We must stop the naughty Scandinavian porn nurses from infiltrating America!
June 13, 2007 -- On June 1, syndicated radio host Stephanie Miller and sidekick Jim Ward discussed the immigration legislation pending in Congress. One caller suggested that a provision easing restrictions on the entry of foreign nurses would undermine unions. Miller linked this to how "the middle American worker in America is getting squeezed." But she could not resist several gratuitous "naughty nurse" remarks. One comment about "naughty Scandinavian nurses" managed to suggest that those nurses are sluts and to trivialize the real issues related to the growing migration of nurses from poor nations to developed ones, which has devastated fragile health systems in the poor nations. Truth executive director Sandy Summers wrote a letter asking Miller to avoid reinforcing tired stereotypes that are a key factor in why many nurses--and their patients--are "getting squeezed." Today, Miller mockingly read much of the letter on the air, while she and her cohorts cackling at the very idea that Miller's remarks could cause any harm. Summers called the show, and to their credit, the producers briefly let Summers try to explain the effects of such stereotyping. Miller apologized, though without much apparent sincerity. She and her sidekicks stayed with their position that any nurses who objected to the naughty nurse just had no "sense of humor," though after four decades of such brainless imagery, that would seem to be a better description of anyone who does find it funny. One of Miller's cohorts did allow that Summers had made "some very good points." But the overall reactions of the show and some listeners highlight the challenges nurses face in overcoming the naughty nurse image.
On June 1, Miller and Ward were discussing the immigration bill when a caller, "Susan in Oregon," suggested that one provision would permit the entry of "an almost unlimited amount of foreign nurses, thereby effectively breaking the nurses unions." Miller responded, in part:
It's a good argument, obviously the middle American worker in America is getting squeezed in a lot of ways. And Jim will not be happy if a lot of naughty foreign nurses get in.
[Jim] at first seemed to resist getting into the naughty nurse angle, noting that the bill was a "big old crap fest." But then the following exchange ensued:
Jim: Naughty nurses by the boatload.
Miller: (with sound effect of a whip cracking) Jim cannot...no. We must stop the naughty Scandinavian nurses (whip cracking), porn nurse[s] from infiltrating America. (whip cracking)
Because neither the caller's remarks nor the underlying legislation had anything to do with the "naughty nurse," throwing that in seemed to be the result of the hosts having nothing relevant to say. The fact that Miller and Jim are also playing with the stereotype, as the reference to the comparable French maid image confirms, does not reduce its impact. Viewers may not be sure if Jim is really into naughty porn nurses, but the potential irony does not extend to the stereotype itself; that seems to be an unquestioned staple of the mainstream media. No one is going to think this is a criticism of the stereotype. Like the sound of the whip, it's simply another stock effect to brought out when it's time for a cheap laugh.
Consider the difference if Miller had said something like this:
Why are we even looking for more real nurses? It's not like health care actually matters to us--one sixth of our people don't even have health insurance! So why not just save a lot of trouble and get "naughty nurses" from the porn industry? You'd be just as dead as with no nurse, but what a way to go! You'd like that, wouldn't you, Jim? Get porno nurses to watch all those pretty colors move on your ICU monitors! Pretty!
That might be no more clever than what Miller said, but at least it would not trivialize the nursing shortage or what nurses do. Rather than suggest that nursing is an inconsequential punch line, it would link real nurses to good care, and distinguish them from the unskilled stereotype.
And speaking of the unskilled nurse stereotype, we understand Miller has some personal experience with it. She told one 2007 interviewer that she had once appeared as a nurse on ABC's long-running soap opera "General Hospital." Miller said she had just one line:
Here's the files!
That is a perfect summary of how nurses are treated in the vast majority of the U.S. entertainment media, and it is a vision that fits well with the one Miller presented on her radio show. We feel confident that naughty porno nurses are capable of getting you the files.
Of course, the generic naughty nurse image, even though just a "joke," tends to reinforce the enduring stereotype that nurses are brainless bimbos whose work does not call for much respect. This undermines nurses' claims to adequate resources during the worst shortage in history, a global public health crisis. In reality, nurses are college-educated professionals who use their advanced skills to save lives and improve outcomes every day.
But Miller also linked the profession to stereotypes involving pornography, Scandinavians, and sadomasochism. This trivializes the immigration issue, suggesting it is really just about people coming to the U.S. from other wealthy nations. Maybe they just want to see the world! Of course, the vast majority of nurse immigrants to the U.S. and other wealthy nations come from developing nations in Asia and Africa. Most foreign-born nurses in the U.S. are from the Philippines. They are not here because the U.S. provides opportunities to make bondage films. They are here because they can make many times more money as nurses in the U.S. Indeed, some people in the Philippines enter nursing with the specific purpose of coming to the U.S.
