Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Bill Nunn
Written by: Joseph Howard
Directed by: Emile Ardolino
Sister Act is a feel-good screwball comedy with a great soundtrack. From a religious perspective, it’s not spiritually deep, but its message about generosity to others and joyfulness in worship is a sweet one. From a secular perspective, it contains some valuable reminders about kindness, tolerance, and friendship. And, from an ace perspective, it celebrates characters who reject heteronormativity and embrace a different kind of lifestyle.
It’s true that most of the women in the movie are celibate for religious reasons, rather than because of asexuality. The film is certainly critical of religious ideas about sexual “sin”. For example, the advice Vince gets from his priest absurdly suggests it is better to continue cheating on his wife than to divorce her. However, the film does not condemn religiously-motivated celibacy. On the contrary, it vindicates it for those who choose it.
The nuns may be celibate, but they are not without passion, humour, or affection. Mary Patrick is fun-loving and full of positive energy. At one point, she starts grooving to the jukebox in a bar and even dances with another woman. Mary Robert feels a deep desire to help others. She is frustrated, not by a lack of sex, but by not being able to make use of her gifts. Deloris’s intervention allows these women to live out their vocation. Under her guidance, the nuns get involved in their community, meeting the neighbours, cleaning up graffiti, and handing out soup. Deloris also takes their painfully incompetent choir and teaches them to sing in harmony. Remarkably, this does not require her to change the composition of the choir or silence any of its voices. Instead, she shows them that they all have something to offer, teaches them to listen to each other, and finds a way to bring out the unique talents of each of them.
Admittedly, the film approaches the nuns’ sexuality is a bit simplistically. None of the nuns express any interest in sex, and Deloris seems to assume they are all virgins. The conflation of religiously-motivated celibacy with asexuality is inaccurate and, arguably, disrespectful to both celibate people and asexuals. On the other hand, all of the nuns chose to take vows knowing it would mean a life of sexual abstinence. Although they may not all be asexual in the strict sense, this does say something about their interest in sex and the relative importance they place on it.
The acest scene in the movie is the “My God” sequence. In it, the choir take the Motown song “My Guy” and, by changing the word “guy” to “God”, turn it from a heteronormative affirmation of a woman’s loyalty to her man, into a song of praise for the Almighty. This scene takes the popular image of nuns as sexually deprived and inverts it. With lines like, “No muscle-bound man could take my had from my God”, they express joy, not about being in a heterosexual relationship, but about not being on one! From their perspective, they have not so much sacrificed sex as rejected it in favour of something much better.
As the nuns loosen up, Deloris also finds herself changing. Initially, she only cares about herself, about getting back to her old life and not getting killed. However, as time passes, she finds herself becoming invested in the nuns and their work. Her role as choir director and friendship with the nuns bring her the fulfillment that her career as a nightclub singer and adulterous relationship with Vince have not. For her, the split from her murderous, patronising, jerkass boyfriend and move to the celibate, all-female community of the convent is a positive one that enables her to use her talents, form relationships, and become more kind and tolerant. Initially horrified at the thought of sexual abstinence, she comes to see the value of other pleasures, and even declares that being in the choir is “better than sex!” While she never embraces celibacy as explicitly as the nuns do, she leads what amounts in practice to a celibate lifestyle and finds that, far from being empty, it is, in fact, much more rewarding.
The nuns also become attached to Deloris. When she is kidnapped by Vince’s goons, they band together to save her. Despite their limited resources and lack of worldly experience, they express a high degree of loyalty to their newest member, insisting, “We can’t leave it up to the feds!” Most heartwarmingly, the Mother Superior, who objected to taking Deloris in and has been critical of her ways, stands up for her and even lies to protect her.
Sister Act may be set in a religious community, but religious faith is only a small part of the movie. The real story is about the friendship between the characters and the love that they show to those around them. This friendship and love are specifically non-sexual, among women who have, for the most part, rejected sex, marriage, and motherhood. Whether any of them are asexual is ambiguous, but also, arguably, beside the point. By portraying characters who are joyful and empowered without sex, the film validates celibacy as a lifestyle and shows that you don’t need sex to be happy.
3 Stars; 4 Aces