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Male Nurse Action Figures and the pink pearlized heart shaped messages of faith and love

October 5, 2004 -- Nurse "figurine" products (including a Hamilton Collection "Miss Piggy" nurse advertised in Woman's Day magazine) and publicity surrounding the 2004 Cherokee Uniforms "Inspired Comfort Awards" (including a Baltimore Sun piece) show that even companies trying to honor nurses often use images that reflect regressive angel and maternal stereotypes. The result is continued reinforcement for the damaging notion that nurses are noble, selfless, sweet, tender, loving, wonderful, devoted, cuddly, gentle, delicate, adorable saints--or perhaps a kind of Registered Mom--rather than skilled male and female professionals who use their experience and years of college-level science training to save lives. Fortunately, at least one company, Archie McPhee, is now marketing a "Male Nurse Action Figure" that counters the above stereotypes.

Angel Figurines

Cherokee Uniforms Inspired Comfort Awards

Archie McPhee Male Nurse Action Figure

Consider the nurse figurines. The full page ad for the "Miss Piggy" figurine in the November 1, 2004 Woman's Day (p. 109) stresses the figurine's "tender loving care," and that she "selflessly [devotes] her fabulous self to others". But Miss Piggy's other attributes at least temper the sugary sweetness to some extent. The other angel-nurse figures available at www.collectiblestoday.com present a virtual tutorial on the angel stereotype, as well as a potential threat to the health of diabetics.

On an October 4 visit, we found the following:

The material marketing the Hamilton Collection's "Nurses are Angels of Mercy Collectible Figurine" lets us know that, because nurses are the "heart of medicine" and they "brighten everyone's days," this "adorable" figurine is "ready to flutter into your life on little angel wings; her impish smile and bright eyes are sure to warm your heart." Hamilton's "Bless This Angel of Mercy Nurse Collectible Figurine" may be just the thing for the "special nurse" who has given you "comforting attention and care."

The marketing for Hamilton's "Special Delivery Nurse Figurine," which is a teddy bear nurse holding a teddy bear newborn, is worth quoting at length:

Faithful Fuzzies Nurse is 'Beary' Special...No matter how long her shift is, you won't hear this faithful nurse complain, because cradling this little miracle in her arms is reward enough for her sincere devotion. That's because her job requires the 'gentle art of caring'--it's more than hard work, it's 'heart' work!

The Madame Alexander Coca-Cola Porcelain Nurse Doll--which at least is an actual human nurse figure, in a 1940's uniform, offering a bottle of Coke--is marketing with the following: "You wouldn't mind feeling a little under the weather if you had a wonderful nurse who brought you lots of ice-cold Coca-Cola, now would you?" (This would be an inspired gift for public health/school nurses confronting the obesity epidemic.) The Ardleigh Elliott "Healing Touch Music Box" is a "musical tribute to angels on earth" that presents the "traditional image of a nurse" and a large "caduceus medical symbol" (so much for the nurse's lamp) as it plays the "Wind Beneath My Wings."

The Bradford Exchange's "Angel of Compassion Figurine" salutes nurses as "gentle guardians" and suggests that "nurses are themselves watched over by angels who guide them." And the Hamilton "Precious Moments Sending Love from Above Figurine" nurse dispenses a "dose of 'loving, caring and sharing'" wherever she goes, from her "delicate angel wings" to her "adorable nurse's bag filled with pink pearlized heart-shaped messages of faith and love." 

