By Meghan Hebbard
If you like The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll love The Magdalene Sisters. After studying abroad in Ireland for a semester, I have come out with a much better understanding and appreciation for Irish films. Although there is a lot to say about Irish cinema, one of my favorite films that I saw while abroad was The Magdalene Sisters (2002). This was the film that really made me appreciate my Irish cinema class, because it made me realize that without enrolling in this course, I would not have otherwise known about an incredibly interesting and equally disturbing era of Irish (and world) history.
The Magdalene Sisters is based off of true events, focusing on three young women who are put in a Magdalene Asylum (or Magdalene Laundry) in 1964. These asylums, which were also located in Australia, Canada, England, and even the United States, were first opened in Ireland in 1839 and not closed until 1996. These asylums housed “fallen women” or women who were deemed immoral in some way and needed “to work out their sins” similar to Mary Magdalene in the Bible who “den[ied] all pleasures of the flesh including and sleep” to work hard labour to get into heaven, as Sister Bridget in the film states.1 This laundries were funded but not overseen by the Irish government, making the Catholic church, which was extremely corrupt and feel of sex and abuse scandals at this time, completely in charge of thousands of women, most of whom never left these laundries.
The film focuses on Margaret, who is locked up shortly after being raped, Bernadette, who is accused of being a temptress, and Rose, a young girl who has a child out of wedlock and is forced to give it up for adoption. All of these reasons for locking up a woman are wrong, but I find Bernadette’s to be the most interesting.
When we first meet Bernadette, she is seen being flirted with by a number of boys. She is mostly passive in this conversation, but refuses to kiss any of them. Though, her hand remains on her lips the whole time, an act that is arguably sexual. This alone convinces others that she is a threat to the men around her, and that she could possibly tempt the men into straying from God. The most ponderable quote of the film comes from two girls who speak to Bernadette before she is locked up.
As they brush her hair, one of them asks her “isn’t it a sin to be beautiful?” Bernadette responds by saying “no[…] it’s a sin to be vain”, whether you agree with that statement or not is your own opinion, but I’d argue that this film is making a commentary in relation to this. At this time, to be beautiful was equivalent to being vain, and in that way, it is a sin to be beautiful. Because of this, Bernadette must be taken out of society and punished. At one point in the film, Bernadette attempts to escape, and when she is found, the nuns hold her down as they cut off her hair as punishment. This way, they get what they always wanted from this girl, to take away her beauty, the thing that once gave this girl happiness and strength.
I’d recommend this film to anyone who likes films about strong women, especially if you are like me, and had no idea about the existence of these laundries in the first place. This film forces us to question how society sees women, particularly because these horrible events only happened such a short time ago.