October 23, 2005 -- I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a nurse, it says, "she's naughty." You see a physician, it says, "she's saving lives." Tonight's episode of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" marked an unwelcome return to series creator Shonda Rhimes' own writing about nurses. The popular series debuted earlier this year with Rhimes-penned episodes that featured female surgical interns furious that one of them had been compared to a nurse. Now Rhimes is back with more faux-feminist contempt. Tonight's episode, seen by 18.4 million people, suggested that naughty nurse video pornography was a viable pain management tool. It even featured tough intern Cristina Yang reluctantly composing a verbal naughty nurse scenario for an afflicted man when a storm knocked out the hospital's television system. Regardless of whether such female-focused porn is misogynous, as Yang suggests at one point, naughty nurse imagery like that this episode offers up mainly for laughs continues to be a factor in the devaluation of nursing. Indeed, in this season "Grey's Anatomy" nurses seem to pop up mainly as degraded tools in the show's ongoing sex farce (fulfilling sex stereotypes, spreading STD's, getting dumped for more attractive physicians), while the heroic, brilliant physicians provide all important care. In this episode, we did not see a nurse character utter a single line.
This episode, "Bring the Pain," is all about pain (get it?). Lead character Meredith Grey muses in her voiceover about how we struggle with, around and through our pain. The show cares mainly about the romantic pain of its young physician characters, almost all of whom are involved in tortured relationships with other young physician characters. But this episode also includes a subplot in which a patient with a herniated disc with allergies to most pain medications is apparently able to cope with his severe pain only by watching video pornography, especially naughty nurse action. Resident Chandra Bailey eventually has to expel all of the interns from the room for reacting like middle schoolers. But the patient and his wife say that the videos have become a key part of his therapy, even recommended by his physician. Specifically, we see the patient viewing "Nasty Naughty Nurses 4," though we are not treated to any actual images. Bailey later confronts attending Derek Shepherd, who assures her that the videos were the idea of some other (unnamed) physician. In any case, he notes, some posit that pornography, "like art and music," may ease pain by promoting the release of endorphins.
The ambitious Yang is unhappy enough to be saddled with "porn guy" while one peer handles a Hmong patient in need of a shaman, and two more operate solo on a seriously wounded police officer while trapped in a hospital elevator. Then a bad storm knocks out the hospital's main power source, depriving the herniated disc patient of his videos and leaving him in severe pain. Yang for the first time realizes that the patient is not just some "pervert." Since he cannot handle any medication, Yang climbs into the empty patient bed nearby and composes a naughty nurse adventure, a story delivered with just the right mix of hesitation and obsessive competence by the inimitable Sandra Oh. We wouldn't want you to miss a word, so here it is:
OK, so, there were these women. Nurses. Three nurses. And they were... naughty. They were really, really naughty. They were three naughty nurses. Saucy... even. Saucy, and bad and naughty. Three saucy, bad, naughty nurses. And they were taking a shower. Together. Soaping each other up. And then this doctor walks in and he sees these three naughty bad nurses with these great big...
Cristina later continues:
"Oh yes! I'm so very, very naughty." Bianca said. As she ah, dropped her stethoscope. "Me too!" said Crystal. As she snapped on her surgical glove. And then, there was Marta... Marta was the naughtiest nurse of all. She knew how...
Finally, the power snaps back on, and Yang happily leaves the patient to his video. Later, Yang asks the patient's wife how she can deal with this practice, which she guesses also includes endless viewings of "Nasty Naughty Nurses 1, 2, and 3." Yang asks whether she doesn't find it "misogynistic and degrading " The woman gently assures her that it eases her husband's pain, and he "eases my pain." Well, it's a great big kooky world, isn't it?
But wait--isn't the show suggesting that such pornography is generally bad for women, and therefore not endorsing the naughty nurse imagery here? Probably not. The show seems to be saying that this pornography is not necessarily bad: look at the beneficial effect it's having here in relieving this man's pain, and see how his wife has no problem with it because he's a good guy and he needs it. Maybe it's not so bad in general, every person is different, and you just have to look at the context. And it's just consensual sex, which after all is the main focus of "Grey's Anatomy" anyway. Cristina's agreement to engage in the imagery, and the show's generally light, jokey approach, suggests that this is the likely intent, and the likely effect on viewers.
