number of copies of it in different locations); but I knew little about it until I decided to research this post. Despite the verbal sincerity and tremendous skill of its sculptor, it nonetheless strikes me as prurient as it is exquisite; but I don’t hold its prurience against it. Prurience is a part of life, and we deny its hold on our minds at our peril…
We must rather be careful not to wallow in prurience to the exclusion of other things in life.
Even today in America, many prefer their prurience with penitence, or at least the upwardly striving narrative of triumph over adversity in the sleazeball zone. For example, modern memoirs about strippers usually depict them as girls eager to better themselves, often stuffing themselves with education, so that they may rise above their profitable but lowly status in the naughty and nasty lapdance trenches to spiritually triumph as 21st century century equivalents of ever-pure Maria Monks or ever-untouchable Greek Slaves.
People, and not just in America, seem to want to believe that no matter what a woman has experienced with that miraculous vessel of complex cultural symbolism, her naked body, that she remains good at heart.
Writing this post took me to interesting sites, where I got various facts and illustrations. For more information about the Greek Slave and Maria Monk in particular, with links to further material, go here. I found John Absolon’s color painting of the Greek Slave exhibited at London’s Crystal Palace here.