Cherokee Uniforms Inspired Comfort Awards

Karen Ulmer Cherokee award recipient photoEach year Cherokee Uniforms, which markets scrubs and other work apparel, gives a number of nurses and other health care professionals (but not physicians) its "Inspired Comfort Awards." In our view, the awards have traditionally focused more on emotionally uplifting inspirational aspects of nurses' lives--nurses who overcome adversity, who volunteer, who bring a smile to everyone's face--rather than the skills, critical thinking and effort that often mean the difference between life and death for patients. The awards have honored nurses' unique professional achievement to some extent; Cherokee has chosen a few nursing leaders and innovators. And the company has also shown interest in a more substantive approach to the profession, seeking and to some extent acting on the Center's advice as to how it might improve the awards. Unfortunately, an October 2 Baltimore Sun article by Tom Dunkel profiling one of the 2004 honorees highlights how susceptible the awards still are to angel imagery. According to this piece, a nurse at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC) received one of these awards because of her "devotion to head and neck cancer patients," but the piece in fact says virtually nothing about what she has done for such patients in her 14 years at GBMC. Instead, the story is entirely about how nurse Karen Ulmer overcame her own thyroid cancer to hold a nursing job and raise a family.

While overcoming 17 years of cancer to work productively is a great personal achievement, and we have real admiration for Ms. Ulmer, the piece really says almost nothing about her nursing. We learn about her personal history, that she is "an inspiration," that she "loves" her job, that she "sometimes attends the same cancer-survivor support groups as her patients," and that she logs "the same 12-hour shifts as her cancer-free coworkers." What she actually does on those shifts is apparently of little interest. One small bright spot is the piece's note that Ulmer graduated magna cum laude from her nursing program at Towson University, which at least tells readers that nursing is academically oriented enough to have such honors.

Our concern with this and many of the other "Inspired Comfort" awards is that they seem to honor nurses for fine personal qualities, rather than their nursing. (The nomination criteria include "exceptional service, sacrifice and innovation"--we applaud the "innovation"...) In many cases, the qualities chosen appear to reflect a vision of nurses as noble, selfless, and devoted--the angel qualities--but not necessarily as highly skilled, creative, intelligent, or central to the health care mission. We understand that the company wants to honor nurses with whom its main customer base can identify, and there may be a disincentive to recognize nurses from certain groups, such as scholars, advanced practice nurses, public health professionals, and so on since they probably buy fewer scrubs. We also have reason to believe that Cherokee, perhaps unlike the figurine sellers, knows nurses are skilled professionals. In addition, some feel that nurses themselves may at times emphasize personal attributes over professional achievements, and you can hardly blame a company for recognizing qualities that its customers value. But we still believe that the awards would benefit from a far greater focus on the art and science of nursing, rather than on nurses as inspirational individuals whose actual work remains largely unexamined. Needless to say, an award for physicians would never focus mainly on personal qualities, but on major professional achievements.

We know these companies believe they are paying tribute to the nursing profession. Unfortunately, we believe that the image of the "angel" or "saint" is generally unhelpful. It fails to convey the education and hard work required to be a nurse. And it may suggest that nurses are supernatural beings who do not require decent working conditions, adequate staffing, or a significant role in health care decision-making or policy. If nurses are angels, then perhaps they can care for an unlimited number of patients and still deliver top-quality care. To the extent nurses do seem to suffer in such conditions, it may be viewed as merely evidence of their angelic virtue, not a reason to alter the conditions. The marketing for the Hamilton Collection's Special Delivery Nurse Figurine ("you won't hear this faithful nurse complain, because cradling this little miracle in her arms is reward enough") makes this so explicit that it's almost fodder for conspiracy theories.

In the popular imagination, angels are often distinguished by their spiritual purity or their gentle nature, but this is not enough for nursing or any other serious profession. Indeed, patient advocacy may require that nurses firmly challenge an established system or proposed course of action. Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, was no "angel." But she was a very bright, aggressive, flawed human being who--like other nursing leaders since--made lasting scientific and social contributions to the world. Thus, to suggest that nurses are angels, even with the best intentions, may actually serve to diminish their real worth.

In everyday conversation, it is more common for women to be described as angels, and this may discourage men from entering nursing, which is especially harmful in view of the critical nursing shortage. For a nurse to be thought of as an "angel" may also suggest private moral or sexual standards which are inappropriate in the modern work place. In this sense, the "angelic" nurse stereotype is the perfect complement to the "naughty nurse" stereotype and the repressed, Nurse Ratched stereotype. All of these arguably define nurses by dubious male visions of female sexual extremes, rather than by the nurses' professional skills or effort. Some feel that putting female nurses in these stereotypical boxes is a way for vulnerable male patients to reassert their traditional power over the females who now appear to control their lives in the hospital. 

