Did you ever notice that when a fantasy or sci-fi story includes female priests or female religious leaders, the religion is almost always a pagan or pagan-like one? Why is that? Perhaps it’s because in a lot of a fiction, especially within the fantasy genre, the mythology of a fictional world incorporates or is based on some type of religious belief. Because writers so often use religion to build their fictional universes, it’s possible that when creating their own fictional religions, they feel they need to remain true at least to the spirit or structure of the religion on which they are basing their fictional religion.
I don’t know about structure, but I certainly hope writers don’t feel as if the spirit of my faith, Catholicism, is all just patriarchy and female oppression. Despite this, I have never read, watched, or heard of a fictional religion based on Catholicism which features women as priests, bishops, or even, dare I say, the Pope.
On this site, we have often talked about how pop culture can change people’s perceptions and how minority groups deserve to see themselves in pop culture. This is especially true when it comes to leadership positions. It’s important that a diverse group of people are shown in these positions—in Star Trek, for example, Janeway and Sisko were extremely important because they show that such a leadership position can be held by someone who isn’t a white male. Even if there were more minority characters, it wouldn’t make a significant difference if none of them were leaders. Lack of minority leaders would still be recognized as a huge problem.
But when it comes to portraying religion in pop culture, women are almost never shown to be in leadership roles. Now for fiction that is based in realism, this makes a little more sense—for the most part. However, I would question why religions that have female religious leaders aren’t featured more often in our pop culture. Within geek culture, I find it utterly inexcusable that the only time female leaders are ever featured are in pagan religions or religions inspired by paganism. This is probably because many new and old pagan faiths do have priestesses (though paganism isn’t without its own issues when it comes to sexism, which I won’t get into here). When creating a fictional fantasy universe it’s true that many stories base their universe’s mythology on paganism, and that’s fine. But I have to wonder why, on the rare occasion that Catholic or a Catholic-inspired religion is used, it is still predominantly controlled and run by men. In a fictional universe there is no reason that an author should have to hold to the modern-day sexist understanding that only men can be priests.
In the movie The Fifth Element, the priests who worship the fifth element seem to be some offshoot of Christianity. Fr. Vito Cornelius and his protege are both referred to as priests and called “Father”, a title often given to priests. Fr. Cornelius is also seen making the sign of the cross in the movie. Yet despite being a fictional branch of Christianity, the writers never give any indication that women are also a part of this order; if they are, certainly none are ever shown. Furthermore, there is one scene at the beginning of the movie that shows leaders from all different religions acting as moral advisors to the president. Not one leader is a woman.
Babylon 5 is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi shows because it actually gets into alien culture and religion. The Minbari are aliens whose religion is discussed in depth in the show. Their beliefs and practices are shown on the show and even on occasion brought up as major plot points, and they feature female religious leaders! Yay! But then the Christians visit. In the episode “Passing Through Gethsemane”, a group of monks of an unidentified Christian order come aboard the space station. While the episode is actually excellent and I highly recommend it, there are, once again, no Christian female religious leaders.
Why is there not a fictional universe set in a medieval-like world where the Catholic Church is actually run by women? Why isn’t there a sci-fi story that shows a Catholic Church in the future that has finally abandoned its sexist notions about female priests and actually has female leaders? Granted, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to write something like this without thoroughly researching and understanding Catholicism and Christianity; otherwise a writer risks being disrespectful. But just because this would require effort doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Our pop culture can change how we think and view the world. Having more stories with female religious leaders would show people that having female religious leaders isn’t going to be the downfall of religion! Instead, it will help people realize that not only will women be just as good at being religious leaders as men, but that they can also add something new, and maybe even better, to their faith.