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Will & Grace: the nurse as twit, loser and porn actress

April 22, 2004 -- Tonight's episode of NBC's "Will & Grace," entitled "Speechless" and written by Sally Bradford, focuses on the flighty Jack character's graduation from "nursing school." The episode's unholy mix of stereotypes adds up to a vision of nursing education as a fly-by-night joke leading to a second-rate job for white women and gay men who can't hack it in the entertainment industry.

As "Will & Grace" fans know, the monumentally frivolous Jack character spent much of this season attending nursing school, possibly at a hospital-based diploma program; whether it was an RN or LPN program is unclear. This episode is about Jack's graduation ceremony, at which he will give a speech as a result of having been voted the "most popular" student. Will expresses surprise that Jack could be graduating only five months after starting school, but Jack tells him he received 16 credits for courses he took at a "medical school" in Mexico,
apparently while on vacation. Jack notes that these courses were taken over the course of a few days in Spanish, which he does not know, and were being given out "like candy." Because Jack, ever the model of competence and focus, has misremembered the day of his graduation, he has no speech only hours before the ceremony. Jack persuades Will to draft the speech for him, and Will eagerly does so, including a line about "why nurses, like angels, wear white." Jack recalls that, as an earlier episode showed, he only got into nursing because he saw a hot student nurse and followed him into the men's room.

The graduation ceremony itself occurs in what looks like a moderately sized classroom, and as the invitation suggested, appears to be attended only by a handful of students and their guests. There are no scholarly trappings, and the only speakers besides Jack are two young white women in anachronistic short white nursing dresses--no sign of the diverse classmates seen in an earlier episode. As the scene opens, the goofy first nurse leads the audience in a terrifyingly spirited sing-along of John Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good"--an ode to the joys of rough sex--immediately establishing that the ceremony is populated by comically pathetic losers eager to inflict pain/pleasure on their sex partners/patients. (Get it? Nurses causing pain!). The second nurse is a very attractive woman whose sheer white uniform is unbuttoned below the level of her bright blue bra so that much of it is visible. She takes the lectern, makes an inappropriately graphic remark about why the previous speaker could not attend, and introduces Jack. Jack begins to read his speech, but to Will's dismay, Jack soon finds he cannot continue, deciding in mid-speech that he will follow his original dream of being an actor. Later, while the ever-helpful Karen is assuring Jack that his nursing "degree" will be useful when he fails as an actor, Will is shown delivering the rest of his beloved speech to the blue bra nurse, who is moved by its "follow your dream" theme to muse: "Maybe I will get back into porn."

Let's see if we have this...straight. Nursing school can be completed by twits like Jack in five months, with the help of a few days of "medical school" instruction in a language the student does not understand. Nursing school graduations involve no academic elements, but do include half-dressed porn actress nurses, nurses leading S&M sing-alongs, and a speech by the student voted "most popular." Nurses are white women and gay men who can't make it as actors (Jack), porn stars (blue bra nurse), or musicians (singing nurse). In short, nursing is a second-rate job requiring only minimal skills, adequate for people without any better options.

Will does make a few comments that indicate the show understands real nursing involves more than we see here. These include his remark that Jack "will hold other people's lives in the palm of his hands," and his skeptical comments about Jack's school, such as his question as to whether it's even accredited. But these incidental remarks are drops in a bucket of distortions that reflect actual beliefs about nurses. You could argue that Jack's abandonment of the profession is a pro-nurse statement--making it safer to venture into a health care facility--but we would have been more impressed if the profession had rejected him instead.

Yes, we know, it's just a sitcom. But most of the often witty show's millions of fans have little information about who nurses really are and what they really do. Just as advertising works best in a vacuum, confirming a slew of residual stereotypes about nursing (the white woman, the gay man, the angel, the naughty nurse, the loser, the airhead) without any real countervailing examples or information--even jokingly--can't help but have some negative impact on these viewers.

Hollywood often denies that its products can have any such impact, while claiming credit for fostering positive change, as those responsible for "Will & Grace" do for their role in promoting acceptance of gay people. Tellingly, this episode itself suggests that Hollywood can affect the real world. While Will and Jack are brainstorming potential remarks for Jack's speech, Jack suggests that he was inspired to become a nurse by watching the great Diahann Carroll play a nurse in the groundbreaking 1968-1971 sitcom "Julia." If only those responsible for this episode could have found the will or the grace to hire the dignified Ms. Carroll to reprise her role, or at least tried to inject a little of her spirit, rather than betraying it with ugly stereotypes played for cheap laughs.

Our action -- We have ended this campaign as summer 2004, since Jack is no longer working as a nurse. Please join us in our other letter-writing campaigns.

