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Fear of Flying Nuns - a feminist defense of a 1960s girlhood TV hero

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(with apologies to Erica Jong)


I wish someone would tell me what it is that is inherently sillier about a flying nun than a flying Kansas farmboy.   I really would like to know. 

The latest TV incarnation of the flying farmboy myth, Smallville, has had patches of bad scripts, shaky storylines and woefully flat acting yet it's embraced as serious TV fiction worthy of mythic Superman stature.  The Flying Nun TV show, though burdened by sometimes extremely sappy and simplistic themes, boasted a couple of wonderful comic lead actors (Sally Field and the late, great Alejandro Rey) to say nothing of a strong supporting cast and mainly funny scripts.  Yet recently it was proclaimed the "worst TV show of all time".   Not just A Worst but The Worst. 

I liked Smallville but I am here to admit before the world that I loved the Flying Nun.  I'm not Catholic -- I don't even believe in god -- but as a young girl I watched it devoutly as did many women my age who are now too close for comfort to fifty.  When the series was released on DVD, I purchased it (in a plain brown wrapper of course) and smuggled it home (living room drapes safely drawn) to enjoy it all over again.

While re-watching it, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop ... to discover the thing that would make it evident to me why the series I had loved was "so bad".

It had no more silly a premise than various other TV shows of the same period.  TFN's plots were typical Screen Gems fare with back lots strewn with shipping crates to look like sorta kinda Puerto Ricanesque streets.  There was a wider range of stumbling pseudo-Latino accents than one would find at a United Nations sports bar.  But The Flying Nun was actually funny.  Very funny at times.

It also had a sense of poetry and inner myth about it that other "silly shows" did not have.  So why is this one little show singled out for so much scorn? 

Is it because Superman is based in the realm of comics which is embraced as something mythically rich?  Well, The Flying Nun had literary origins ("The Fifth Pelican" by Tere Rios).  It had its own mythic literary wings.  Why is a "flying nun" a gimmick but a "flying Kansas farmboy" a probative trope?  I'm still waiting to have it explained to me.

The one element that clearly sets The Flying Nun apart is that its lead character is female.

And Sister Bertrille was no "owned woman" like the female lead in I Dream ofJeannie (constantly clad in provocative attire while she refers to her male companion as "master").  Or a housewife who was regularly "ordered" to do things by her husband as was Samantha on Bewitched.  Sister Bertrille (whose "real name" was Elsie Ethrington) was not a nun but a novice and therefore not yet "married to Christ".  The only man in her life was her companion of choice (the wonderfully harassed while continually love struck Carlos Ramirez).   Her life was her own.  Her career was her choice.  She owed her gift of flight to no one but destiny.

Quite simply, The Flying Nun is a sweet, lovely allegory for personal empowerment (especially for little girls ... and for those of us who occasionally aspire to think like them).   I've now begun to wonder if – perhaps -- that is what threatens many people about the entire series.  Most of its modern critics seem to be male.  It seems like the myths of young boys have always outranked the dreams of little girls in terms of popular culture memes.  And women have allowed it to stay that way.

Had the younger viewers been eternally happy with a never-ending tale of a flying nun, the series might have gone on for ages though it wouldn't have been nearly so beloved.  But our hopes were set as high as Elsie's.  Young girls, like all intelligent creatures, can see the new horizon.  In truth, more than the flying and the humor and the silly premise, my friends and I loved the wonderfully democratic relationship at TFN's core.  Elsie had changed Carlos Ramirez as much as Carlos had changed Elsie.  Theirs was truly a relationship of equals. 

What did we want?  That was simple.  We only wanted the impossible.  We wanted her to forget her lame, ultimately disempowering engagement to Jesus.  Still wanted her to have her wings (even with the silly hat).  Still adored her spiritual center and her personal northern star.  We just also wanted her to kiss Carlos.  And to kiss him a lot.  And to keep on doing so.  Like always.

No small order to the 1960s religious frame of mind. 

But while women may fly we may only fly "so high".  We are forever trapped by Virginia Woolf's "Angel in the House".  The Church wouldn't "go there"; the network couldn't "go there".  The very possibility that Elsie might have had her religious life AND Carlos was unthinkable ... unless one was a free-thinking, hormone-fired young girl. 

With it all, am I just seeing patterns in the chaos of my own nack standards for popular entertainment?  Am I reaching?  Do I need a life?  Well, yes, but that's beside the point. 

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Melody Clark Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

I am self-employed as a writer and internet traffic consultant. I have a degree in cultural anthropology. I've been married for thirty years to my college sweetheart. We have one son. My family has been in the USA for 350 years. I take (more...)
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