Becoming a Catholic nun is a big commitment. You give up the possibility of having sex and worldly possessions in favour of good works and praising God. It’s the kind of life you need to be really passionate about for that level of noble sacrifice to seem worth it. It’s shouldn’t be the type of life you enter simply because the idea of marriage seems like trash. Yet, that’s exactly the situation we see Rosaline Capulet (Lashana Lynch) pining for in ABC's new Shondaland soap Still Star-Crossed — and it’s so sad to watch.
From the moment we meet Rosaline, Star-Crossed drives home the point the older Capulet sister is the less traditional one. While her younger sibling Livia Capulet (Ebonee Noel) is taken with the idea of finding her own (very rich) love story, Rosaline is obsessed with obtaining her own independence. She asks her sister in the premiere episode, "You don’t see the fun in being your own mistress? Of reading your own books, of sleeping in your own bed? Of never being at the whim of whichever man happens to be in charge of you?" Of course that sounds appealing, but joining a convent shouldn't be the only way a woman can live her own life. All of this is made all the more upsetting as this conversation revolves around the Capulet sisters’ "bride price," which is literally the sum of money necessary to marry a woman by buying her from a male guardian. Rosaline and Livia's predicament couldn't get any more sexist… until it does in episode 3, "All The World’s A Stage."
At the beginning of the Romeo & Juliet adaptation, it seems Rosaline is at least interested in religion. Livia jokes about her older sister’s "beloved nuns" and Rosaline says she's open to praying in exchange for her freedom. Then last night’s episode arrives and we learn just how little the lady-turned-servant-turned-lady-again cares about faith. With Rosaline’s betrothal ceremony to Benvolio Montague (Wade Briggs) around the corner, Livia tells her annoyed sister, "I still say it’s better than praying your life away in a nunnery." This is when it becomes clear just how desperate Rosaline is to have her independence. "It’s not about praying," she explains. "Or God." Actually, that’s technically all being a nun is about. But, for Rosaline, she admits, "It’s about living a life that’s your own. Instead of some Montague’s."
The idea of a woman choosing between two extremely constraining paths simply because there are no other options in society for her is so deeply depressing. Sadly, that’s exactly what really happened in Medieval Europe. One real medieval writer shared essentially the exact same argument as the fictional Rosaline makes, the Clio Project reminds us. "How does the wife stand when she comes in hears her child scream…. her cake is burning on the stone health, her calf is sucking the milk, the earthen pot is overflowing into the fire?" the book Women Under Monasticism asks. "Though it be an odious tale, it ought, maiden, to deter thee more strongly from marriage, for it does not seem easy to her who has tried it. Though, happy maiden, who hast fully removed thyself out of that servitude as a free daughter of God and as His Son's spouse, needest not suffer anything of the kind."
That’s a very old-timey way of saying marriage back in the day was terrible and nuns had the kind of freedom Medieval wives could never even imagine. There was apparently so much freedom, English nuns were caught wearing makeup, rocking fur, and "letting their pet monkeys swing about" in churches — all without men controlling them.
Sadly for Rosaline, she would be joining an Italian convent, so she probably wouldn't get the flying monkey of her choosing. Still Star-Crossed may exist in a race-blind European utopia called Verona, but it still ends up mired in the same sexist entrapments of real life.