Once upon a time, there was a Catholic covent in Singapore. Built in the 1840s, it was run by nuns and then became a school for many generation of young girls. Then, in the late 20th century, it was deconsecrated, summarily patched up, and turned into a series of bars and restaurants set amongst wonderful Gothic archictecture.
There was to be a party. Like most parties involving loud music and alcohol, naughtiness was expected, and the advertising did not shy away from it. Leveraging on the fact that the party was to be held in a former chapel, the organisers ran with the ‘sexy nun’ trope in their marketing.
Catholics were not pleased by this. Particularly since the party had been postponed from its original early-2012 date to the week of Good Friday/Easter Sunday, one of Catholicism’s holiest weeks. And the venue, being part of the colonial Old Town, would be in the vicinity of several historic churches with active congregations. They saw it as an affront, an insult to their religion. Complaints were made, kerfluffles had. Eventually, the venue pulled the plug on the whole shindig, causing the organisers to declare the party canceled. There’s even a police investigation going on.
This irks me.
The party was a secular event, it never claimed to represent Catholicism, or poke fun of it. It isn’t hate speech, it does not sneer and attempt to marginalise. The sexy-nun thing has been around for so long it has been completely divorced from its origins and now stands alone, independently, as a cultural trope that people understand doesn’t actually want anything to do with religion, but instead cheekily plays on a naughty/nice dichotomy. Much like a convent chapel that has been turned into a bunch of bars by government decree has been completely divorced from its original purpose, yes?
See, you don’t get to infuse the dominant cultural paradigm with your ideology and imagery for hundreds of years, until such ideology and imagery gets so saturated in the collective consciousness that they become part of the shared popular culture, and THEN complain when people pick said imagery out of popular culture and run with it on their own terms.
People of all stripes of race and religion can recognize a sexy-nun trope when they see it. It is something no longer yours, it is out of your domain. And it is so because you put it out there.
I don’t think there’s anyone who would think that the sexy-nun trope in any shape or form represents real, actual practicing Catholics. This isn’t like making racist jokes or assuming all PRC citizens in Singapore are ‘uncultured trash’ or posting a picture of pre-school Muslim kids and sniggering about ‘future terrorists’. It doesn’t damage the reputation of real Catholics, nor does it attack their doctrines or mock them for their beliefs. It makes a play on imagery, not scripture.
(A thing that would actually tarnish the reputation of the Catholic Chuch would be the sweeping of sex abuse scandals under the rug– but that has absolutely no relevance to this story, so I won’t bother discussing it here.)
But yet, we have this. Party cancelled, everybody go home. In the meantime, racist sentiment and open, brazenly naked xenophobia gets circulated on Twitter and Facebook and blog postings on a daily basis, yet nobody will do anything about it because the targets are marginalised groups with no real voice, and very few are willing to stand up for their cause. And let’s not forget that the whole sexy-nun thing is actually insulting and demeaning to women, but we don’t really care about that, do we.