Archie McPhee Male Nurse Action Figure

The Truth About Nursing strives to help others see nursing as a three-dimensional modern profession. Though nursing often requires moral and spiritual courage, it is composed not of "angels," but of skilled, hard-working real men and women.

A first step to repair some of this damage is to make more images like the "Male Nurse" from Archie McPhee. The accompanying x-ray makes us think he's a nurse practitioner. Our "male nurse" (as if we can't tell he's male from his appearance) is described by the creators as such:

"Armed with a stethoscope and a clipboard holding an X-ray, this 5-1/4" tall, hard plastic Male Nurse Action Figure is ready to treat your symptoms and fix what ails you. Male nurses make up six percent of the nurses in the United States and only slightly more in Australia and the UK, but this number is growing. These men are blazing the trail as role models and mentors for generations to come. Thank a male nurse today!"

Indeed. We must thank our male colleagues for their contribution to nursing and encourage our sons and brothers to join their ranks. Alternatively, we could convince them to go into business creating figurines and action heroes that depict nurses as heroic life savers instead of virtuous angels. As for Archie McPhee, a review of some of their other "action figures" reveals a high tongue-in-cheek quotient (check out the "Librarian Action Figure" with 'shushing action,' the "Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure," or the irresistible "Stereotypes of the World Dolls"(no longer available)). It's certainly easy to imagine the "Male Nurse Action Figure" as a joke gift. But we see no overt mockery in the action figure itself, the company's marketing includes none of the obvious jabs used for other products--even citing the male nurse figures above--and in a world of angels and teddy bears, we prefer to see the product as a straight up tribute.

See From Silence to Voice for a thoughtful discussion on "angels" and their virtue.

Also see an excellent Viewpoint by Margaret Belcher, RN, BSN, "I'm No Angel: I am a nurse--and that's enough," in the July 2004 American Journal of Nursing.

Help us end these damaging images. Please e-mail a letter to the Hamilton Collection to customer service at rjonescsr@collectiblestoday.com

And then snail mail it to:

Rich Tinberg, CEO
Bradford Exchange
9333 N. Milwaukee Ave
Niles, IL 60714

Our executive director sent the letter below:

 

Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Executive Director
The Truth About Nursing
203 Churchwardens Rd.
Baltimore, MD 21212-2937
office 410-323-1100
ssummers@truthaboutnursing.org
www.truthaboutnursing.org

October 6, 2004

Mr. Rich Tinberg, CEO
Bradford Exchange
9333 N. Milwaukee Ave
Niles, IL 60714

Dear Mr. Tinberg:

I am writing to ask you to help the nursing profession resolve the nursing shortage by creating images of nurses as educated, skilled professionals as compared to the noble, selfless, sweet, tender, loving, wonderful, devoted, cuddly, gentle, delicate, adorable saints that you depict now with many of your collectible figurines.

Registered Nurses skilled male and female professionals who use their experience and years of college-level science training to save lives. Consider the nurse figurines. The full-page ad for the "Miss Piggy" figurine in the November 1, 2004 Woman's Day (p. 109) stresses the figurine's "tender loving care," and that she "selflessly [devotes] her fabulous self to others". But Miss Piggy's other attributes at least temper the sugary sweetness to some extent. The other angel-nurse figures available at www.collectiblestoday.com present a virtual tutorial on the angel stereotype, as well as a potential threat to the health of diabetics.

On an October 4 visit, we found the following:

The material marketing the Hamilton Collection's "Nurses are Angels of Mercy Collectible Figurine" lets us know that, because nurses are the "heart of medicine" and they "brighten everyone's days," this "adorable" figurine is "ready to flutter into your life on little angel wings; her impish smile and bright eyes are sure to warm your heart." Hamilton's "Bless This Angel of Mercy Nurse Collectible Figurine" may be just the thing for the "special nurse" who has given you "comforting attention and care."

