(Annabel Barry ’19 wrote this paper for WRI 143: Sex on the Brain.)
In 2002, Irish filmmaker Peter Mullan released The Magdalene Sisters, an old-fashioned Hollywood-style prison movie fictionalizing a tragic historical reality that had long been elided. From the mid-eighteenth to the end of the twentieth century in Ireland, tens of thousands of women whose actions or identities were deemed incompatible with the state-supported Catholic sexual morality were incarcerated in Magdalene institutions. These asylums-cum-workhouses confined unmarried mothers, sexually active women, female survivors of sexual assault, “simpletons,” and even women deemed “too pretty” to escape sexual sin. The Magdalene women, under the watchful eye of nuns who lived in associated convents, were forced to work long hours in Church-operated laundries (Titley 2008). Metaphorically, they washed their souls alongside the dirty linen; practically, they generated a profit for the Church which imprisoned them (Crowley and Kitchen 2008). The last laundry closed down as late as 1996 (O’Toole 2003), and the early 2000s saw a media frenzy in Ireland in response to a growing series of revelations about hidden atrocities of the Magdalene system, coming on the heels of the worldwide uncovering of Church sexual abuse (Smith 2007). The Magdalene Sisters, albeit not the only filmic depiction of this episode in Irish history, quickly became more popular than previous depictions (McCormick 2005). As a result, Mullan’s film became the dominant public historical record of life inside the Magdalene laundries (Riordan 2010).
In The Magdalene Sisters, the head nun, Sister Bridget, is the film’s most visible villain—she presides over the inmates through a mixture of psychological manipulation and physical violence, often accompanied by a distinctive maniacal laugh. Notably, it is Sister Bridget’s voiceover that describes the warped logic of the institution when the laundry is first visually introduced: “The philosophy here at Magdalene is a very simple one. Through the powers of prayer, cleanliness, and hard work, the fallen may find their way back to Jesus Christ.” While the ideological justification of the laundries paraphrased in this scene was historically shaped through legal rhetoric written and ratified by men in the nascent Irish republic (Crowley and Kitchen 2008), the presentation of this rhetoric by Sister Bridget implicates her personally in its construction. Sister Bridget, named for the patron saint of Ireland, appears to be personally accountable for Ireland’s collective societal failure. The contradictory use of a female nun to depict patriarchy has its roots in the equally contradictory historical reality of the Magdalene institution: “Blatantly anti-female, it was carried out by women—who reveled in their task” (Finnegan 2004). However, most critical reviews indicate that the subtlety of this history is not fully captured in Mullan’s depiction of Sister Bridget—instead, Sister Bridget is read as an an unequivocal villain, rather than an imprisoner who is a prisoner herself. For example, A New York Times reviewer asserted, “Most prison movies have a monster authority figure, and so does The Magdalene Sisters. Here that ogre is the head nun, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a twisted diabolical autocrat” (New York Times 2002). Brereton argues that “The story is not, however, interested in unpacking the oppressed characteristics of these nuns” (Brereton 2008).
Most scholars of the Magdalene laundries agree that The Magdalene Sisters delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of Sister Bridget because of the difficulty of capturing history while providing the expected tropes of the prison drama genre. “Balanced historical accounts, based on relevant source material and evidence, do not, in the main, make good films,” McCormick argues. “On the other hand, incarceration of the innocent, abusive captors and sexual degradation, followed by a turning of the tables and eventual escape by those unfairly imprisoned, provide the formula for a successful screenplay” (McCormick 2005). Smith also asserts that “the genre’s conventions, specifically the use of stereotype, melodrama, and simplification, have limited the film’s critical reception to the singular focus on blaming Catholic nuns” (Smith 2007). The scholarly consensus, that the treatment of the nuns in Mullan’s film is merely a reflection of certain prison drama tropes, is too simplistic a criticism. By drawing a distinction between Ireland’s institutional system and its artistic representation, historians fail to acknowledge the form of artistic representation inherent in institutionalized punishment.