See below for the letter that many of the 84 letter writers sent to Will & Grace producers:

Will & Grace (NBC) Series
Executive Producers David Kohan, Max Mutchnick, James Burrows, Jeff Greenstein, Jhoni Marchinko, Alex Herschlag
4024 Radford Ave.
Bungalow 3
Studio City, CA 91604

Dear David Kohan, Max Mutchnick, James Burrows, Jeff Greenstein, Jhoni Marchinko and Alex Herschlag:

I am writing to protest the "Will & Grace" episode "Speechless," aired April 22, 2004, which presents a vision of nursing education as a fly-by-night joke leading to a second-rate job for white women and gay men with no better options. I realize the show is intended to be funny, but this episode feeds harmful "naughty" nurse, handmaiden and other stereotypes that have long held the profession back, and that contribute to the critical nursing shortage that now threatens global health. In fact, nurses are highly trained, autonomous professionals who overcome rampant short staffing to save lives every day. I urge you to consult nurses before portraying the profession in the future, and to make amends by contributing in a tangible way to efforts to improve public understanding of nursing.

"Speechless" suggests that nursing school can be completed by twits like Jack in five months, with the help of a few days of "medical school" instruction in a language the student does not understand. Nursing school graduations involve no academic elements, but do include half-dressed porn actress nurses, nurses leading S&M sing-alongs, and a speech by the student voted "most popular." Nurses seem to be white women and gay men who can't make it as actors (Jack), porn stars (the blue bra nurse), or musicians (the singing nurse). In short, nursing is a second-rate job requiring only minimal skills. Will does make a few comments that indicate some understanding that real nursing involves more than I see here, but these are lost in the onslaught of stereotypes. And I would have been more impressed if nursing had rejected Jack, who has proven himself unqualified for virtually any job, instead of the other way around.

Yes, I know, it's just a sitcom. But most of your show's viewers have little information about who nurses really are and what they really do. Just as advertising works best in a vacuum, confirming a slew of residual stereotypes about nursing (the white woman, the gay man, the angel, the naughty nurse, the airhead) without any real countervailing examples or information can't help but have some negative impact on these viewers. Do you really think your viewers know how many years of college-level study it actually takes to become a registered nurse? Do they know that nurses are not really "angels" or handmaidens?

Hollywood often denies that its products can have any negative impact, while claiming credit for fostering positive change, as I assume you (rightly) would for the role of "Will & Grace" in promoting acceptance of gay people. But this episode itself suggests that Hollywood can affect the real world, when Will and Jack mention Diahann Carroll's role as a nurse in the groundbreaking 1968-1971 sitcom "Julia" as a source of inspiration for Jack's nursing studies. If only you would have hired the dignified Ms. Carroll to reprise her role, or at least tried to inject a little of her spirit, to balance the relentless mockery.

We are in the midst of a global nursing shortage of critical proportions that is only expected to worsen over the next two decades. Broadcasting these images, even as a joke, reinforces harmful impressions of nursing as an unskilled, marginal job that few would want. In fact, registered nurses receive 2-10 years of college-level training, and studies have shown that patients' lives depend directly on the availability and qualifications of the nurses who care for them. For instance, one recent study of nurse short-staffing--a primary cause and effect of the shortage--found that when the patient load of a nurse is doubled from 4 to 8, post-operative mortality increases by 31%. The nursing shortage affects us all.

Many who display negative images of nurses doubt that such images can really harm the nursing profession. However, the media does affect how people think. A 2000 JWT Communications study found that US youngsters in grades 2-10 got their most striking impression of nursing from the fictional television show "ER," and consistent with that show's physician-centric messages, the youngsters found nursing to be a technical field "like shop," a job reserved for "girls" and one too lowly for private school students. Nursing is none of these things. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that "ER"'s message is so influential that one-third of its viewers use information from the show to make health care decisions. A key reason that nursing is in its current state--understaffed, underfunded and underempowered--is that the work of nurses is undervalued by health care decision makers and the general public, i.e., your audience.

I strongly encourage you to consult with qualified nursing experts before portraying nurses or nursing students in the future, to avoid further reinforcing harmful misperceptions. I am not suggesting that nurses cannot be a target of the show's humor, only that care be taken not to present viewers with nothing but negative stereotypes and harmful distortions of the profession. For instance, in a prior episode, you showed Jack's nursing school classmates (all absent from the April 22 episode) to be a mix of genders and ethnicities, a veritable "Bennetton ad," as we believe one character described it. While that episode's vision of nursing left a lot to be desired, it did at least show the nursing students as a diverse group who were fairly serious about their studies.

I also encourage you to make amends to the nursing profession by supporting efforts to improve public understanding of the profession in a tangible way. What can "Will & Grace" do? I have a number of ideas, many of which are also posted on The Center for Nursing Advocacy's web site: http://www.truthaboutnursing.org/action/. For instance, "Will & Grace" might undertake image-building efforts such as:

funding art that portrays nurses in an accurate light: http://www.truthaboutnursing.org/create

funding "Be a nurse for a day" programs:" http://www.truthaboutnursing.org/action/follow_a_nurse.html

funding media training programs for nurses: http://www.truthaboutnursing.org/action/media_training.html

funding other image campaigns, such as Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow: http://nursesource.org/sponsor_info.html

However you decide to help improve the nursing image, I urge you to consult with the Center for Nursing Advocacy and the nursing/media experts who serve on their board and advisory panel, to avoid adding to the problem.

Please be part of the solution to the shortage. Help us improve public understanding of nursing at this critical time. I look forward to hearing from you.


 

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