Nurses Portrayed In The Media

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When Miss America contestant Kelley Johnson famously delivered her “Just a Nurse” monologue in 2015, she struck a chord with the nation. Her positive portrayal of nursing highlighted the important work that is done every day. At the same time, the reaction to her speech underscored a profound misunderstanding of the profession.

Woman hand with remote towards television

Hours after Miss Colorado delivered her speech wearing scrubs and a stethoscope around her neck, morning talk show hosts on The View poked fun at Johnson’s  comments, referred to her scrubs as a “costume,” and questioned why she was wearing a “doctor’s stethoscope.” The View hosts later walked back the remarks and attempted to make amends to scores of outraged nurses across the country. Still, nursing organizations expressed frustration over these perceived conceptions of who nurses are by using the hashtag #JustANurse on social media channels.

“We are the frontline caregivers, 24 hours, seven days a week, who are with individuals from birth, throughout their lifespan and at the end of life. We care for patients, their families and communities,” American Nurses Association President Pamela F. Cipriano said in a written statement after the incident. “Nurses don’t wear costumes; they save lives.”

For decades, nurses have been portrayed in the media as subservient to physicians, bumbling failed doctors, and angelic beings that transcend skill and talent. In fact, the stigma of nursing has changed the way some view the profession and hampered growth in the field, experts say. The stereotype dates back to the beginning of mass media.

Nurses On TV Shows and Movies

In the earliest days of television, medical shows became a favorite, with nurses playing love interests to handsome, charismatic doctors on shows that included Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby, M.D. Soon, fictitious nurses took leading roles in television shows and movies, setting the tone for what nurses were expected to be. The following are some of the popular nurse portrayals on television and in the movies:

  • Jackie Peyton – As the leading character on Nurse Jackie, Peyton was a rebel nurse who abused drugs and forged an organ donor card to benefit another patient.
  • Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan – On the long-running television series M*A*S*H, Houlihan was a passionate and skilled nurse who had multiple love interests.
  • Gaylord Focker – On Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, Focker was continually mocked for being a male in nursing.
  • Nurse Mildred Ratched – As the main antagonist in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ratched was sinister, heartless and cold.
  • Carol Hathaway – On the long-running series ER, Hathaway was a smart and compassionate nurse who had a long-running romance with a heartthrob doctor.

Researchers say characters like Houlihan and Ratched perpetuated the stereotypes that continued into modern culture. One study that looked at 100 years of films found nurses have always been pigeonholed in the media.

Changing Nursing Stereotypes

The 2008 study concluded that, while the portrayals changed (from the early days of nurses as heroines to the later years of nurses as sociopaths), they were never accurate. The one constant, noted in the study “Celluloid Angels: A Research Study of Nurses in Feature Films 1900-2007,” was that nurses were characterized as overly sexual.

Indeed, pervasive stereotypes have hindered the profession, experts say. Nursing advocates, such as Sandy Summers, are pushing to change the distorted view into a realistic depiction. Summers, a registered nurse (RN) and executive director of the nursing advocacy group Truth About Nursing, said nurses cannot adequately fulfill their three main missions – clinical care, patient education, and patient advocacy – because nurses are misunderstood and undervalued.

Summer said nurses need to speak up about their importance, speak out against the current depictions, and forge alliances with other nurses, doctors, and journalists to encourage a greater understanding of the profession. Changing the way the media presents nurses could change societal views, improve patient safety, reduce nursing staff turnover, and boost public health, she said.

“In large part because of how the media ignores nurses or misportrays them, too few decision-makers know that nurses are skilled professionals. As a result, nurses do not yet have the authority and resources needed to prevent as many errors or save as many lives as they could,” Summer said. “When nursing practice, education, research, and residencies are not adequately funded or supported, patient care is weaker, and patients are more vulnerable.”

Among the many ways nurses are breaking through stereotypes today is by pursuing advanced education to answer the call for more baccalaureate-trained nurses.

Duquesne University’s Bachelor Of Science In Nursing (BSN) Program

As a leader in nurse education, Duquesne University is breaking all of the misconceptions about nurses to train the next generation of healthcare leaders. Students enrolled in Duquesne University’s online RN-BSN program learn about advanced nursing techniques, nursing ethics and nursing and healthcare issues through a flexible program that is compatible with a modern lifestyle. The program is designed to help RNs work to the fullest extent of their education and training. For more information, contact Duquesne University today.