In his Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes one historical model of punishment: “the representative, scenic, signifying, public, collective model.” According to this model, each punishment in a code of laws is exactly linked to its crime. Thus “those who abuse the benefits of law and the privileges of public office will lose their civil rights” while “theft will be punished by confiscation.” The intention was to find, for each crime, a disadvantage so fundamentally connected by image (a so-called “obstacle-sign”) that it would be conjured immediately whenever the crime was contemplated. This system functioned as “an art of conflicting energies, an art of images linked by association.” In their symmetries of opposing signs made publicly ubiquitous, punitive institutions were analogous to institutions of the fine arts; Foucault called the dissemination of obstacle-signs through propaganda and public punishments the “theatres of punishment” (Foucault 1977). In this paper, I will argue that The Magdalene Sisters depicts and critiques the ways in which nuns used aspects of a Foucauldian representative penal system to control other women. However, I will then demonstrate that the movie still abides by the rules of a representative penal system, by punishing the nuns (by depicting them as subhuman monsters) in exact accordance with their crime (of treating other women as subhuman monsters). Ultimately, the public theatres of punishments which supported the Irish religious corrective institutions become the movie theatres of punishments used to ratify a new, secular Irish postnationalism.
The Magdalene Sisters presents an interpretation of the Magdalene laundries as an institution that used the Foucauldian system of punitive representation. The first visual journey into the laundries comes at the beginning of the film, with the arrival of three new inmates, or “penitents.” The penitents are led into the shadowy office of Sister Bridget, who explains that the Magdalene laundries were named for Mary Magdalene, a Catholic saint imaged as a repentant prostitute (McCarthy 2010), a “sinner of the worst kind, giving of her flesh to the depraved and lustful.” Mary Magdalene’s self-inflicted punishment for the crime of prostitution was “denying herself all the pleasures of the flesh including food and sleep, and working beyond human endurance.” Voiceover shots of sweating penitents washing laundry and pushing trolleys of linen (Figure 1) imply that, like Mary Magdalene, each incarcerated women is punished for her crime of “giving of her flesh” by “denying herself all the pleasures of the flesh.” In addition, Sister Bridget tells the women, “In our laundry they are not simply clothes and bed-linen. These are the earthly means to cleanse your very soul, to remove the stains of the sins you have committed.” The women are punished for their sexual impurity through the metaphorically-charged task of cleaning soiled laundry. This system of obviously linked crimes and punishments is in keeping with Foucault’s “reasonable aesthetic of punishment” wherein, for example, “theft will be punished by confiscation…fire-raising by the stake” (Foucault 1977).
Figure 1: Above, historical image of a Magdalene laundry (BBC News); below, Mullan’s laundry
The fact that the nuns use obstacle-signs to control other women has a heightened irony given the gendered nature of these signs and the crimes to which they are linked. For example, Bernadette is incarcerated in the laundry for the sole crime of being “too pretty,” since, as Sister Bridget tells her, “in any God-fearing country if you want to save men from themselves you remove that temptation.” Because beauty is conflated with vanity, and, in the words of Bernadette, “It’s a sin to be vain,” the women are punished through a complete denial of vanity—they are reclothed in ugly brown uniforms, and several are renamed so that they must relinquish their individuality.
The emphasis on vanity and its punishment can be tracked through the pervasive motif of hair. Several of the women are shown brushing their hair for the last time before leaving home for the laundries, a close-up of Bernadette’s abandoned belongings focuses on her brush, hair growth is the primary way to track the progression of time within the laundry, and, when two of the women finally escape, the first person they visit is a cousin who is a hairdresser. Bernadette’s beauty in particular is linked to her beautiful hair, and, when she is caught trying to escape the laundry, Sister Bridget cuts off her hair in a violent struggle depicted through a series of rapidly shifting, dizzying close-up shots. When the calm returns, viewers are presented with an extreme close-up of cotton wool dipped in water and applied to Bernadette’s eye, congealed in blood. The shot frames Bernadette’s bloody face and shorn hair in a mirror (Figure 2), alongside Sister Bridget’s satisfied expression. “I want you to see yourself as you really are,” Sister Bridget tells Bernadette, her tranquil demeanor terrifyingly contrasted with her previously demonic anger. “Now that your vanity is gone and your arrogance defeated, you’re free.” In discussing the representative penal system, Foucault says that “vainglory” is punishable by “humiliation;” “Shameful punishments are effective because they are based on the vanity that was at the root of the crime” (Foucault 1977). The film’s emphasis on beauty and its violent punishment establishes the way in which monstrous nuns ironically used gendered obstacle-signs to control their victims within the laundries.
Figure 2: “Now that your vanity is gone and your arrogance defeated, you’re free.”
