The Scandal of Sister George

The Scandal of Sister George

By: Jackie Chambers, Board Member

Scandals are guilty pleasures. Think of all the news stories we eagerly follow about public figures behaving badly. Isn’t there something satisfying in the shocking revelation? That politician with the happy, photogenic family has been hiding dark secrets; that glamorous marriage of movie stars is really fraying at the seams—it makes the people we perceive as “perfect” seem more like us ordinary flawed folk. Or even makes us feel we are morally superior to those fallen idols.

But what makes a scandal scandalous? People violate rules, even commit crimes, without causing scandal. Scandal comes when our heroes, our role models, fail to live up to the high standards we set for them. Someone has to be on a pedestal in the first place in order to fall.

We might share rumors about whether Helen Mirren has “had work done,” but it isn’t much of a scandal—unless you are offended by a woman who dares to be confident and beautiful at 70. We might have been shocked the first time Kanye West jumped onto a stage and interrupted someone else’s performance, but by now people hardly pay attention at all.

We reserve true outrage for those who betray our faith and shatter our perceptions, who reveal the vast difference between public image—often carefully cultivated—and the real person. That outrage is justified when a public figure has abused public trust to do wrong and hurt others, and tried to shield themselves from the consequences. Scandals from Teapot Dome to the Joe Paterno case litter our history.

So what of the bad behavior and scandal that bring June’s life and career crashing down in “The Killing of Sister George?” June becomes “George”—taking on a name that both suggests her stereotypically masculine behavior (and echoes the pseudonyms adopted by other women in public life like George Eliot and George Sand) and represents the insipidly virtuous character she portrays.

June doesn’t just defy gender stereotypes of her day—and that alone could attract hostility—she fails to be the George the public expects. The public wants her to embody the character she plays, an impossible expectation that has soured many an actor who gets “typecast.” Just failing to live up to the standard might upset fans, but the “real George” turns out to be almost the complete opposite of her character—abrasive, mean, and abusive, the sort of person who attacks nuns.

Do unrealistic expectations mean that she isn’t responsible for her (truly bad) behavior? Of course not. Do her transgressions entitle others to treat her badly in turn? Of course not. In some sense, “The Killing of Sister George” is a tragedy—June, clinging desperately to her fictional character and the shreds of her disintegrating career and personal life, acts in ways that inevitably deepen the anger and scandal around her. There isn’t a graceful exit for George. Being true to herself (as we’re so often told is the higher path), doesn’t help her find her way at all—it just puts her, figuratively speaking, in the path of a 10-ton truck.

When the next public scandal appears (go ahead and check your newsfeed, I’ll wait… you’ll probably find two or three new ones brewing), take a moment to reflect on the roles we all play in those titillating conversations. How do our personal and collective expectations shape our judgement? The sins belong to those who commit them, but the scandals… we make those for ourselves.

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