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Ms. Goldberg needs some helpers

Whoopi GoldbergJune 16, 2009 -- Today the Examiner web sites posted a transcript of a recent interview in which The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg explained the professional aspirations of Brenda, the lead character in the "Sugar Plum Ballerinas" children's books she has written. Goldberg assures us that Brenda's desire to be a physician is not unusual today, because girls now have not "been told what they couldn't do," unlike girls of her generation, who "all heard, 'You have to be a nurse first. You have to be a helper. You can't be a doctor. Be a helper.'" Goldberg says nothing to cause us to doubt that she shares the contempt for nursing that is inherent in these statements. She is plainly thrilled that girls today are not forced into what she sees as the assistive work of nursing. And although Goldberg rightly suggests that this shift in attitudes is due partly to mass media like NBC's popular ER, the Lifetime drama Strong Medicine that Goldberg herself helped to create and lead from 2000-2006 pushed the idea even more strongly. That show focused on two female physician characters, but it never presented female nurses as anything more than anonymous physician subordinates. That is not feminism. In fact, nursing is a distinct health science whose autonomous practitioners use their years of college education to save lives. Of course it's great that girls now have diverse career choices. But uninformed Nurse Jackiecomments like those of Goldberg and some other celebrity opinion-makers reinforce harmful stereotypes. They push able career seekers of both genders away from nursing and undermine the profession's standing among those who allocate scarce health care resources, contributing to the global nursing shortage. We urge everyone to "help" Ms. Goldberg understand nursing better.

See the follow-up to our campaign. Whoopi has heard your comments.

The interview with Goldberg apparently took place at the Apple store in New York City in May 2009. The transcript published on the Examiner sites was headlined "Whoopi Goldberg channels her inner child and gives parenting advice." The introductory statement notes the talented star's diverse achievements in the entertainment industry and that she spoke at the store to promote Sugar Plum Ballerinas #2: Toeshoe Trouble. But it also says that Goldberg "candidly shared her thoughts on breaking gender stereotypes when rearing children." Goldberg seems to be arguing, at the beginning, that parents of her generation are clinging to antiquated notions of what their daughters should do and be, thinking that they have to be forced into tutus when they really want to rock those skateboards and so on. But later, an exchange occurs that suggests Goldberg thinks girls today are not being told what they have to be:

Q. Brenda's goal is to be a doctor, when many people think girls want to grow up to be fashion designers or celebrities. Can you comment on breaking that stereotype?

A. You would be surprised. It's not that unusual. It turns out these girls these days have never been told what they couldn't do, so they actually want to be doctors. They see things like ER in reruns. They say, "Oh, I want to be a doctor." No one says, "Oh, you have to be a nurse first" to them. We [adults of a certain age] all heard, "You have to be a nurse first. You have to be a helper. You can't be a doctor. Be a helper."

Whatever Goldberg really thinks about what girls are being told these days, there is little doubt that she associates nursing with traditional female career paths as unimportant subordinates, in contrast to medicine, which is presumably the ultimate professional goal. It is telling that she would point to the power of the mass media in shaping childrens' views. Of course, it's not unusual for a media creator to admit this power exists when, as here, the context is the media's positive influence, showing girls what they can be (doctors!). But it's very different when the issue is whether the media could have a negative influence. We have rarely heard a major media creator admit the inevitable converse, that a television show showing contempt for a profession like nursing would shape views of what girls should not be.

As it happens, Goldberg is right that NBC's ER focused heavily on ambitious women becoming and practicing as physicians (one of its major nurse characters fled nursing for medicine). And the show's overall portrayal of nursing was relatively limited and flawed. Still, the show did have a number of strong portrayals of the profession, notably in its final years with nurse Sam Taggart, and it was arguably the best broadcast network drama ever for nursing. By contrast, Goldberg's Strong Medicine virtually never showed female nurse characters to be anything more than meek, vacuous physician "helpers." With the partial exception of the appearances of midwife Peter Riggs, who was himself portrayed as subordinate to the physicians, Goldberg's "helper" statement encapsulates her show's vision of nursing: not the place for a smart girl who wants to do something really important. In breaking one harmful stereotype, media figures like Goldberg reinforce another.

Real nurses are highly skilled professionals with at least three years of college-level education. They receive degrees--including doctorates--in nursing science, not in unskilled "helping." They save lives and improve patient outcomes, taking the lead in many key aspects of patient care. Of course they work with physicians, but they report to senior nurses, not physicians. Nurses practice an autonomous profession, and they are legally and ethically obligated to resist physician care plans that are not in patients' best interests. But nurses cannot do that very well when powerful media figures continue to push harmful disinformation that undermines nurses' claims to adequate resources.

We urge Ms. Goldberg to learn who nurses really are and what they really do.

See the article "Whoopi Goldberg channels her inner child and gives parenting advice" that was posted on the Examiner.com website on June 16, 2009.

Our letter-writing campaign is now closed. But the letter we sent to her is below.

Dear Ms. Goldberg:

I am writing to ask you to publicly amend your damaging statements on the nursing profession. On June 16, 2009, the Examiner web sites posted a transcript of a May 2009 Apple store interview in which you explained the professional aspirations of Brenda, the lead character in your book "Sugar Plum Ballerinas." You assured us that Brenda's desire to be a physician is not unusual today, because girls now have not "been told what they couldn't do," unlike girls of your generation, who "all heard, 'You have to be a nurse first. You have to be a helper. You can't be a doctor. Be a helper.'"

Sadly, it seems that you share the contempt for nursing that is inherent in these "girls can be doctors" statements. And although you rightly suggest that this shift in attitudes is due partly to mass media like NBC's popular "ER," your Lifetime show "Strong Medicine" pushed the idea even more strongly. That show focused on two female physician characters, but it never presented female nurses as anything more than anonymous physician subordinates. Of course it's great that girls now have diverse career choices. But your comments reinforce harmful stereotypes. They push able career seekers of both genders away from nursing and undermine the profession's standing among those who allocate scarce health care resources, contributing to the global nursing shortage.

As you know, it cannot be the case that the media's generally admiring portrayal of physicians affects the real world, but the media's generally disdainful vision of nursing does not. You seem to associate nursing with traditional female career paths as unimportant subordinates, in contrast to medicine, which is presumably the ultimate professional goal.

But real nurses are highly skilled professionals with at least three years of college-level education. They receive degrees--including doctorates--in nursing science, not in unskilled "helping." They save lives and improve patient outcomes, taking the lead in many key aspects of patient care. Of course they work with physicians, but they report to senior nurses, not physicians. Nurses practice an autonomous profession, and they are legally and ethically obligated to resist physician care plans that are not in patients' best interests. But nurses cannot do that very well when powerful media figures continue to push harmful disinformation that undermines their claims to adequate resources.

I urge you to learn who nurses really are and what they really do, then use your influence to tell the public about their value to public health.

Thank you.

Letters were sent to:

Ms. Whoopi Goldberg
Whoop/One Ho Productions/Lil' Whoop Productions
333 W. 52nd St.
6th Floor
New York NY 10019-6238

 

 

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