Sister Bridget’s apparent exploitation of a representative penal system seems paradoxical given Foucault’s argument that such a “representative, scenic, signifying, public, collective model” fell into disuse with the advent of a new penal model, “the coercive, corporal, solitary, secret model.” According to this new model, theatres of punishment were replaced with hidden spaces in which the correction of criminals was hidden from public view. Criminals no longer functioned as negative examples, or obstacle-signs, for the benefit of the whole community. Rather, each criminal became subject to the secret coercive power of the individual who punished him, for the criminal’s own benefit: the correction of his internal soul (Foucault 1977). While Foucault presents these two models of punishment as mutually exclusive, elements of both are found in the Magdalene institutions both historically and in Mullan’s film.
Following the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Ireland’s post-colonial national imagining (Anderson 1982) was so intertwined with Catholicism that transgressions against Catholic morality were seen to compromise the integrity and authority of the nation (Kornprobst 2005). Accordingly, Ireland developed an expansive cultural, legal, and infrastructural framework to hide the morally transgressive and to eliminate them from the national imagination (Smith 2007; Una and Kitchen 2008; McCarthy 2010). Because this so-called “architecture of containment” (Smith 2007) operated on the basic premise of hiding the transgressive within coercive institutions in order to strengthen the purity of the nation, it is clearly related to Foucault’s secret model of punishment. However, the architecture of containment involved the public depiction of sexually transgressive women as “vampires” (quoted in Finnegan 2007) and figures of “abject wretchedness,” (quoted in Smith 2007) in contemporary articles and pamphlets. It involved further a public knowledge that a women’s legal realm was “her life within the home” (Irish Constitution) and that deviation from the ideal female types of “mother” or “virgin” (Bacik 2007) was legally punishable (Una and Kitchen 2008). While the actual punishing of sexually transgressive women took place behind the walls of Magdalene laundries (in compliance with the secret model of punishment), these women still became obstacle-signs through widely disseminated images of their sins and their aesthetically-related modes of penitence (in compliance with the representative model of punishment).
The Magdalene Sisters depicts this historical marrying of two ostensibly incompatible penal systems within the Magdalene laundries, by depicting aspects of the secret model as well as the representative model. The film makes it clear that the Magdalene laundry is an institution in which residents are cut off from society completely and live circumscribed lives entirely dependent on the will of the nuns. The inescapability is depicted through the character of Katy, a woman who has been in the laundry for forty years and believes that only by remaining there forever can she claim her place in Heaven. On her deathbed, she even tells Bernadette, “They wanted to take me to the hospital, but I said no.” Because of the inescapable containing space of the total institution, Sister Bridget has complete autonomy over its residents. Her office is the location of one-on-one punishments; it is here that she spanks, slaps, mocks, and shaves her victims. This intimacy is significant because in the secret model, “The constraints of the body imply a very special relationship between the individual who is punished and the individual who punishes him” (Foucault 1977). The monstrous authority figure, then, is not merely a prison drama trope, but a requirement of the secret model of punishment. The inclusion of both symbolic, publically advertised forms of punishment (forced labor in the commercial laundry room that can be accessed by patrons) and intimate, arbitrary forms of punishment (secret torture in Sister Bridget’s office) demonstrates that Mullan’s film depicts elements of both the representative and secret models of punishment within the Magdalene institution.
Further, Sister Bridget’s justification for inflicting torture, as she tells Bernadette after cutting her hair, is to allow each woman to “look deep into your soul.” The emphasis on the hidden internal correction of the criminal’s soul is a key component of Foucault’s secret model. As a result of its emphasis on the soul, the secret model is “accompanied—both as a condition and as a consequence—by the development of a knowledge of individuals” (Foucault 1977). Sister Bridget’s emphasis on the individuality of the penitents through her focus on their souls seems to conflict with her de-emphasis of their individuality through her renaming of certain inmates. This contradiction is a result of the film’s depiction of the paradoxical integration of two conflicting models of punishment (one collective and one individual) into one Magdalene institution. The depiction of aspects of the secret model in The Magdalene Sisters actually strengthens the film’s implicit argument that the representative model was a significant component of the underlying ideology of the laundries. While Foucault argued that the secret model historically replaced the representative model, The Magdalene Sisters demonstrates that the Irish architecture of containment permitted the continued use of elements of the representative model even as it facilitated the secret, intimate, correction of the soul.
While The Magdalene Sisters demonstrates the danger of the representative model of punishment which facilitated the victimization of tens of thousands of women within the Magdalene system, the film actually employs the same model through its treatment of the nuns. The most important role of the representative model of punishment is to disseminate in theatres of punishment “the lesson, the discourse, the decipherable sign, the representation of public morality,” according to a “reasonable aesthetic of punishment” in which each punishment aesthetically resembles its accompanying crime (Foucault 1977). In the new movie theatres of punishment, the historical nuns are punished according to the “reasonable aesthetic;” for treating penitents as subhuman monsters, they are publically imaged as subhuman monsters.
