"Seriously? Male nurse."
December 4, 2011 -- In tonight's episode of ABC's Desperate Housewives, major character Gaby tried to get past access restrictions at the rehabilitation facility where her husband was a resident by flirting with a male nurse, but she failed when the man simply pointed to his chest and said, "Male nurse"--meaning that he was of course gay and so not interested in Gaby. The nurse was articulate and sympathetic, but he did nothing a lay person could not do, and the first thing he did when Gaby approached was to complain that she was keeping him from reading The Help. That might have been an early hint about his sexual orientation, but it also suggests that nurses are just attendants who enforce minor rules and have time to sit around reading novels. Unfortunately, past episodes of Desperate Housewives have also reinforced nursing stereotypes. In an October 2007 show, Gaby donned naughty nurse attire as a cover to rub lotion on her husband, to covertly heal a case of the crabs she had given him. And in an April 2008 episode, the show presented a hospital nurse as a mousy, pathetic physician lackey who could be bribed into revealing sensitive patient information with free lunch at a French bistro, and who had time to leave the hospital mid-shift to eat that lunch. In tonight's episode, the show has told viewers that all men in nursing are gay, which undermines efforts to increase diversity in the profession. It almost seems like the show is on a mission to reinforce every major nursing stereotype, but if so it had better hurry up--this is its final year, and there are still some big ones that it has not yet exploited for a cheap laugh, notably the angel, the battleaxe, and the wannabe physician! We urge Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry and the other producers to make amends for the damage they've caused and to try to avoid nursing stereotypes in the future. This episode, "Putting It Together," was written by Sheila R. Lawrence.
Click here to send a letter to Desperate Housewives asking them to make amends for this (and other) negative portrayals of nursing! Or read more below...
One plotline in tonight's episode is about the investigation into the death some time ago of Gaby's stepfather, who was accidentally killed by her husband Carlos after Carolos intervened to prevent the stepfather from raping Gaby. In the middle of the episode, Gaby is desperate to see Carlos, who is at a rehab facility because of his alcohol abuse. Gaby wants to tell Carlos to back up her statement to the police that his drinking got out of control because of the stress of an affair he had, rather than any guilt related to criminal activity.
Arriving at the recovery center, Gaby quickly approaches an attractive young man in a white coat who sits behind a counter, presumably the nurses' station, reading a book. Gaby has to make an effort to get his attention.
Gaby: Hello! Excuse me. Hello?
Nurse (closing the book and smiling ruefully): Someone is never gonna finish The Help! What can I do for you?
Gaby: I need to speak with my husband, Carlos Solis.
Nurse: Is it an emergency?
Gaby: No! I just need to tell him something.
Nurse: Then I can't allow you. Mr. Solis is still on restricted access.
Gaby: What does that mean?
Nurse (explaining politely and reasonably): First week after admission, no visitors, cell phones, or emails, no distractions. We only want our patients to focus on getting better.
Gaby: OK, but I . . . really need to talk to him.
Nurse (preparing to go back to his book): I'm sorry. Those are the rules.
Gaby (leaning forward so that the nurse can see her cleavage): Well . . . rules are made to be broken. I'm sure there's a "no boobs on the counter" rule too.
Nurse: Seriously? (Pointing at his own chest.) Male nurse.
Gaby (defeated): Right.
Nurse (helpfully): You can come back on Tuesday.
Obviously, the nurse scene is telling millions of viewers that all men in nursing are gay. The nurse did not say, "I'm gay," or point to any of his conduct that might suggest it. Instead, he said "male nurse"--meaning that alone should confirm his sexual orientation for Gaby. And it does. The problem is not that gay nurses don't exist, or that it's wrong to be gay, but that this reinforces a stereotype that nursing is only for women and gay men. No respected modern profession is seen that way (outside of the arts). And that image also means that the profession is not for straight men, that there is something wrong with a straight man who chooses the profession. That's false, and it's not something nursing needs in the midst of a continuing struggle to become more diverse and to be taken seriously enough to get the resources it needs to save lives.
Indeed, most nurses don't have time to sit around reading novels, because they practice an inherently demanding profession that has been made even more difficult by understaffing and other resource shortages fueled by undervaluation--undervaluation like what we see in this episode of Desperate Housewives. Why should society devote scarce resources to a job that is still commonly seen as "women's work," and that involves sitting around reading novels and enforcing bureaucratic rules? This character is articulate and reasonable--we can't say he's a battleaxe--but those qualities may just be there to meet audience expectations of how a gay male nurse would act. And as for the underlying rule this nurse is enforcing, it might be important in some cases, but Gaby presents no obvious threat to Carlos's recovery (in fact she has been the main one pushing him into rehab) and any lay person could do what we see the nurse do here.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Desperate Housewives has relied on a tired stereotype of nursing in order to advance its plotting. In an October 2007 episode, Gaby used a naughty nurse outfit as a cover to rub lotion on her former husband, to secretly heal a case of the crabs she had given him. And an April 2008 episode presented a nurse as a mousy physician lackey who could be bribed into revealing sensitive patient information with a free lunch. In that one, Gaby's then-boyfriend Carlos was a hospital inpatient with an eye injury, which only Carlos knew would mean permanent blindness. Another of Carlos's girlfriends, Edie, visits him in the hospital. Walking down the hall, Edie spots a nurse eating a sad sandwich. Edie asks when Carlos will get his sight back. Nurse: "I don't know...Mr. Solis's condition is very serious..." Edie: "Serious? What's wrong?" The nurse says that Edie "should really talk to the doctor" and that she has "said too much already," but Edie treats her to lunch and easily gets information out of the timid, unsophisticated woman. This nurse can't speak with any real authority, even to say the law and her own ethics limit her ability to speak about the patient. Instead, she passes the buck to the physician who has real power and expertise--a classic handmaiden. The nurse in tonight's episode might seem to be a step forward, since he isn't timid and he manages to resist Gaby's charms, though of course that doesn't mean much because of his orientation. But neither nurse seems to have a job that involves doing anything important. They are low-level workers who are there to follow procedural rules, rather than to act as autonomous health care professionals.
We urge the show creators to try to finish the series without reinforcing any more nursing stereotypes and to make amends for the damage the show has already caused.
Click here to send a letter to Desperate Housewives asking them to make amends for this (and other) negative portrayals of nursing!
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