Sunday, January 25, 2009

Doubt and Gender

Doubt is an excellent film that portrays complex characters handeling a crisis during a time of change in one of the most male-dominated, sexist institutions in history--the Catholic Church. This film takes place during the 1960s when liberal Catholics were making progress by creating a Church that was modern in its outlook. The film portrays the different ways men and women use their power in the Church and how a conflict between a man and woman is resolved with the imbalance of power.

The priest, Father Flynn, is the character who thinks the Church needs to be more open and welcoming. The priest is the one who tries to make the sermons relevant to modern life and it is he who avoids simplistic black and white views of morality and faith. The priest is the only one who goes out of his way to build a relationship with the first black boy in school (who is gay).

The priest protects the young man from being displaced as an altar boy when he is caught drinking wine, an act of kindness and forgiveness that the tradition-favoring Sister Aloysius Beauvier does not find acceptable. The priest wants to redefine the roles of the clergy in the community and attempts to bridge the gap between the secular, modern world and the Catholic faith community. The priest passionately advocates for a church that is built on a love for humanity over one that sees itself primarily as an institution about control and discipline.

Father Flynn's demeanor and methods give credibility to the idea that men in power can be kind and understanding and still be effective leaders. He also defies stereotypical behavior for men and is not at all apologetic for it. Sister Beuvier, and others, thinks it is strange that he keeps his nails long (because it is "womanly") and for keeping pastel-colored flowers in his bible. There is definitely a fear of homosexuality present, which to some automatically implies pedophilia.

Most of his personality traits challenge the rigid way we think about gender; tellingly, this is one of the reasons he is accused of abusing the young boy. And he admirably encourages the young nun to not stop caring so much for her students, even though others may misinterpret things. But the priest is no feminist. It is he who takes the nun's seat in HER office when she invites him to a meeting to interrogate him. And he is the one who chastises her for going against the Church hierarchy by contacting a fellow nun in his previous parish instead of the parish's priest.

The movie also depicts the ways women use their roles in the Church and it is interesting to note how this could influence society's perception of women in positions of power. My father often rehashes the ways in which the nuns in his Catholic school in the 1960s would use humiliation in front of peers as a method of controlling students. Great films like The Magdalene Sisters showcase the way many nuns unfairly treated those they were given control of, often resorting to all kinds of abuse and manipulation. It is easy to stereotype them, and for some, to draw conclusions about what their behavior means about giving any power to women in general. Doubt effectively avoided playing into that stereotype by having different sisters with different personalities.

Meryl Streep gives a phenomenal performance playing an authoritarian nun who values order and tradition while simultaneously defying the Church hierarchy by independently investigating her suspicions of a priest abusing power. And while one may find flaws with Streep's unflinching character, she is still portrayed as a strong woman who isn't afraid to follow her convictions to the right thing and protect innocent children from what she perceives to be a threat.

Her strong will may ultimately be a weakness, but it is a trait that is most often associated positively with powerful men and she never attempts to abuse that power. However, it is important to question whether or not she would have been less hell-bent on being one hundred percent sure of her suspicions and may have been open to a more effective approach to dealing with every one involved in the scandal if she had more official power and room for maneuvering to begin with. She knowingly makes a comment in the beginning that she is unable to do things another way because she is a woman and will not be taken seriously.

For the vast majority of the movie she does not even admit to having the smallest doubt about what she believes because she knows that any sing of supposed weakness on her part would be used to discredit her all together. Father Flynn delivers the powerful sermon in which he declares that doubt is as strong of a bond with the divine as unflinching faith is. He is also continuously willing to take more risks with his clerical functions but his sex has given him the freedom to do so, while Beuvier must be careful out of necessity. One leaves the theatre wondering how things may change if women are given more power in the Church and society overall. Although the film was set in the 1960s, the issues it presents regarding gender and institutional power is just as relevant today as it was over forty years ago.

Francesca Casamento is an active member of Younger Women's Taskforce (NYC Metro Chapter).

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