While families, priests, and state officials collude to support the Magdalene laundries within the film, it is only the nuns, and particularly Sister Bridget, who come across as less than human. One of Sister Bridget’s most obvious motivations throughout the film is money. In the first introductory shot, only a close-up of her hands, counting money, is framed; in her last scene, she allows two girls to escape in exchange for the stolen key to her safe. Yet, were it only money that motivated Sister Bridget, she would be no worse than the abusive priests who violate the Catholic imperative to deny oneself “all pleasures of the flesh.” Sister Bridget’s ulterior motive is to inflict pain, from which she derives a sadistic enjoyment. In scenes where Sister Bridget spanks transgressive women and violently shears their hair, her voice and laughter betray obvious enjoyment. While various men promote the Magdalene system within the film, none receive so much screentime and none are accused of sadistically enjoying the pain they inflict. Rather, their abhorrent behavior is a result of situationally unjustifiable, but still human (or at least societally constructed) ends—money, sex, and propriety. Sister Bridget, on the other hand, is a subhuman monster.
The construction of Sister Bridget as a monster within The Magdalene Sisters suggests the use of a particular cultural trope: what Creed calls “the monstrous-feminine” (Makarushka 2012). Creed argues that all human societies share a conception of “what it is about women that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject” and that filmic horror is often an accentuation of monstrous femininity (Creed 1986). What is significant about the position of the nuns as the monstrous-feminine however, is that this does not appear as much to mirror the conventions of film genre as to reinscribe early Irish constructions of monstrous femininity. In historical documents from the early days of the Magdalene laundries, it is not the nuns, but the penitents, who are constructed as the monstrous feminine. In an 1874 lecture, preacher Thomas Burke described the penitent in particularly monstrous terms:
The child of misfortune wanders through the streets of the city, wasting her young heart, polluting the very air that she breathes—a living sin! The sight of her is sin—the thought of her is death—the touch of her hand is pollution unutterable! No man can look upon her face and live!
Burke’s lecture depicts “the child of misfortune” as untouchable and unviewable; she become a Medusa, so that “No man can look on upon her face and live!” Other contemporary accounts describe the Magdalene penitents as “lepers,” (quoted in Smith 2007) “pestilence of hell,” “Evil Ones,” “vampires,” (quoted in Finnegan 2007) and even “the rank, noxious, foul-smelling weed that grew up in the dark shadows of the crumbling tomb” (quoted in Smith 2007). Critical reviews of The Magdalene Sisters describe Sister Bridget using similar terminology of monstrous femininity—she is the “monstrous authority figure” (New York Times 2002) as well as “a figure of pure evil,” a “sadist,” (Ebert 2003) and a possessor of oxymoronic “untender mercies” (Guardian 2003). By depicting his nuns as the monstrous-feminine, Mullan punishes their historical counterparts for their role in supporting an architecture of containment that did the same to other women.
Furthermore, the perceived monstrous femininity of Magdalene penitents was a direct result of the way these penitents violated the two circumscribed Irish female ideals: the “virgin” and the “mother” (Bacik 2007). Likewise, Sister Bridget and the other nuns are punished by being depicted as monstrous as a direct result of this same violation of female ideals. While Mullan’s nuns do remain virgins, they violate the associated imperative to conform to the expected “Christian modesty of which Mary is the model” (Irish Ecclesiastic Record 1926). The abuse inflicted by the nuns is depicted as having sexual undertones. Sister Bridget and the other nuns emotionally abuse a mentally disabled woman, dubbing her “Crispina” (“the girl with the curly hair”), a nickname that is revealed to be a reference to her pubic hair when she later wins an award for being “the hairiest.” In one much-contested scene, several nuns force the penitents to remove their clothes and stand in a line while they evaluate their naked bodies (Figure 3). “Frances,” one nun cackles, “you know I’ve never really noticed you before but not only do you have the tiniest little breasts I’ve ever seen but you’ve got no nipples.” Mullan’s depictions of sexual harassment perpetrated by nuns charges the nuns with “expressing their closet lesbianism” (Irish Times 2002). While this charge is historically dubious (McCormick 2005), its inclusion makes sense if the film is interpreted as a Foucauldian representative punishment of the nuns. As the nuns punished women for sexual deviation despite inadequate evidence, the nuns are in turn punished for sexual deviation despite the lack of a sound historical basis.
