Content warning: discussions of sexual assault
Spoiler Warning for Warrior Nun
Welcome back to my series on Warrior Nun and its depictions of trauma! (Here are parts 1, 2, and 3 for reference.) Today I will be considering the Order of the Cruciform Sword (OCS) as a power of institution and abuse and how that relates to Ava as the next Warrior Nun. While I typically write about non-survivor privilege in the context of child abuse, this piece will deal with sexual assault and rape culture in general, as that connects more explicitly to the feminist themes in Ava’s character arc.
Before discussing Ava and Mary’s interactions, (which will be the final piece in the Warrior Nun series) I want to outline a related failure of the OCS, so as to better contextualize why Mary’s methods, though rough at times, ultimately reach Ava. Ava’s primary need and primary trauma lie in her interpersonal connections as her mother’s death isolated her, leaving her an orphan trapped in a misogynistic, ableist system. The OCS, as it has traditionally operated, fails to address its exploitation of the Warrior Nuns, and this has its roots in a patriarchal power like the Catholic Church. Ava cannot trust a new community because, until episode 1×06, no community has protected her or taken her agency into consideration.
The Misogyny Embedded Into the Warrior Nun Line:
While lacking worldly knowledge about many subjects, an uninformed feminist Ava is not. Father Vincent explains the origin of the OCS to Ava in episode 1×03, ‘Ephesians 6:11’, and the narrative that he presents originates in one woman’s campaign against darkness. A thousand years ago, the religious warrior Areala received her powers from the halo as well: the angel Adriel came down from Heaven and gave her his halo to heal her fatal battle wound. Thus the first Warrior Nun was born, and the Order of the Cruciform Sword would soon follow. Additionally, the Sisters’ organization takes its names from Areala’s sword, which bears the cross in its hilt, and notably, the whole look is very phallic in symbolism. This centering of masculinity and violence permeates the OCS.
(It can be argued that appropriating masculine artifacts and Adriel’s halo to protect civilians from demons that the OCS is subverting male violence, seizing the means of power in the name of women, but that’s an argument for another time.)
Ava, likely well-read on oppression per her past comments and interests, understands gendered power dynamics and how that relates to women’s bodily autonomy. Later in 1×03, as Father Vincent shows Ava around the Cat’s Cradle, they stop outside in the front courtyard. Ava notices a male statue (presumably a priestly figure like Father Vincent) and points out the patriarchal decision to enshrine a man in stone before Areala.
They proceed to discuss Ava’s situation:
Father Vincent: “It may not have been the path you expected, but… you were both chosen for a greater purpose.”
Ava: “If by ‘chosen’ you mean someone shoved something into our bodies without permission and then was like, ‘Oh by the way, this is your life now.’”
She frames her connection to Areala and their introductions into the Warrior Nun tradition in terms of consent, and her diction conjures up imagery of violation reminiscent of sexual assault. They were both ‘chosen’ by a stranger whose action Ava characterizes as forceful and unwanted, and this is doubly so for Areala. Their bodies being vessels for the halo, which has a certain amount of consciousness since it can choose its host to a degree, deepens this interpretation because the idea that ‘this is your life now’ can be applied to a woman left pregnant after an assault.
Indeed, the myth of the halo rests upon a man’s lie and a woman’s subsequent violation and intimidation by him. While Adriel saved Areala’s life, in reality he later threatened to kill her if she exposed his villainy to her team, and him saving her life wasn’t even from an altruistic place to begin with. He needed to hide the halo from the Tarask demons, and he also wanted her troops’ loyalty for protection and muscle. The visuals around this key moment in the OCS’s history reinforce how men’s lies obfuscate women being stripped of their bodily autonomy. In the original flashback to Areala’s transformation — the glossed over revision by the Church — Adriel cradles her dying form in his arms and places the halo over her stomach, the gesture loving, gentle. In the true flashback, which Ava later sees through the halo, Adriel roughly turns Areala onto her stomach and thrusts the halo into her back as she screams in agony, the halo burning through her skin.
Adriel’s façade and the Church’s revision of Areala’s story remind me of a quote by Venetian author Moderata Fonte. Writing in the late sixteenth century, she notes, “Do you really believe […] that everything historians tell us about men — or about women — is actually true? You ought to consider the fact that these histories have been written by men, who never tell the truth except by accident,” (p. 76). The Church increased its power and tied each Warrior Nun more deeply to its institution by framing Adriel as an all-sacrificing angel.
In my opinion though, it would be reductive to describe this narrative as essentially a storyline about rape, even though Ava used such language herself. It would be more accurate to characterize Ava’s story, as I have argued for several thousand words now, as being about trauma recovery.
Trauma storylines encompass a vast array of experiences, all of which have elements that recall sexual assault, because trauma disrupts one’s personhood, regardless of how physical the trauma actually is. To be clear, I am not trying to imply that all traumas include sexual assault or that only sexual assault can be considered traumatic. Rather I am discussing how sexual violation embodies a psychological violation a person experiences when harmed by another. And in regards to Ava’s storyline, her being drugged, kidnapped, and having her clothes changed while unconscious would be interpreted by the showrunners and the general audience very differently if several male characters grabbed her. The showrunners appear to not understand the full ramifications of Ava’s mistreatment even though she herself does because, as I have said several times, it’s glaring that how the Sisters treat Ava doesn’t come up when she later reunites with the group. (Non-survivor privilege ahoy!)
