The Religious Repression of Lesbian Desire in ‘Disobedience’, ‘Thelma’, and ‘Novitiate’

The repressive nature of religion leaves deep impressions upon each of their lives in their starvation for touch, their fragile, suppressed identities, their insecurities, and their inability to accept their romantic and sexual desires.


Religion provides a peaceful shelter for the stoically quiet Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) in Novitiate. Needing a place to hide from her devolving mother and splintering home life, she spends long afternoons after Catholic school hiding in the pews of their church. Becoming a nun is the opposite of what her non-religious mother wants for her, and it’s exactly what Cathleen thinks she needs. For Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Thelma (Eili Harboe), in Disobedience and Thelma respectively, their religions are simply what they’ve always known. When imploring her husband, Dovid, to grant her freedom, Esti reminds him that she was born into the community and, quite unfairly, had no choice. With her agency just as limited as Esti’s, Thelma was raised in a relatively isolated home with her two religious parents. When hanging out with Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and her friends for the first time, Thelma is asked why she is drinking Coke and nothing alcoholic, leading her to explain her Christian upbringing. Despite Anja’s non-religious friends being thrown by it all, Thelma insists that it’s all she has ever known. 

In Novitiate, silence is manipulated into actual religious practice. In the Reverend Mother’s (Melissa Leo) welcoming speech to the postulants, she describes the two forms of silence that the nuns practice: regular and grand. During regular silence, talking is permitted, while in the mandated hours of grand silence, speaking and any sort of verbal noise is absolutely forbidden. Sign language is allowed during grand silence, but it’s still an incredibly repressive time. This is enforced by the sisters, mostly the Reverend Mother, with corporal punishment — among other things, this includes forcing the postulants to recite endless Hail Marys as they drag themselves across the stone floors of the monastery. These young girls, hardly out of high school, are completely stripped of their individuality and their voices. The warm, sweet light they each effuse at the beginning of the film is slowly extinguished as they feel the full extent of the Reverend Mother’s oppressiveness. She violently berates them for breathing in the wrong direction, calls them fat, impudent, sinful, and horrible, tearing them apart in every way she possibly can and relishing in making them sob. 

Once they become novices, as a means of peeling apart individuality in the name of religious perfection, the Reverend Mother forces the girls to name every single fault that they find in themselves. Then, the girls are told to pick apart the faults they find in each other. It’s a method of forcing them into another type of silence: the voicelessness that a body wracked by sobs produces after being instigated into shedding any personal identity. It is completely torturous.  

In Disobedience, Esti’s marriage to Dovid is synonymous with her silence, which very much mirrors the novices’ position as brides of Christ. After she and Ronit (Rachel Weisz) were discovered to be lovers, Ronit was exiled while Esti was left alone to drift aimlessly through their community. To prove her innocence and devotion to fixing herself, she was forced into a heterosexual marriage with their male best friend — it was believed that marriage would cure her of her attraction to women. She, like Cathleen, sheds her identity and voice for her religion. Esti directly verbalizes this at the Shabbat dinner, where she says that women change their names and lose their own history when they get married. Her repression has become so internalized that even when Ronit asks her directly if she still only fancies women, she cannot give her a real response — merely nodding and making a soft sound of agreement. Breaking her silence would mean having to acknowledge her sexuality and desire, having to make it real.

Thelma is an internal person. She shies away from any loudness or grand exclamations of emotion and her parents encourage this. When she gets enthusiastic about any particular topic, they shut her down and tell her to be quiet. This especially applies to any contradiction of their religious beliefs. Thelma is a scientist, studying biology, and thinks that creationism is ridiculous. While out to dinner with her parents, she begins to make fun of their friends from home — who are adamant that the world is only 6,000 years old — and they swiftly insist that she stops. Aside from silencing her in the most literal of ways, they use medicine as a means of control and suppression. Unbeknownst to her, she was heavily medicated by her parents as a kid, and her doctor even comments that the medication is a very powerful drug to give a child. Towards the end of the film, we learn that her parents have essentially imprisoned her grandmother — who possesses her same supernatural abilities — in a mental institution under heavy, unnecessary medication. She has been completely trapped and silenced within her own mind, hardly sentient. 