The effects of this migration are mixed at best. Developing nations receive substantial foreign remittances from their overseas workers. But their departure also drains the local health systems of many of their most skilled workers, adding to health crises around the world. The effect on the destination nations is also mixed. Of course the nurse immigrants address the critical shortages in these nations. But questions have been raised about the effect on nursing as a profession. For instance, it may be difficult for recent immigrants, from different cultures, to advocate effectively, particularly when the clinical setting is so troubled to begin with.
Will the entry of foreign nurses "break" nurses' unions in the U.S., as the caller suggested? Less empowered people may be less likely to join and support unions. And of course a system that essentially pushed out current union members and added new ones would at a minimum force the unions to expend significant resources in constant recruiting. On the other hand, fewer than 20% of U.S. nurses are unionized today, and some of the foreign nurses may actually come from nations with higher rates of nurse unionization.
Yesterday, Truth executive director Sandy Summers sent the show a letter with most of the above analysis and a request to come on the show to explain it. The show did not respond directly. Instead, today Miller read selected parts of the letter on the air, doing so in a blubbery pompous voice, presumably to ensure that her audience would share her contempt for the letter. Miller and cohorts Ward and Chris Lavoie paused often to mock the idea that anyone would take the naughty nurse stereotype seriously, or that anyone would think nursing's image was of any importance (one of the sidekicks chanted "no justice, no peace!"). Miller did concede that one reason for the show's use of the naughty nurse might have been "immaturity"--she's known for being able to laugh at herself. But there were also frequent suggestions that the real problem was that Summers was a "liberal" with no sense of humor. In fact, the radio personalities determined, half-jokingly, that this tendency was in fact "why Democrats lose elections." Miller omitted reading parts of the letter that would give any sense of the real importance of the global nursing migration issue, or that might contradict the "no sense of humor" theme (except for our suggested alternative naughty nurse comment, which Miller deemed to have as little entertainment value as "moron TV executives' notes"). Miller also playfully suggested that "all French maids are whores," we guess to encourage more frivolous objections by women who deserve to be called sluts because they hold traditionally female jobs. Oh, just joking!
It's important to note what Miller and her friends did not do. They failed to explain why their use of a naughty nurse stereotype that has been a media staple for decades could not affect what people think and do, especially since Miller's show is heard on at least 40 radio affiliates nationwide, on Sirius Satellite Radio, and through Internet streaming. They failed to explain why the widespread naughty nurse image could not play a role in the unusually high rate of sexual abuse that nurses experience in clinical settings. They failed to explain how the stereotype did not work to trivialize the profession and undermine nurses' claims to adequate clinical and educational resources. And they said nothing to suggest that they understood that nursing's poor public image was a factor in the worst nursing shortage in modern history, or that the shortage was taking countless lives because nurses often make the difference between life and death.
Is "just joking" a complete defense to complaints about stereotyping that harms social wellbeing? We don't know--let's ask Don Imus! Would Miller have had the same contemptuous reaction if we had objected to her calling a group of black female college athletes "nappy-headed hos?" Of course we realize that our objections to one naughty nurse media image may seem trivial to people who may not be aware of how prevalent such images are and have not considered their real effects. But Imus was just trying to be funny too. He didn't literally mean that the basketball players were sluts; it was just a joke. Similarly, Ann Coulter didn't really mean John Edwards was gay; it was just a joke.
But when people use damaging slurs in their jokes, it means more than "laugh now." Humor often contains powerful messages, as works from Jonathan Swift to The Simpsons have shown. And public health research has shown that even the entertainment media, such as sitcoms, has a real effect on health-related views and actions. Not surprisingly, media creators often don't want to accept that. One of Miller's cohorts seemed to grow more angry with Summers as the show wore on, as if he was sick of trying not to reveal his disdain for all these dispossessed groups, and now nurses were complaining too. What's next--respect for French maids?!
