Called to Watch The Sisterhood

When I was in first grade I went home and told my mother that the principal of my school, Sr. Loretelle, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I also said she smelled good (I actually remember this and I still would argue she smelled good! I looked her up online to confirm how to spell her name, and sadly discovered she passed away in 2006). One of the best teachers I ever had was in third grade, Sr. Berenice, also at St. Fabian in Farmington Hills, MI. This is to say I have always had a thing for nuns. So when Lifetime-- yes the same network that also brings you Dance Moms-- started advertising The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, I knew I was in.

Sisterhood and Sr. Beth Ann

This show drew me in like few others, and I think this is partly because the show seemed real (in most respects, not all of course) and opened a window into an area of life many don't know or understand. Having attended Catholic school for 12 years (as I write about here), I already knew about agape love, vows, sacraments, etc. But watching this show as a mother in my 30s I understood in a way I hadn't before that becoming a nun is like becoming a wife and mother. Just as you don't expect a wedding at 21 to work out terribly well, neither will joining a convent end well. Women need time to "date" the Church and a community, be engaged, and plan a wedding. These things rightly should take years and not six weeks.

So that's the first way in which the show isn't the most real. Discernment isn't six weeks long, that was for a reality show.

The other way in which I felt the show was contrived was with the appearance of Eseni Ellington. I joked on Twitter that OF COURSE I find a pageant connection, even here. While it was never mentioned on the show, she has competed in Miss New York USA several times. I wonder if joining a convent ever came up in her judges' interview?! I don't want to question anyone's true intentions, especially with a matter like this, but with her red acrylic nails (that miraculously-- pun intended-- stayed for SIX weeks), boyfriend drama (more on that in a second), and penchant for stirring the pot I think Eseni and/or the producers had their own agenda. Turns out that the boyfriend, Darnell Robinson has over 134,000 followers on Twitter, and has a reality TV history of his own, appearing on MTV's My Super Sweet 16 back in the day as he is the son of the president of Sugarhill Records. Reality TV worlds collide.

As for the other women, they clearly were on a very real journey. It's clear that some started out further along in the process, like Claire and Christie, and others have some journeying to do in other ways. I found it interesting that some of the women's families, like Stacey, have hopes that at least one of their children will lead a religious life. This seems like it might be a lot of pressure (in a way joining the family business of medicine or law isn't). In fact, Stacey posted on Twitter last night that she has decided God is calling her to be a wife and mother.

On that note, as someone who consumes a great deal of reality TV, I appreciated that the show was filmed so recently and brought to air. Filming in August and airing in November is great-- especially when you watch shows on Bravo like Real Housewives of New Jersey that air almost a year after filming. I also appreciated that all five women and many of the nuns are on Twitter and shared their thoughts (including break-out star Sr. Beth Anne).

I found Sr. Beth Anne's comment that women today have so many choices ever so true (and, pageants connection again, I say something similar). This shows that women who join really know they want to do it. They aren't running away from something (a la Sound of Music Maria). Religious women, like Sr. Beth Ann, were portrayed as multi-faceted in a way that reminded me a bit of the sisters portrayed in one of my favorite BBC shows, Call the Midwife.

If there is a season 2-- either with some of these women or with others-- I think the producers should give a bit more detail about the steps to becoming a nun. Like, beyond discernment there is postulancy, then novitiate, vows, perpetual vows (let's hope this mom who just lit Hanukkah candles got that right). The sociologist in me always finds hierarchy interesting and I'd like more beyond "it takes a long time." I would also love to see a religious order that doesn't wear the habit. As was alluded to the 60s saw turmoil in the sisterhood and I thought it was off that all three orders shown wear a habit when so many no longer do that. US nuns have always been a bit "out there" (check out an unrelated article from just this week in the Times about the Vatican's ongoing investigations into American convents).

On a final note, I'd love to get a sense of how much competition there is among religious orders in the US for new nuns. It was clear that Sr. Beth Ann's order is almost desperate for sisters, saying they have been praying for more. While they say that they sometimes refuse some women, I am guessing when a women is serious about becoming a nun she could have orders fighting over/for her?

Now I need to go learn how many religious orders for sisters there are in the US. Anyone know?! All fodder for Season 2, Lifetime! More of this, less Abby Lee, please.

