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Angels & demons: Nurses on screen

The characters on film and TV are often stereotypes, but the internet allows nurses to reshape their public image, writes David Stanley

How the public view nursing and nurses is both reflected in and influenced by the way they are portrayed in feature films, on TV and in other media. Nurses on screen are variously doctor’s handmaidens, sex objects, romantic fools, self-sacrificing angels, or demoniacal, crazed or malicious villains.

The most popular stereotypes in feature films with prominent nursing characters are the self-sacrificing angel, the object of sexual desire or the flirtatious vixen.

Films such as Nurse Marjorie (1920), Dawn (1928), The Lamp Still Burns (1943), Operation Pacific (1951), Women of Valour (1986), Paradise Road (1997) Pearl Harbor (2001) and many others show nurses putting their patients and others before themselves. Both Nurse Marjorie and The Lamp Still Burns focus on a young nurse faced with the stark choice between her love for a man and the career she is expected to devote her life to. In both, the women choose nursing over their personal desires.

Other films since have had a similar theme, and nursing has, as a result, found itself pigeonholed as a vocation or calling undertaken by selfless and doe-eyed women. The resulting stereotypical image of nurses has become firmly embedded in the minds of the general public and even in many potential recruits to nursing. Sadly, this image persists in the minds of some other health professionals even today.

At least self-sacrificing and caring are positive characteristics. Nurses are portrayed as sex vixens or just sex objects in feature films such as Wanted: A Nurse (1906), Good Morning, Nurse (1925), Operation Mad Ball (1957), Carry on Nurse (1959), Naughty Nurse (1969), M*A*S*H* (1970), Carry on Matron (1972), Where the Money Is (2000) and Candy Stripers (2007). Clearly representing nurses as flirtatious or sexually alluring can only detract from their aspirations to be recognised as health professionals.

Sadly, few films show nurses as assertive health professionals making critical decisions, or offer a positive image of nurses as empowered figures. That said, more recent films such as The World According to Garp (1982), Intimate Strangers (1986), The English Patient (1996) and 14 Hours (2005) have presented a more realistic image. This change is mirrored by the portrayal of nurses in some TV shows, such as Carla in Scrubs and Jackie in Nurse Jackie, who are shown as empowered and uncompromising in their assertiveness. Although Jackie is clearly a flawed character, she is clearly not stereotypically self-sacrificing or sexualised.

Men in nursing have their own set of feature film stereotypes, usually being portrayed as incompetent, morally corrupt, effeminate or gay. Lonesome Cowboys (1968), Magnolia (1999), Meet the Parents (2000), Talk to Her (2002), Angels in America (2003) and the ominously titled Killer Nurse (2008) are typical examples.

The film Meet the Parents was a very popular comedy. It begins with a song proposing that men in nursing are “losers”, and the theme continues through the film, with the male nurse character, Gaylord “Greg” Focker, having to constantly defend his career choice. He is only accepted as a potential son-in-law when it is proved that he could have been a doctor, but chose not to be.

I can think of only two feature films that offer any positive images of male nurses. One, Precious (2009), offers a brief insight into an empowered male nurse who supports and is kind to the principal female character in the film. In the other, Talk to Her (2002) a male nurse is shown offering dedicated, competent, caring nursing, until halfway thought the film it is revealed that he has raped his comatose patient.

Television has few contradictory offerings, with male nurses commonly ridiculed or shown as incompetent.

However, the traditionally dominant mass entertainment media of cinema and TV are now being challenged by the internet and YouTube, and these channels are reshaping the public’s knowledge of and attitudes towards nurses. YouTube offers a contemporary insight into the current public image of the nurse, and it’s often closer to reality.

Limited research reveals that internet images are more commonly positive, with nurses shown as skilled, accountable, trustworthy, respected, educated, intelligent and competent, although there is still a strong sexual representation of nurses.

YouTube offers a democratising channel through which the nursing profession can present itself, showing a more balanced image. Nurses themselves have recognised the global scope of YouTube and have posted the majority of videos tagged as “nurse”. While a wide range of topics is evident when viewing the videos, three broad themes emerge: competent nurses/nursing, incompetent nurses/nursing, and nurses depicted as sexual objects.

Nursing and nurses regularly feature in a range of media and it is clear that their image is changing and becoming more realistic, but the nursing profession needs to be constantly vigilant for how nurses are being portrayed, because the potential for negative images is always present.

Dr David Stanley is an associate professor in nursing with the school of population health at the University of Western Australia.

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