- The Politics of Religious Parody
Melissa M. Wilcox
New York: New York University Press, 2018. xx + 289 pp.
Queer Nuns is a major accomplishment in the study of religion and sexuality. It models engagement with a phenomenon that exceeds the merely religious using the tools of religious and sexuality studies as well as ethnography: attention to the political and community-shaping aspects of affective engagements with structures of great symbolic power. Yet this important, comprehensive, and readable study also relies heavily on a theoretical model that communicates its content in its name—"serious parody"—while sometimes having recourse to predetermined ethical standards that overwrite what can be seen with what is already known in advance.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are an order of queer nuns often encountered at Pride marches, rallies, and fundraisers. They use spectacular, memorable iconography (drag, whiteface, and transformed, predominantly Catholic religious symbolism) to transmit their message: the "promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt" (xii). Typically working on safer sex practices, HIV-AIDS activism, and against whorephobia, the Sisters use "serious parody" as "an activist strategy [that] . . . simultaneously critiques and reclaims cultural traditions in the interest of supporting the lives and political objectives of marginalized groups" (2). The seriousness of the parody reflects the Sisters' insistence that they are real nuns, while the parody reflects that these primarily (but not exclusively) gay male nuns use camp as an activist tactic for political critique.
Queer Nuns examines the history of the Sisters and their associates, the less spectacular, leather-garbed Guards, from their beginnings in 1970s San Francisco to the present. Wilcox explores the nuns' past and present through the multidimensionality of their religious and spiritual, racial, geographic, and gendered practices, looking at the intersection between race and whiteface, Islamophobia and parody, and the effect of gender presentation on audience reception, to name just a few examples. Chapter 5, on serious parody and the sacred, would alone be [End Page 312] worth the price of the volume for the insights it offers into queer negotiations with the religious-secular-spiritual options found in the Christian-dominated, nominally secular West. Wilcox argues that while scholars of performance have considered the "ludic" (Sara Warner) aspects of queer political struggle, the seriousness of certain queer parodies, like that of the Sisters, has been underplayed. Scholars opting to emphasize either the parodic nature of their activism or the religious nature of their parody fail to give adequate attention to "the intersections of religion, queerness, activism, and performance" that emerge when "taking serious parody seriously" (222).
Given the weight serious parody has to carry, the concept remains surprisingly rough, sketched out in little more detail than provided by the nomenclature. What determines when a parody is serious, or what does it mean to take serious parody seriously? Affect and self-reported intention appear to be primary determinants of seriousness, which puts pressure on the depth of analysis that the concept can offer. The weight given to seriousness arguably implies an underlying liberal humanism that determines the ethical value of an act by the degree to which it reflects depth or authenticity rather than superficial frivolity. A surprisingly Protestant or even Pietist model of conviction thus returns to trouble a practice, camp, that has often been thought to abolish the priority of the serious over the frivolous. Wilcox might fairly respond that her point is the interplay between the two, which undoes any clear distinctions between sacred and secular, or indeed the serious and the parodic themselves (210). Yet a question about the implied relation between seriousness and the properly political remains.
Wilcox argues that serious parody "can either challenge or reinscribe existing relations of power, and it often does both at once" (3). In this formula, "existing relations of power" become static and transparent, despite the nod to complexity provided by Wilcox's central insight that "[a]mbiguity . . . may be the key to subversion" (172). Throughout, different dimensions of dominance and minoritization appear clear and calculable, even plottable on a grid that allows the striation and separation of different effects (as on 139).
This clarity becomes challenging as...