Teaching for a LIFETIME: My thoughts on Dance Moms, Bring It!, and Kim of Queens

Welcome to the world of Anti-Abby Lee Millers... Ironically brought to you by the network that made her famous, Lifetime. Building off the success (or infamy) of Dance Moms (a show I've written about quite a bit), the network debuted two new series this year: Kim of Queens and Bring It! Given the descent of Dance Moms into madness (it's one of the few "reality" shows where I believe some of the cast members truly hate one another, as evidenced by the arrest of Kelly Hyland), I guess it makes sense that someone had to be waiting in the wings and the network doesn't want to come off like Bravo, only creating drama-filled shows to make people famous. Dance Moms has become so divorced from reality with parents engaging in such egregious behavior that you have to think their contracts are so lucrative/ironclad that it's not worth stopping, or the only way to get off the show is to commit assault. In any case, I can't believe the show has made the players into stars,  as opposed to the negative backlash caused by Toddlers & Tiaras for many families. I mean, they now show the Dance moms (even relatively sane Holly!) painting on abs and arm muscles on their girls-- how is this any different from spray tans? I've asked this before because there are so many similarities between dance competitions and child beauty pageants for young girls, but so many more do dance that by sheer numbers it's not as marginalized as kiddie pageants. On top of the musculature-enhancing make-up, this year/season the girls often wear costumes with enhanced bust (though some are hitting puberty), which is also uncomfortable to watch at times. Also, the fact that sisters Maddie and Mackenzie (oh, excuse me, Mack Z!) are now homeschooled shows how far off the priorities have become and they are truly not kids living a competitive life, but performers 24/7. Despite all this drama, the show has managed to become boring because it's so formulaic. I for one would never want to go to a competition where the show is filming (for fear of rigging, delays, privacy issues, etc.); although I will admit that the show did give me a glimpse of one of my dance crushes, Blake McGrath, even if he did take a presumably large paycheck to work for Crazy Cathy, so I'm grateful for that

When Kim of Queens started I was initially a bit turned off-- and assumed they were looking to create a new Abby (and to fill the void creating by the cancelled Toddlers & Tiaras). With Kim Gravel portraying herself as country I thought she was trying to horn in on the Honey Boo Boo crowd as well. If that angle drew viewers initially though, it wasn't what made them (or me) stay because despite having contrived story lines and bring a bit silly at times, it became extremely clear that Coach Kim loves all her Pageant Place girls and truly wants the best for them. Her big heart (and voice and personality) and tears made for compelling viewing and her emphasis on growth, loss, and the long-term goal/win as opposed to the short-term win/title/crown was a refreshing message.  I of course know the show was staged-- especially so many of the gags with her own family-- and I disliked the way Kin of Queens brought in new girls all the time because the recruits didn't stick around often and it created extra drama when the natural story was more interesting. But overall it was a nice message, and for that reason the series hasn't been as big of a hit. I know Kim isn't always PC, but her comment about clogging being "tapping with hooves," made me laugh. Her aversion to clogging (even trying to transform it into Irish dance) is one example of her outsize personality and wackiness coming from a place of helpfulness and not pure egotism.


Dianna Williams of Lifetime's other new series, which has done well enough to warrant to additional episodes at the end of its run, including a sit-down reunion special, is similar. She is much tougher and even less diplomatic than Kim Gravel, but her students, the Dancing Dolls, face even bigger challenges (the fact that one of the girls' moms became a grandmother at 28 gives you a sense of the challenges in this community). I love that Dianna says she is preparing her "girls" for life and trying to teach them life lessons, which as you know I believe is possible through competitive activities and competitive dance, if done in a healthy way. Bring It! features a hop hop majorette team, which is a style of dance associated with the African-American community and affiliated with many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The producers often defined dance terms and moves, which even differ from more "traditional" dance. At times I thought talk of "technique" was a bit of a stretch but chalked it up to a different style; but in the finale when a dance team aficionado who was judging complained about the lack of pointed toes I realized the Dancing Dolls were a bit lacking. That said, it was interesting to learn about a new type of dance and all the different categories of competition. The "stand battle" was the biggest component, but there were field dances, captain's dances, burlesque, character, etc. I am sure it is much more complicated than the show let on even so I'd love an insider's perspective! The other refreshing thing about the show was that the body was portrayed in a much less self-conscious way. Compared to the thin Dance Moms girls who paint on muscles, the Bring It! girls embrace their bodies whatever their size and dance with energy and enthusiasm as well (note that this is well known to be more common in the African-American community and black girls/women have fewer incidences of eating disorders and body image problems). I didn't always understand the costume selections, but there is clearly a tradition there. However, my biggest pet peeve was the ripped fishnet stockings and the dance tights showing over the top of the costume pants. That said, the fact many of the girls had to wear "nude" stockings for a different skin tone shows that dance companies should make colors in a wider variety of shades.

While Dance Moms is now so popular it is basically never on hiatus-- constantly doing clips specials and now creating a second team, and a THIRD series starring Abby!-- I'll be tuning in to the shows that feature more positive performance coaches with a more realistic and valuable message. Be sure to check them out, especially if you don't like Dance Moms!