However, under this "no-big-deal-and-possibly-even-helpful" analysis, the nurse imagery is a big deal, just as it is in your standard Fortune 500 company television ad or Hollywood sitcom. Nursing has a long history of being closely linked to female sexuality, to the fantasy idea that working nurses are sexually available to physicians and patients. Each new "naughty nurse" product--especially one as prominent and lovingly presented as this--reinforces these long-standing stereotypes, which continue to discourage practicing and potential nurses, foster sexual violence in the workplace, and contribute to a general atmosphere of disrespect at a time when the profession is in crisis worldwide. When sex with physicians is part of the mix, the images are even worse, because they reinforce the arguably even more devastating handmaiden stereotype. And if such video can relieve pain, as the episode suggests, then the argument we often hear--that such products can't affect what people really think about nursing--rings especially hollow.
But what if some viewers understand the show to be saying this type of porn may generally be bad for women? Then it's still a problem, because the show makes no effort to show that it understands the special problem the nurse imagery presents. It's one thing to believe that pornography objectifies women, but it's a special blow for a nurse, who has been degraded as a professional, as a member of a job that required years of college-level training and that presents huge mental and physical challenges. Cristina did not need to choose naughty nurse imagery; the show does not claim that only nurses would have worked for the patient. She chose the same imagery because nurses do not matter to serious professionals like her.
But she made the physician male, despite her own efforts to break into the male domain of surgery--why not at least strike a flawed blow for female power by having a female physician have her way with several "saucy" nurses? The patient is unlikely to object. And it would reflect the show's overall concerns, which have more to do with ensuring that the supposed master class it glorifies includes women and people of color than it does with any notions of genuine equality, or a responsible depiction of the, um, hard issues of modern health care. But let's not forget the men. Even a jokey, ambiguous presentation of the usual naughty female nurse stupidity is one more needless obstacle for male nurses trying to get respect for their jobs. ("Ha ha! Is that how you dress at work, Frank? Those doctors sure are hot, aren't they Frank? Ha ha!")
Some shows might have made at least a nominal effort to ensure no one understood them to be suggesting that nurses' key contributions really were as bimbo anesthesia, perhaps by including a scene or two in which nurse characters displayed some of their non-bimbo qualities. Of course, we wouldn't expect a depiction of critical thinking or life-saving from Hollywood, but maybe at least some hand-holding or reporting of vital signs. But not "Grey's Anatomy." Even for a show that commonly has physicians providing all important care, as nurses flit silently in the background, this episode was impressive. We don't believe a nurse character had a single line.
One nurse did give the chief of surgery a meaningful look when Meredith's surgeon mother, who has Alzheimer's, indicated that the two surgeons had once had an affair. The chief politely sent the nurse from the room. This illustrates one nursing role on this show and many other soap operas: to act as viewer surrogates, observing and commenting on the lives of the physician characters who really matter. (For an extreme form of this, check out the "Nurse's Blog" on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" web site, which presents nurses as starstruck, whiny losers obsessed with the godlike surgeons in their midst.)
In another scene, two surgical interns arrive to do a pre-op assessment of the wounded police officer. They begin jockeying for a primary role in the case, issuing orders to several silent, anonymous nurse figures who move at the edge of the frame. All we ever see of these figures are body parts, a quick arm here, a bit of back there. If you added up all these body parts, you might be able to make a whole nurse--except, significantly, she would have no face.
On the whole, the episode was true to "Grey's Anatomy" form. Nurses were dramatic wallpaper, suitable only for helping the physicians seem commanding by silently absorbing their "orders." Physician nursing was rampant, as the interns did everything of importance at the bedside, including providing all monitoring, all patient education, and all psycho-social care. Only the physicians' words, decisions and actions mattered.
Cristina Yang's question about whether someone finds a certain video presentation "misogynistic and degrading" is a remarkably apt one for "Grey's Anatomy" itself. The show's contemptuous misportrayals of the mainly female nursing profession, spiced with the kind of explicit attacks seen in this episode, easily satisfy Christina's description.