The marketing for Hamilton's "Special Delivery Nurse Figurine," which is a teddy bear nurse holding a teddy bear newborn, is worth quoting at length:

Faithful Fuzzies Nurse is 'Beary' Special...No matter how long her shift is, you won't hear this faithful nurse complain, because cradling this little miracle in her arms is reward enough for her sincere devotion. That's because her job requires the 'gentle art of caring'--it's more than hard work, it's 'heart' work!

The Madame Alexander Coca-Cola Porcelain Nurse Doll--which at least is an actual human nurse figure, in a 1940's uniform, offering a bottle of Coke--is marketing with the following: "You wouldn't mind feeling a little under the weather if you had a wonderful nurse who brought you lots of ice-cold Coca-Cola, now would you?" (This would be an inspired gift for public health/school nurses confronting the obesity epidemic.) The Ardleigh Elliott "Healing Touch Music Box" is a "musical tribute to angels on earth" that presents the "traditional image of a nurse" and a large "caduceus medical symbol" (so much for the nurse's lamp--the symbol of nursing--as compared to the caduceus which is the symbol of physicians) as it plays the "Wind Beneath My Wings."

The Bradford Exchange's "Angel of Compassion Figurine" salutes nurses as "gentle guardians" and suggests that "nurses are themselves watched over by angels who guide them." And the Hamilton "Precious Moments Sending Love from Above Figurine" nurse dispenses a "dose of 'loving, caring and sharing'" wherever she goes, from her "delicate angel wings" to her "adorable nurse's bag filled with pink pearlized heart-shaped messages of faith and love."

We know that you believe that your figurine companies are paying tribute to the nursing profession. Unfortunately, we believe that the image of the "angel" or "saint" is generally unhelpful when we are in the midst of a global nursing shortage of unseen proportions that is only predicted to worsen over the next two decades. The angel/saint image fails to convey the education and hard work required to be a nurse. And it may suggest that nurses are supernatural beings who do not require decent working conditions, adequate staffing, or a significant role in health care decision-making or policy. If nurses are angels, then perhaps they can care for an unlimited number of patients and still deliver top-quality care. To the extent nurses do seem to suffer in such conditions, it may be viewed as merely evidence of their angelic virtue, not a reason to alter the conditions. The marketing for the Hamilton Collection's Special Delivery Nurse Figurine ("you won't hear this faithful nurse complain, because cradling this little miracle in her arms is reward enough") makes this so explicit that it's almost fodder for conspiracy theories.

In the popular imagination, angels are often distinguished by their spiritual purity or their gentle nature, but this is not enough for nursing or any other serious profession. Indeed, patient advocacy may require that nurses firmly challenge an established system or proposed course of action. Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, was no "angel." But she was a very bright, aggressive, flawed human being who--like other nursing leaders since--made lasting scientific and social contributions to the world. Thus, to suggest that nurses are angels, even with the best intentions, may actually serve to diminish their real worth.

In everyday conversation, it is more common for women to be described as angels, and this may discourage men from entering nursing, which is especially harmful in view of the critical nursing shortage. For a nurse to be thought of as an "angel" may also suggest private moral or sexual standards which are inappropriate in the modern work place. In this sense, the "angelic" nurse stereotype is the perfect complement to the "naughty nurse" stereotype and the repressed, Nurse Ratched stereotype. All of these arguably define nurses by dubious male visions of female sexual extremes, rather than by the nurses' professional skills or effort. Some feel that putting female nurses in these stereotypical boxes is a way for vulnerable male patients to reassert their traditional power over the females who now appear to control their lives in the hospital.

The Center for Nursing Advocacy strives to help others see nursing as a three-dimensional modern profession. Though nursing often requires moral and spiritual courage, it is composed not of "angels," but of skilled, hard-working real men and women.

Mr. Tinberg, we would like to be able to count on you to help us repair the nursing image. Please call me so that we can discuss ways that we can work together to create positive and professional images of nurses that will help resolve the nursing shortage.

Thank you,

Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Executive Director

 

 

 

 

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