Figure 3: Sister Clementine evaluates Patricia to see if she is “ broad at the back.”
The nuns are also monstrous because their greed and sadism contradicts their expected female role as mothers. Sister Bridget’s patronizing voice positions penitents as children under her care. When Margaret maintains that she is innocent, Sister Bridget slaps her suddenly across the face, then asks her, almost smiling, “Did no one ever teach you it’s bad manners to interrupt?” By treating the women like children, Sister Bridget sets up the expectation that she will mother them. The motif of food plays a role in highlighting Sister Bridget’s subsequent transgression of her expected motherhood, which is figured as a lack of nurturing impulse. While the girls eat gruel for breakfast, the camera reveals extreme close-ups of butter, bread, and ham, which the nuns are keeping for themselves. In the final scene, Crispina dies of anorexia after being moved to a hospital for “the mad” in order to silence her accusations of sexual abuse within the laundry. Throughout the film, the sequestration and denial of food reveals the nuns’ violation of their expected female roles as mothers. The failure of the nuns as mothers is also imaged as barrenness. While the other women are shown fully exposed, the nuns are covered head to toe in habits which eliminate their interpretation as sexual objects. The aforementioned figuring of hair as linked to beauty and sexuality further underscores the barrenness of the nuns. The penitents are depicted with exposed hair, which they brush and style. This hair becomes an obvious metaphor for female beauty, which is, according to Sister Bridget, the source of “temptation” that results in unmarried motherhood. By contrast, the hair of the nuns is covered by their habits throughout the entire film, visually reiterating the obvious fact that the nuns will not achieve natural motherhood. As the penitents were historically portrayed as monstrous because they deviated from the ideal of the married mother, Mullan’s nuns are portrayed as monstrous because they deviate from ideals of mothers as nurturing and fertile.
Aspects of the Foucauldian representative model of punishment which circumscribed Irish femininity functioned to strengthen Ireland’s Catholic nationalism, by justifying the elimination of those (primarily women) who did not comply with Catholic morality. In 1990, Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson, was elected. In her inaugural address, she said, “The Ireland that I will be representing is a new Ireland, open, tolerant, inclusive… we have already passed the threshold of a new pluralist Ireland” (quoted in Smith 2001). As the historical use of obstacle-signs to construct monstrous femininity facilitated the Catholic nationalist imagining, The Magdalene Sisters enables the construction of Robinson’s new, secular postnationalism. By punishing Catholic nuns as the nuns punished sexually transgressive women, Mullan’s film eliminates these nuns, and the religious forces they represent, just as the architecture of containment eliminated those who did not conform to Catholic morality. Yet this positive reinforcement of contemporary secular Ireland is not unproblematic; it may encourage the use of history as “negative validation of the present” (Cleary 2004) whereby “Imagining the past as stagnant and repressive affirms, therefore, the new social formation of 1990s Irish society” (Smith 2007). The persistent interpretation of Mullan’s film as an indictment of deposed Catholic nuns rather than of continuing patriarchal structures eliminates the impetus to provide redress to remaining survivors and to critically evaluate remnants of Ireland’s gendered containment architecture.
This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.
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I would like to acknowledge Professor Califf of WRI 143 for going above and beyond in his guidance, through many extra discussions and meetings. I would also like to acknowledge Professor Clair Wills, Chair of the Princeton Fund for Irish Studies, for her guidance and correspondence. Finally, I would like to acknowledge my classmates in WRI 143 for their support and camaraderie throughout this semester, and particularly Jean Bellamy for reading and responding to a preliminary draft of this paper.
 There are two correct spellings of this word: Magdalene and Magdalen. In this paper, I will use the former, more popular spelling.
 Coverage can be found in The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Journal Ireland, The Irish Post, RTE News, BBC News, Daily Mail, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times.
 The Magdalene Sisters is based on the 1998 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate.
 See multiple reviews in The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Irish Times, Robert Ebert, and Variety, as well as reviews from the Catholic sources Conscience, Decent Films, and Spirituality and Practice.
 Scholars who have argued this, beyond the ones explicitly cited in this paragraph, include Luddy, Scarlata, O’Toole, and Wills. They differ in the degrees to which they interpret the nuns as monolithic monsters, but all acknowledge that the nuns come across that way in critical reviews and link this to the tropes of a commercial film genre.
 Quoted in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volume V
 Quoted in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volume V
 During our correspondence, Clair Wills, Chair of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies, encouraged me to investigate the motif of food in connection with the concept of motherly nurturing in this film.