Why is pop culture so obsessed with nuns?

CNNThis week, Rihanna stunned in a new cover shoot for Interview magazine that challenged much about we know and expect of the traditional image of a nun. The suggestive, lacquer-lipped cover landed not long after the release of new nun movie “Immaculate” in theaters, starring Sydney Sweeney (as a secretly pregnant sister) fighting for her life in an Italian convent.

These vestal get-ups are, in fact, the latest in a long line of subversive pop culture interpretations of the lives (and loves) of nuns.

In fashion, sisters have been a longtime source of inspiration for designers. During his stint as creative director of Dior, John Galliano in 2008 created a Haute Couture collection featuring pointed wimples reminiscent of those worn by nuns in the 1950s; he was struck with divine inspiration again in 2019, when he sent models down the runway at Maison Margiela in white and black cloth veils. The classic silhouette has also been reimagined over and over by the likes of Schiaparelli, Marine Serre, Emilia Wickstead and Vaquera, among others. More recently, Bella Hadid walked the Coperni Fall-Winter 2022 runway wearing headgear reminiscent of a nun’s habit.


Nuns have been pictured suggestively eating ice cream on the front of greetings cards, or painted accepting communion with a tongue piercing. A particularly popular photo taken in 1965 — widely attributed to the Hulton-Deutsch Collection — depicts four sisters crowding around a cigarette. Andy Warhol, too, was taken with the image of the prioress, reimagining Swedish actor Ingrid Bergman as a Catholic sister in his 1983 pop art portrait “The Nun.” Both American painter Ken Vrana and Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara have created their own versions of “The Flying Nun.” In Vrana’s 2014 painting, a wimple-wearing sister holds her own in a wrestling ring, while Nara’s 2002 work shows a nun whizzing through the air in a mini-plane.

But why have they captured the imaginations of so many?

“Some of the fascination stems from the pleasure and/or attention produced by transgressing expectations and boundaries,” said Dr. Lynn S. Neal, author of “Religion in Vogue: Christianity and Fashion in America,” in an email to CNN. “When people see the nun’s habit it evokes a whole host of connotations and assumptions… one’s commitment to holiness, self-denial, and service to others.”

Cinema — which has often worked to subvert those very connotations — has long held a sustained interest in the lives of nuns. A 1959 western-thriller, “The Nun’s Story,” featuring Audrey Hepburn as a cloistered bride of Christ who rejoins the secular world, was one of Hollywood’s first forays into examining sisters grappling with their faith. Then came a wave of gory European filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The “Nunsploitation” subgenre saw the transformation of nuns from icons of piety and sacrifice into harbingers of evil and sexual obsession. In “Our Lady of Lust” (1972), “Behind Convent Walls” (1978), “The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine” (1979) and more, the women are depicted as lascivious and at times depraved, unable to maintain their commitment to God due to their dangerous sexual appetites. “Killer Nun” (1979) tells the story of Sister Gertrude, the head nurse of a general hospital who suffers a psychotic break and begins a murderous rampage.

(Many of these films were made in Italy, a country where nearly 80% of its adults population say they identify as Catholics, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center.)


And nuns are still influencing movies today. “The Conjuring” horror franchise has already produced two spin-off films — “The Nun” (2018) and “The Nun 2” (2023) — with viewers eagerly hoping for a third. Arthouse production studio A24 released “Saint Maud” in 2020, while “Benedetta,” a movie about a forbidden lesbian affair between two 17th-century nuns, debuted at Cannes Film Festival in 2021. In lighter fare, “Sister Act 3,” a third movie in the beloved “Sister Act” series of the 1990s starring Whoopi Goldberg is currently in development.

In this context, then, both Rihanna and Sweeney — who used her hosting slot on “Saturday Night Live” last month to joke about her sexualized typecasting — are taking part in a longstanding, hallowed tradition of subverting the chaste expectation often associated with nuns.

“The juxtaposition of the nun’s habit with either blatant sexuality or the cultivation of personal identity and style is shocking and grabs people’s attention,” wrote Dr. Neal. “Some delight in this profanation of what is deemed sacred as a way to criticize institutional religion or express rebellion from dominant norms. Others are offended and critique these acts as disrespectful or even blasphemous. Either way, attention and publicity usually follow!”