Letter to Network Challenges Image of Nuns as Crime Victims

Classic letter is model for expressing a different point of view.

Editor's Note: The following letter, after being sent to ABC-TV, was published in the Viewer's Guide Workbook for the Television Awareness Training adult education program, as an outstanding model for writing a letter of complaint to a network The letter writer did receive a polite reply from ABC; the organization she then represented no longer exists.

March 31, 1976

Mr. Frederick Pierce
President, ABC Television Network
1330 Avenue of the Americas
New York, New York 10019

Dear Mr. Pierce:

The National Sisters Communication Service, a national liaison and resource office for 140,000 Roman Catholic sisters ("nuns") in the United States, would like to express our great disappointment and even outrage about the March 21 Sunday night movie on ABC: Most Wanted, produced by Quinn-Martin Productions.

We feel, first of all, that the movie not only stereotyped sisters as naïve, innocent and faceless but in creating a story in which the nuns are rape victims, over-sensationalized rape as a sexual crime rather than an aggressive act of violence against a human person.

We would ask, for instance, whether the Most Wanted, police brain trust force that is central to the plot, would have been created if the victims were elderly women or minority women or mothers of 2-year-olds or telephone operators or any other "group" of women besides nuns? The fact that the city councilman and the press bring pressure on the police department because "Brides of Christ" (an outdated pre-Vatican II theological concept, by the way) has been violated and murdered leads the viewer to believe that it is somehow a worse crime to rape a nun than to rape any other woman. We reject this concept totally and consider it a storyline that insults all women, for whom rape is not just a physical danger but a violent attack on one's very own personhood.

In addition to the basic storyline concept, we must also fault Most Wanted, for passing up a marvelous opportunity to make a positive contribution to women viewers, using the story to provide information about rape defense. The scene in which this could have been done easily is when the detective (Robert Stack) comes to the "convent" to speak to a group of sisters about defending themselves against the rapist-murder. The scene is set, the opportunity is available, but is failed in several ways.

First, the detective is not only patronizing and protective, but, in actuality, gives absolutely no clear information about defense, other than to scream or hit with a heavy book. It would seem more logical that the communities of sisters would have organized workshops in self defense given by women's groups or at least a woman police officer, instead of just sitting demurely in a straight-backed chairs listening to a fatherly male detective's words of caution.

Secondly, the portrayal of the sisters as naïve and nervously laughing like school girls leads to a false impression that sisters are not mature adult women, but rather, repressed adolescents. In addition, by zooming in on the sisters, eyes cast down at the suggestion that they might have to submit to the rapist to avoid being killed, this scene reinforces the concept of rape as a sexual experience, which it is not, rather than a physical assault, which it is. Furthermore, the detective's "advice," by not being specific, borders on innuendo, thus titillating the late-night viewing audience, who, in turn, laugh at the nuns' naiveté.

A third aspect of the film continues this undertone of sex vs. naïve innocence. To have the sister, who was raped but not killed, upset over "the potential life she might be carrying" was simply not believable. Rape is an assault and a nun would be treated medically as any other woman victim so that there would be no worry of pregnancy as a result of the rape. We regret that there was no information given in this scene, or anywhere in the film, about rape crisis clinics or other self-help programs developed by women to serve all rape victims.

No, instead, the detective continues his fatherly role, even dispensing moral advice to the distraught sister. Later, in order to trap the rapist, he indicates that she has been sent on "retreat" alone. Both of these scenes leave the impression that the sister is totally alone in dealing with the reality of her assault. There is no indication of the loving supportive community of women who would sustain her psychologically and emotionally if the event had happened in real life. The absence of such a community in the film leads to a further distortion of the life of women religious as cold, disciplined and lonely.

Finally we want to say something about the dress of the supposed "nuns" in the film. For the most part they wore contemporary, but subdued and tailored dress with a short veil. One of the first signs of renewal in the Church was to separate a sister's mode of dress from her ministry or her work as a woman in the Church. Consequently, many sisters today do not wear a veil or any kind of distinctive dress. But in the film, the wearing of the veil seemed essential to the story — how else would the rapist know whom to rape? May we suggest that if the story actually happened, the existence of such an attacker would be cause enough for the sisters to stop wearing their veils in public and to dress as inconspicuously as possible. Even in days of the traditional habit, sisters did not hesitate to abandon it when wearing it might have endangered their lives.

In addition to these aspects of the story involving sisters, we would like to mention the limited character development of the young woman on the brain trust team, the clinical psychologist. At the beginning she is identified as a top-notch clinical psychologist and an experienced police woman as well. She is hired because "she's the best." But as the story develops, she is portrayed as vacillating, having to "check things out" with another psychologist — a male — because she's "not sure." The other male members of the brain trust do not defer to others in this way, why should she? We find her development as a character as stereotyped and offensive as the portrayal of the sister-characters.

In summary, we found the plot, the characters and the whole development of Most Wanted, not just inadequate or stereotyped but totally unbelievable and demeaning to women, especially women religious. We find it regrettable that ABC, which has had the reputation of being somewhat sensitive to women and women's issues, seems to have sold out to sexual sensationalism by buying and airing Most Wanted.

As for the future, we want to inform you that the National Sisters Communication Service, staffed by professional sister-communicators, is available to help the media portray the roles of women in the Church accurately and fairly. Our Los Angeles location makes us easily accessible as consultants to producers such as Quinn-Martin and even to writers in the early script stages. We would, of course, much prefer having input on a production as early as possible, rather than simply writing letters of complaint after the fact. In addition, we feel that our values are in solidarity with other women who find themselves imaged in stereotypes and therefore would be pleased to serve as a sounding board for questions of taste, values or image concerning the portrayal of women, the elderly and others that are too often stereotyped and voiceless.

Furthermore, we call your attention to the recently issued Entertainment Programming and Advertising Checklist developed by the Media Committee of the Presidential Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year and ask that ABC adopt the Commission's Checklist as guidelines for your network programming. Pertinent to this letter are two of the guidelines:


  • Is the exploitative "Woman as Victim" theme the main entertainment value of your piece? Is she the hapless object of brutalizing forces? Does she make things worse by making panicky choices? Would the piece work just as well if a man were in her shoes?


  • If a rape is shown, is it dealt with as a basically sexual experience, which it is not, or as a physical assault, which it is?

We would appreciate your sending copies of this letter to the appropriate ABC offices that would find it informative and/or helpful. Thank you.


Sister Elizabeth Thoman, CHM

P.S. For your information, copies of this letter are being sent to the following:

    *Broadcasting and Film Commission, National Council of Churches
    *United States Catholic Conference, Department of Communications
    *National Organization of Women, Media Committee
    *Media Committee of the Presidential Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year as well as to the sisters' organizations in our own constituency:
    *Leadership Conference of Women Religious
    *National Sisters Vocation Conference
    *Sister Formation Conference
    *National Assembly of Women Religious
    *National Coalition of American Nuns