The Magdelene Sisters

A couple of years ago, I saw the brilliant movie The Magdalene Sisters, which looked at the portrayal of less-than-chaste women in that bastion of liberal values, Ireland in the 1960’s. The treatment of the women in the movie enraged me so much that I spew over it to this day.

The movie centres around three women who are sent to the Magdalene Sisters laundry, a set-up by the Catholic Church which takes in “˜fallen women’ and uses them for slave labour in return for a hard bed, a blanket and the most basic of meals. Rose, who is the most “˜fallen’, committed the ultimate sin of having a child out of wedlock, a child who is literally torn from her arms as she’s packed off to the laundrette. Margaret is raped by her cousin, whose punishment amounts to a clip on the ear, while Margaret is shipped off to the laundrette, either because it was her fault for “˜encouraging’ her cousin, or because, even if it was his fault, now that she’s no longer a virgin, she’s damaged goods. Bernadette is an orphan who likes to flirt – but is presumably a virgin – which is good enough to see her packed off, too.

There is a secondary character, Crispina, who is intellectually disabled and has been sent to the laundrette because she had a child out of wedlock; this may be because it is deemed she can’t take care of herself, because she’s a “˜fallen’ woman, or because she’s worthless now she’s not a virgin. Crispina’s banishment to the laundrette is particularly galling because she is intellectually disabled. It says that when such women are taken advantage of – women with the intellects of young girls but the bodies of young women – by men, seducers or rapists, the woman is at fault somehow, the woman needs to be locked up.

In all four cases, the women are punished where the men (presumably; we never see what happens to them) get off scot-free. The father of Rose’s baby probably walked off whistling at news of the pregnancy, dumping the problem entirely on her. The boys who flirted with Bernadette aren’t chastised for their participation in the flirtation. The cousin who raped Margaret was probably treated as a pariah by his family, but protected by the family to outsiders because that’s what the Church does, it protects its men. While the movie doesn’t go into Crispina’s back story, I assume she had a similar tale of one-sided treatment.

Of course, the Magdalene Sisters are a women-only sect of the Catholic Church, presumably set up to atone for the sins of Mary Magdelene, who apparantly represents fallen women who tempt pure, virtuous men into sexual misconduct. Apparently that’s the only circumstances where women are allowed to run the show in the Church, if they’re fully willing to repent for the sins of said fallen women.

The girls, along with the other “˜fallen’ women of the laundrette, are virtually slaves. They are locked up, and even if they did escape, they’d be known as the fallen women from Magdalene. In some cases, they go there to die. One subplot sees a woman basically die of old age in this institution. This isn’t a place where they “˜take care’ of women until they’re of legal age; this is a place where they “˜take care’ of “˜fallen’ women until a respectable male relative comes to claim them, or they die.

The nuns who run the laundrette are rotten pieces of work. The laundrette makes a fair amount of money, and the Head Sister wields a lot of power. She torments the girls because she can. Over the decades, she’s become drunk on her power. I’m sure she started off much nicer, but years and years of absolute power have turned this woman, and most of the other Sisters, into cruel tyrants, just as it often does with men.

Understandably, even after they finally escaped, none of the three main characters enjoyed emotional stability in their lives. The final scene suggests that they were never comfortable with authority, and probably never really comfortable with men. Three perfectly good lives – not to mention all the other women caught in such terrible circumstances – gone to waste.

In all fairness, the movie itself did not outrage me in the sense of its characterisations. I could fully understand why the Sisters had become such tyrants, and I understood the social context that had seen the girls be sent to the laundrette.

And the girls are far from victims. Bernadette attempts to run away at every available opportunity; having her beloved hair chopped off, or being whipped, or forced to scrub toilets, is not going to stop her from scheming her next getaway. When Bernadette becomes something of a bully herself, Margaret stands up to her, and encourages the other girls to stand up to her. Rose continually asks about her child, even in the face of swift and brutal rejection, and uses innovative negotiation when called for.

That’s probably what I liked about this movie, why I remembered it; even in the face of such repression, they had spirit. They were determined to get out, and they did. There’s a saying; it’s not your fault if you become a victim; it is your fault if you stay one. The girls in The Magdalene Sisters are victims of Irish Catholic society; women who are judged as fallen because they have a child out of wedlock, because they are raped by their cousin, because they like to flirt. But while Catholic Ireland may have made them victims and put them in the laundrette, they made their own salvation.


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