Although the show's discussion of the letter was designed to be a one-sided attack, Summers learned about it from supporter Marie Lobo, Professor of Nursing at University of New Mexico, before the show ended and called in. To the show's credit, the show allowed Summers to spend a few minutes on the air trying to explain what was wrong with the use of naughty nurse imagery, though not without interruptions and efforts to hustle her off. Miller offered apologies and assured Summers that she really did support nurses and had rallied with them against Gov. Schwarzenegger. Apparently this meant that because Miller had done nice things for nurses in the past, she should now be able to say whatever she wanted about them with no fallout. Miller condescendingly informed Summers that she was just a comedian telling a joke, and did not mean to "cause the nursing shortage singlehandedly." Summers assured her that she was not doing that, but that the media as a whole was having a huge effect in undervaluing nurses, making it difficult for them to get the funding needed to resolve the nursing shortage.
Summers calmly explained that nurses are often the subject of "joking" stereotypes on TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "House," which give physicians all credit for health care outcomes. Summers also noted that the naughty nurse had been "supposedly a joke" for decades, and when nurses were regularly presented that way it undermined their work. One of Miller's cohorts argued that no one takes those images seriously. Summers assured him that people take it seriously enough that nurses are asked for sexual services in clinical settings all the time. Summers said that 72% of nurses reported being sexually harassed, and she might have gotten in that this was a factor in them leaving the bedside, had it not been more important for Miller to joke that those services were probably not covered under Medicare. Miller repeated her apology and hustled Summers off the show. One cohort allowed, to his credit, that Summers "made some very good points." Miller agreed. The other cohort: "Absolutely, nurses do do a great job, but...come on, have a little sense of humor, for crying out loud."
The show also shared some listener reactions. Shockingly, they were heavily supportive of Miller. The show did first note that it had gotten a complaint from Michael in New Mexico, who found the show's aggressively mocking reaction to Summers to be "thin-skinned" and "self-righteous," and suggested the hosts should not show such little respect for people who were "not public figures." He argued that their reaction actually supported the idea that the left was "elitist." Miller's cohorts responded, probably correctly, that their reaction had actually been more "snarky" than self-righteous, and that after all, Summers was a public figure.
The show closed the nurse segment with five straight pro-snarky calls. Stewart in Boca Ration argued that Summers took herself too seriously (Miller: "you think?"), and noted that nurses were more respected than Congress. That must be why there's a critical shortage of Members of Congress. Stewart also suggested that nurses have no right to complain because he knew a nurse who made $1,800 a week--his ex-wife.
Jamie in Berkeley argued that Summers needs to "get a life" and stop whining even more than Joe Lieberman does. She added that "Grey's" and "House" are actually about physicians, not nurses. That subtle point never occurred to us, but we would note that while those shows have only physician characters, the characters actually spend much of their time doing and getting credit for nursing work, giving major Joe-mentum to the unskilled handmaiden vision of nursing.
Sam in North Carolina said that his girlfriend had been inspired by her role in a group of "sexy nurse backup dancers" to enroll in a real nursing program! This one really turned us around. Far from discouraging the brainless bimbo image, it seems, we should promote it, because that will doubtless encourage millions of elite male and female candidates to join the profession and save society from disaster as the Baby Boomers start to retire and need increasingly complex care.
Ray in Seattle observed that any woman in the "service industry" will be solicited for sexual favors. We weren't sure whether Ray was suggesting that nurses had no right to complain because (a) sexual harassment is a factor in deadly shortages in all service professions, so it's OK, or (b) sexual harassment is what women deserve for working in service professions.
Arthur in Seattle called in to represent all the "handymen" who were sexually harassed, which actually was the deepest comment of all, since it revealed how frivolous any complaint of sexual abuse is. After all, if it isn't a problem for "handymen," it isn't a problem for anyone!
During all this, the show hosts mostly stayed out of the way, though one of Miller's cohorts did observe that "Sandy was basically saying no nurse can ever be sexy." We understand his confusion--who could tell the difference between these nearly identical ideas:
(1) nurses can never be sexy; and
(2) the mass media should not portray nurses as half-dressed
One of Miller's cohorts said that Summers had really "put him off nurses." Miller assured him that she was sure lots of nurses do have a good sense of humor, and she hoped to "placate" nurses by running a short clip of Michael Moore arguing for universal care. We would have been thrilled, except that Miller forgot to call us angels and wish us a happy Nurses Week.
Although Miller has not shown a keen interest in looking at the effects of her own conduct, we hope she will avoid reinforcing damaging workplace stereotypes in the future. If she does not, maybe some foreign porn actresses could take over her job.
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Listen to the June 1 audio clip in Quicktime;
Listen to the entire June 13 audio clip in Quicktime (18 min.);
or just listen to
the portion of it containing Sandy Summers' call (4.5 min.).