To each of them — Cathleen, Esti, and Thelma — touch is something religiously forbidden but deeply craved. They are all incredibly starved of it, desperate for a particular kind of loving (and explicitly female), tangible connection. This is a physical manifestation of the repression of their lesbian desire. The postulates are dissuaded from any sort of touch, as innocent and friendly it may be, as they are often misconstrued by the Reverend Mother as being implicitly sexual. Esti may not touch any man but her husband, and touch on the whole, even among women, is scarce. This caused her to close in on herself, avoiding touch all together. When she sees Ronit again, she reaches out with shaky hands, hardly able to let herself touch someone she cares for — someone her religion tells her is off-limits. Thelma, completely isolated by her parents, is entirely unfamiliar with the idea of touch as an expression of affection. One of the most incredible scenes in the film occurs when she imagines Anja touching her in a decidedly sexual way for the first time (up until this point, all of their caresses had been soft and gentle, even if not entirely platonic). She lets her head fall back against the couch and a serpent wraps around her body, slithering its way into her mouth in a rather overt religious metaphor that marks touch and desire as a sin. 

This repression and avoidance of touch is twisted. Cathleen literally starves herself to the point of malnourishment and sickness because she thinks it will help her stop feeling like she is starving on the inside. She is desperate for touch and comfort and desire, which are things she undeniably wants but has been taught are sins. When Sister Gabrielle Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan) sits with Cathleen as she recovers for days on end, Cathleen begins to fracture. One afternoon, tears spill over her cheeks and she subconsciously reaches out, seeking some sort of physical comfort. As soon as Gabrielle touches her, she draws her hand back violently, but a few moments later she reaches out again and their fingers intertwine. But of course, after a solid minute they both pull apart again, muttering about mistakes, faults, and sins. 

Sometime later, they find each other in the middle of the night, and Cathleen begins to sob, nearly incoherent in her begs for Gabrielle to comfort her — to touch her. So she does: she presses kisses to her cheeks, her temples, her lips, and pulls her close. Cathleen immediately kisses her back and holds onto her like she is the only thing tethering her to the Earth. Then, in one weekly group confessional session with the Reverend Mother, Cathleen admits to being intimate with one of the other girls, being desperately in need of comfort in someone else’s arms. She sobs and falls apart in front of the rest of the novices not because she is ashamed, but because it felt right. She screams that it did not feel like a sin, but rather, it felt how she was supposed to feel. Cathleen, finally understanding her own agency, refuses to let it be defined as something that happened to her, not when she wanted it so badly. 

Touch is indisputably important to Thelma: it is something that is mostly foreign to her, particularly when it comes to touches of affection or infatuation. Her body has repeated visceral reactions to being touched in the tiniest of ways. One of the first truly intimate moments is when Anja sleeps over in Thelma’s bed. Despite their closeness, they are not actually touching, but after Anja falls asleep Thelma reaches a nervous hand out to brush through her hair. As Anja later begins to touch Thelma in ways that are precisely sexual, her powers unleash themselves. Anja slides a hand warmly onto her thigh in the theater and the walls start to quake and shiver as Thelma holds her breath, nearly bringing the entire room down. Her supernatural abilities are a direct manifestation of her sexuality, and as that desire becomes more and more undeniable, her powers continue to grow. 

In Disobedience, the very first moment that Esti sees Ronit again, she fidgets, wringing her hands in her inability to keep them still. Instinctively, she wants to touch Ronit but knows that she is not permitted. Later, as Esti shows Ronit her room, Ronit clutches her bag to her chest as tightly as possible to avoid the forbidden urge to touch or hold Esti. When they finally give in and touch each other, it feels sort of heartbreaking. After Ronit and Esti kiss for the first time since they were girls, Esti practically flings herself into Dovid’s arms — not in a sexual way, but she burrows into him as if being near him will erase Ronit’s touch and the feelings that brought them together.

Much like Cathleen, Esti is repeatedly told that her desire is an affliction: something that happened to her, tempted her, and challenged her. Dovid places the blame on Ronit, saying that Ronit manipulated Esti into loving her. This explanation strips her agency until she finally screams at Dovid that she wanted it to happen, even when they were girls. She says that she has always been this way and has always wanted it — finally acknowledging this very core aspect of her being. 

The repressive nature of religion (at least in this context) leaves deep impressions upon each of the lives in Novitiate, Disobedience, and Thelma, manifesting in the starvation for touch, their fragile, suppressed identities, their insecurities, and their inability to accept their romantic and sexual desires. Therefore, that Cathleen, Esti, and Thelma manage to untangle the contradictions within their identities and find a way to accept themselves and their sexuality as something that is not morally wrong, but something that is admirable, genuine, and wonderful is absolutely beautiful.

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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