NEW YORK NURSE: July/August 2009
A new television series has sparked debate about how nurses are portrayed in the media and its effect on the public perception of nurses.
The series, “Nurse Jackie”, debuted on June 8 on Showtime, a pay cable network. It stars Edie Falco as Jackie Peyton, an ED nurse who is addicted to pain killers because of chronic back pain. Although she is strong, knowledgeable, and outspoken, she also engages in unprofessional conduct, such as forging a donor card, flushing a patient’s ear down a toilet, and having sex with a pharmacist in a supply closet.
NYSNA staff and members who saw the show’s first episode were concerned that it would have a negative effect on the public’s view of nurses. NYSNA Chief Executive Officer Tina Gerardi recommended to Showtime that it include a disclaimer with each episode reminding viewers that Jackie is not representative of the profession, but that request was denied.
Do TV shows featuring fictional nurses affect the public’s perception of what nurses do?
Yes, says Sandy Summers, co-author of a new book, “Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk.” Over the years, TV nurses have fallen into four categories, she says: the Ministering Angel, the Physician Handmaiden, the Battleax, and the Naughty Nurse. In general, nurses have been portrayed as subservient to doctors, more caring than smart, and more interested in their personal lives than in their patients. These stereotypes reduce the value of nurses in the eyes of the public.
Interestingly, in a review posted on her website, truthaboutnursing.org, Summers suggests that “Nurse Jackie” actually could help improve nursing’s image because its main character is not one of the traditional stereotypes. She sees Jackie Peyton as a strong, intelligent, but compassionate role model – despite her pill-popping, adultery, and rule-breaking.
Nurses who posted comments on NYSNA’s website blog had differences of opinion about the show (although most of them don’t like “Nurse Jackie”). One nurse posted, “I was very discouraged and angry about how this ‘Nurse Jackie’ is representing the nursing profession. People who see this program will not have good thoughts and respect towards nurses.”
Another ER nurse commented: “We all know that ‘Jackie’ is a fictional character, but it’s unfortunate that the greedy executives of these networks . . . continue to create shows that portray dysfunctional nurses.”
The opposite view was expressed in another post: “Isn’t there something a little absolutist in wanting only an idealized portrayal of a nurse? Do we really believe the public won’t understand that this is drama, not a class in best practices for nurses?”
So the debate goes on. For those with long memories, similar discussions took place over Nightingales, a situation comedy about a group of “naughty nurses,” and the early years of “ER”, when nurses in the fictional emergency department were virtually invisible.
Only time will determine the impact of “Nurse Jackie”, “HawthoRNe”, and other shows. But, in the meantime, perhaps the debate itself is serving a purpose in drawing attention to the role of “real nurses” in the healthcare system.
While recent television history usually has not shown nurses in a positive light, one TV series from the early 60s could still be cited as an example of how a drama focused on nurses can be successful and “real” without resorting to sensationalism.
“The Nurses” (1962-1965) was the first nighttime series to feature professional women in lead roles. In addition to the strong performances by lead actors Shirl Conway and Zina Bethune, guest stars appearing in nurse roles included Joan Hackett, Beatrice Straight, Ruby Dee, and Susan Oliver.
Bob Lamm, writing about the series for the Journal of Popular Film and Television, said that “even when viewed more than 40 years later, “The Nurses” is remarkable, not only because of the evident talent and the sustained quality of the work, but especially due to the show’s powerful treatment of social issues, among them gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability.”
Nursing professor Beatrice Kalisch has studied the image of nurses in the media for over three decades. Writing in Nursing and Health Care, she noted that, “‘The Nurses’ presented to the American public a rare insight into the organization, standards, and responsibilities of the nursing profession.”
“‘The Nurses’ was far ahead of its time,” said Lamm. “It is memorable both for its feminist view of the lives of professional women and for its powerful treatment of many sensitive ethical and political issues. As part of television history, as a part of women’s history, this series should not be forgotten.”