Thursday, February 9, 2012

Habit of authority

After a string of light roles, Streep became a prying nun -- and took her vision of feminism to a new level

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Most of Streep's movies in the last decade amount to liberal feminist fantasies, in that the women in question have remunerative, prestigious, and emotionally rewarding careers. This is also true of Julie & Julia, which projects such a vision back in time, depicting the happily married Julia Child’s successful quest to find a professional calling (though grieves at her inability to bear a child). In an interesting variation on this idea, Streep plays a wealthy woman with no obvious paid employment but who works as a patron of the arts and as a mentor to a troubled Chinese astronomy graduate student in the little-seen Dark Matter (2008), whose release was delayed by a year because its plot resembled the circumstances surrounding the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. 
It’s in this context that Streep’s performance as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the authoritarian nun of Doubt (2008) is so important. John Patrick Shanley wrote and directed this adaptation of his 2004 play about a 1960s priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who may or may not be a pedophile, the principal of the parochial school (Streep) who’s convinced that he is, and the young nun (Amy Adams, who appeared with Streep in Julie & Julia) who’s unsure. Shanley’s exquisitely calibrated screenplay is constructed in such a way that it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether Sister Aloysius’s conduct in her pursuit of the priest, which is both intense and ethically ambiguous, is justified. For our purposes, what matters is that we’re dealing with a working-class woman—something we know solely on the basis of her thick Bronx accent—who holds an important job that’s not merely a career, but a vocation. She wields real power, and does so through a series of techniques that include intimidation, passive-aggressive behavior, and a supple command of bureaucratic machinery.  Sister Aloysius is thus a walking illustration of the maxim that it’s women, not men, who actually run the Roman Catholic Church.
Run, but not rule. As she herself states plainly early in the movie, the man she suspects is her superior. She regards his boss as incompetent at best, and suspects his former one is covering for him. To make matters worse, the mother (Viola Davis) of the African American child (Joseph Foster) that Sister Alyosius fears is a victim of the priest believes that even if the allegations are true, this form of abuse is a balm given the physical abuse he endures at the hands of his father, at a school that represents real opportunity for the boy’s future. Sister Aloysius then resorts to great cunning by fabricating a conversation with another nun, and blackmailing the priest into resigning. (Naturally, he’s kicked upstairs.)
It is possible to finish watching Doubt and conclude that in overstepping her occupational boundaries, ignoring the wishes of a mother who believes she is acting in her child’s best interests, and committing what she herself considers a mortal sin, Sister Aloysius is guilty of creating a deeply tragic outcome. This is all the more so given that for most of the movie, the evidence for her suspicions against the priest amount to little more than an observation that he fails to trim his fingernails. But it’s not credibly possible to finish watching Doubt and fail to see that Sister Aloysius is a deeply committed woman who is willing to make grave personal sacrifices in order to do what she believes is right. Nor, given the recent history of the Church, is it possible not to see real prescience on the part of a woman who tried to prevent a great moral evil that was perpetrated by generations of men who failed to exercise their unchecked authority in a responsible matter. Meryl Streep’s feminist vision is bigger than that of wealthy white women who want a well-appointed home, regular orgasms, and glamorous careers. It’s one in which all women, and thus all men, have a stake.

Next: the final installment in the Streep series -- and the "Sensing the Past" series