The Vanishing Nurse
March-April 2004 -- In a lengthy, very well done cover story in the March-April 2004 issue of Revolution entitled "How Hollywood Portrays Nurses," noted journalist Suzanne Gordon and Ruth Johnson, RN/CNM, analyze the depiction of nursing in a number of feature films released in the last few decades. They conclude that though major nurse characters over this period could be described as "The Good, the Bad and the Crazy," in recent years "[n]urses as viable film characters are disappearing from American movies as fast as, well, real nurses are disappearing from American bedsides."
In the authors' view, nurse characters in movies of the 1950's and before included some "strong characters" who, though they were typically the "sweethearts" of military men, "saved the day every time." The sexual revolution was "a bit of a setback" for nursing, as seen in the naughty nurse films of the early 1970's, but "things really started to go downhill" after that. As major nurse portrayals moved from Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) ("the Bad") through Annie Wilkes in "Misery" (1990) ("the Crazy") and on to "Good" but marginal nurses like Hannah in "The English Patient" (1996) and Phil in "Magnolia" (1999), the authors see a decline in the importance of nurse characters: the "Vanishing Nurse." In their view, this trend is exemplified by "Living Out Loud" (1998) and "Something's Gotta Give" (2003), in which nurses either achieve rebirth by going to medical school or are plot devices who quickly disappear to make way for more important characters. The authors persuasively link this trend to their view--with which we agree--that as women have entered traditionally "male" fields such as medicine in increasing numbers, "the public view of traditionally 'female' (aka caregiving) work has not expanded to include an appreciation of its complexity and importance." The authors note that nursing professor Ellen Baer decried the "feminist disdain for nursing" in a 1991 op-ed piece, and they argue that recent films reflect what Gordon has described as "Dress for Success Feminism," in which worthy protagonists--in film or in life--cannot be "just a nurse."
Even so, the authors see "some hope on the horizon" in last year's HBO film version of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," as they find major nurse character Belize to be "one of the few inspiring models of what a nurse can and should be." In fact, "Angels in America" is the only feature film the Center has ever given its highest nursing rating, though it is not the only recent film with a positive portrayal of nursing; others include "Wit" (2001) (also made for HBO) and, believe it or not, "Dawn of the Dead" (2004). Unfortunately, such portrayals are not the norm in movies today, and in the hugely influential world of serial television, damaging depictions of nursing often seem to be everywhere at once.
The authors begin by describing the Center's ongoing campaign to improve the portrayal of nursing on NBC's popular "ER." (Gordon is a member of the Center's advisory panel.) The piece notes that while the Center has "focused on television," the authors "decided to go to the movies."
In addition to television reviews, the Center's web site has detailed reviews of movies (including five of the 10 films the authors discuss at length and many more) and other media products, including books, music, visual arts and performances, as well as analyses of various entertainment media items in its comprehensive news section.
"How Hollywood Portrays Nurses" offers a timely, compelling treatment of an important subject, particularly in its analysis of the sad failure of progressive society to appreciate and embrace the critical role of nurses. We might differ with a few of the particulars. We can't agree that the screenwriters of "Meet the Parents" share their elitist characters' anti-nurse views, which they clearly mock, nor that "Nurse Betty" is not worth discussing because the lead character is a "dingbat" or "not even a real nurse." However, the article is full of important insights about the way nurses have been portrayed in movies and what it says about American society, and we salute Gordon and Johnson for their contribution to public discussion of these issues.
See Gordon and Johnson's article "How Hollywood Portrays Nurses: Report from the Front Row" in the March/April issue of Revolution.
See more about Suzanne Gordon and the book on nurses in the media that she
co-authored with Bernice Buresh "From Silence to Voice."