There’s no doubt that the way nurses are portrayed in feature films and on television has an impact on the public’s perception of nurses, as well as on recruitment to the profession. And that portrayal, more often than not, leaves a lot to be desired.
As we remember from elementary school, Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing, an advocate for setting standards for cleanliness and sterilization in hospitals, and a symbol of excellence for the profession. During World War II, recruitment posters depicted nurses as heroes supporting our fighting men. Nurses were thought of as caring and compassionate, and nursing was viewed as an admirable occupation to which America women should aspire.
So what happened?
Put simply, we were brainwashed by the mass media. For decades, writers of popular TV shows and movies have depicted nurses in demeaning roles, typically portraying them as sexual objects, frivolous, or being subservient to male doctors.
The highly acclaimed feature film M*A*S*H was released in 1970, and just 2 years later, it was adapted into a popular hit television series that ran for 11 years. M*A*S*H followed the daily trials and tribulations of doctors working in a mobile Army surgical hospital close to enemy lines during the Korean War. One of the show’s most colorful characters was Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, an army nurse. As the name suggests, her character served as the sexual interest of several male characters throughout the course of the show, perpetuating the “naughty nurse” image.
In 1975, the classic motion picture One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest hit the silver screen, also to critical acclaim, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie featured an unforgettable character, the infamously wretched and cruel Nurse Ratched, who tormented the mental patients under her care. Nurse Ratched’s character had no redeeming qualities. These 2 blockbuster movies associated nurses with sex and cruelty, stamping an impression on the profession in the minds of millions of Americans.
A study titled “Celluloid angels: a research study of nurses in feature films 1900-2007” was conducted in 2008. It examined 280 feature films with female nurses as predominant characters. While films of the early 1900s portrayed nurses as self-sacrificing heroines, the vast majority of films that followed that era showed nurses in a negative light, with an emphasis on romantic liaisons. Themes included nurses who joined the profession to meet a rich doctor, nurses who were threatening or evil, nurses as subservient to physicians, and nurses who were sex objects; in fact, 26% of the 280 films analyzed featured nurses as overtly sexual. The study concluded that nurses should be aware of how their profession is shown in major motion pictures because movies can be influential.
Let’s not forget the men in the nursing profession. In 2000, Ben Stiller played a good-hearted but hapless bumbling and stumbling male nurse in Meet the Parents. It was so popular, the theme turned into a movie franchise. Meet the Fockers followed in 2004, and Little Fockers was released in 2010. In all 3 films, the father-in-law character played by Robert De Niro looked down on Ben Stiller’s character and his male nurse profession, constantly doubting his capability of being the “man of the house” and as someone able to take care of his daughter.
Perhaps the Focker franchise was the catalyst for a 2012 study titled “Celluloid devils: a research study of male nurses in feature films.” The study investigated how male nurses are portrayed in feature films. Thirteen films that included male nurses in their storylines were analyzed. Results were published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. Very few films showed male nurses as being masculine, clinically competent, or self-confident. Most portrayed male nurses negatively and as being incompetent, corrupt, or effeminate or homosexual—and even homicidal! The study concluded that the films studied may have had a negative effect on recruitment and on the public’s perception of male nurses.
Nurses on TV
Early television shows portrayed nurses as sympathetic characters but never showed them as having any real skills. Their “doctor’s little helper” image paralleled the dominant perception of women at the time: submissive, second-class citizens to males, serving only to move the storyline along. Popular television programs such as ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, Private Practice, and House show “physicians as gods” in charge of things. In most episodes, doctors are seen performing many critical functions that in real life are actually performed by nurses. Nurses were relegated to background roles in these dramas, often shown taking a patient’s pulse or blood pressure, setting up IVs, emptying bedpans, or dating doctors. They are the handmaidens and helpmates to the physicians who rule the day—a skewed portrait of the nursing profession to say the least.
Newer TV medical dramas cast nurses in the forefront of the story, but still carried similar negative connotations that include heavy personal baggage and tawdry affairs—trauma and drama! In 2009, Showtime premiered Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco), TNT aired HawthoRNe (Jada Pinkett Smith), and NBC ran Mercy (Taylor Schilling). Only Nurse Jackie remains on the air. However, Jackie is a dark character full of flaws. She’s a dedicated nurse, but in one episode alone, we see her snorting pain killers and fudging a dead man’s donor organ card, as well as committing other various felonies. Her boss, the nurse supervisor, is a crotchety character—so even though these shows elevate fictional nurses to starring roles, they do nothing to foster a positive image of real-life nurses.
The bottom line is that writers of TV shows and movies have felt the need to take artistic license to create compelling, provocative stories filled with conflict and sexual scenes meant to entertain a mass audience. Nevertheless, fictional nurse characters tend to remain mostly insulting and unrealistic, marginalizing the nursing profession. In reality, nurses are underappreciated, working long hours under stressful situations and just not receiving the respect they deserve, especially from doctors.
If you’re interested in changing the way nurses are viewed in the media, here are a few helpful resources:
- The Truth About Nursing is a Baltimore-based advocacy group dedicated to “changing how the world thinks about nursing.” The organization provides timely reviews on how nurses are portrayed in the media. Their website’s “Take Action” page provides techniques nurses and members of the public can implement to improve the media’s understanding of the nursing profession. Its founders (Sandy and Harry Summers) wrote a book on the subject: Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nursing Puts Us All at Risk.
- On Nursing Excellence is a nonprofit organization that works to improve recognition of the health care workforce as well as increase their efficiency and overall well-being. Its president, Kathy Douglas, conceived and directed a documentary titled Nurses: If Florence Could See Us Now, which tries to paint a realistic picture of nurses and the nursing industry today.
- The 15 best movies about nursing. Nurseblogger website. July 6, 2011. http://onlinebsn.org/2011/the-15-best-movies-about-nursing/.
- Eckenrode V. Real-life nurses talk about how they’re portrayed on TV. StarNews Online website. Modified September 17, 2009. http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20090917/ARTICLES/909174004.
- Good nurse, bad nurse: movie portrayals of nurses have changed over time, study finds. McKnight’s website. October 13, 2008. http://www.mcknights.com/good-nurse-bad-nurse-movie-portrayals-of-nurses-have-changed-over-time-study-finds/article/119371/.
- Hanbury J. Image of nursing. Advance Healthcare Network website. http://nursing.advanceweb.com/article/image-of-nursing.aspx.
- Hitti M. Nurses’ images in movies improving. WebMD website. October 10, 2008. http://www.webmd.com/news/20081010/nurses-movie-images-improving.
- Patino E. Lights, camera, accuracy: nurses in the media. http://www.minoritynurse.com/article/lights-camera-accuracy-nurses-media.
- Stanley D. Celluloid angels: a research study of nurses in feature films 1900–2007. J Adv Nursing. 2008;64(1):84-95. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2008.04793.x/abstract.
- Stanley D. Celluloid devils: a research study of male nurses in feature films. J Adv Nursing. 2012;68(11):2526-2537. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2012.05952.x/abstract.