Cornell University Press, when describing Ann J. Cahill’s book Rethinking Rape, writes, “The wrongness of rape, which has always eluded legal interpretation, cannot be defined as theft, battery, or the logical extension of heterosexual sex. It is not limited to a specific event, but encompasses the myriad ways in which rape threatens the prospect of feminine agency.” This elusion of language follows all forms of interpersonal trauma as targets and survivors struggle with being rendered, in some capacity, nonverbal. Survivors of abuse, when grasping for words to articulate their experiences, sometimes even use the term ‘soul rape’ to invoke how deep their psyches have been disturbed by another person’s malice. The narrative silence about Ava’s traumas at the Cat’s Cradle does not come from Ava being unable to articulate her feelings but from the showrunners not writing the words into her mouth. This absence is glaring since, towards the end of the season, Ava and Lilith acknowledged their complicated connection.
And for women in general, patriarchy’s threats to bodily autonomy remains a main theme in feminist liberation. So it makes sense that any story about a woman navigating trauma has shades of a rape narrative, as rape embodies the most visceral deprivation of agency and the potential assault that haunts women everywhere as a way to keep us in line. Scholar Cassandra J. Farrin once detailed an early Christian legend about Eve as the mother of the world. The narrative concerns Eve surviving a rape and subsequently giving birth to demons whose moral complexity mirrors mortals’ moral dilemma. Farrin’s ending thoughts on the matter resonates with stories about women’s agency like that of Ava’s, how they contrast from the typical Hero’s Journey of a male protagonist coming to power: “I find it stunning and yet strangely appropriate that [this legend] roots every human being’s personal moral struggle in this original act of rape. One could call it the feminine counterpart of Cain and Abel.”
On the subject of community, women’s collective trauma from the patriarchy and their individual traumas at the hands of individuals are abetted by the institutions that empower perpetrators. Because while Ava suffered from physical immobility, her true isolation stems from St. Michael’s Orphanage and from Sister Francis ostracizing her as a ‘burden’ and ‘cripple’, on top of murdering her peers and likely her childhood friends. When Ava resurrects, she relishes in her newfound bodily autonomy and how that impacts her agency. Thus, her comments on being the Warrior Nun and consent relate to sexual assault because she knows intimately what it’s like to not be in control of one’s body and has navigated that lack of control most of her life. Before she knows about Adriel’s deception and true intentions saving Areala, Ava recognizes the Church’s approach to Warrior Nuns’ consent and well-being. The OCS has been too cavalier for too long, and Ava cannot bond with the Sisters until she feels respected, valued as a person, and heard.
The Sisters carry out and reinforce the misogyny embedded into the Catholic church and which the OCS inherited, and the overall violence of the order destroys women when considering the short, brutal lives of each Warrior Nun and that of her Sisters. The mission of demon-hunting doggedly takes precedence over the well-being of OCS members. Thus understandably, at the end of 1×08, after learning about past Warrior Nuns and having a nightmare about Sister Shannon, Ava changes the group’s plan to stop Cardinal Duretti. She wants to destroy Adriel’s bones, the purported source of religious magic that ties demons to this world so she can end the Warrior Nun tradition. She frames her struggle as being the latest in a patriarchal chain of coercion, violation, and destruction. Later, after she discovers that Adriel is still alive, she tells him in 1×10, “I want to stop the cycle of girls like me being used, abused, and tossed away by powerful men. The Church.”
Her drive to end the intergenerational death of Warrior Nuns becomes more pointed and relevant for Ava when considering that the community she grew up in allowed for the systematic murder of orphans, having failed to properly investigate all the mysterious deaths of children under the care of Sister Francis. Having been the last in a line of murdered orphans, Ava refuses to pass on such a deathly heritage to another Warrior Nun.
Ava had killed her childhood abuser in self-defense back in 1×04, and her accepting her position as the Warrior Nun inspires her into becoming an advocate for survivors. Between 1×08 and 1×10, she approaches her mission with clarity and intent. But it takes her so long to reach this point as the Warrior Nun because the OCS does not know its own history and because the organization did not recognize Ava’s concerns about the institution.
Being a 1984 fan, Ava understands the relationship between misogyny, the fight for power and control, and manufacturing truths. She knows better than most the corruption embedded into systems of power, and that scene with Father Vincent and the statue happens before she discovers that Sister Francis murdered her and countless other orphans under her care. That revelation must have further reinforced her distrust of authority figures and the institutions that enable their abuse. She has every reason to distrust the ‘community’ that the OCS is trying to sell her.
As I will explore in the next piece, it is Shotgun Mary who reaches Ava, and she does so by approaching Ava, woman to woman. Stay tuned till then, feminists!
Images courtesy of Netflix
Have strong thoughts about this piece you need to share? Or maybe there’s something else on your mind you’re wanting to talk about with fellow Fandomentals? Head on over to our Community server to join in the conversation!