July 2011 -- NBC's fall prime time schedule includes a new half-hour sitcom called Whitney, starring comic Whitney Cummings, who has appeared on the E! late night show Chelsea Lately. Whitney seems to be based on Cummings's stand-up themes (a little like the classic Seinfeld). The new show focuses on the lead character's relationship with her boyfriend Alex, and one preview clip finds Whitney seducing Alex with a naughty nurse outfit. This seems to be working out well, until Alex falls while trying to get out of his pants, hits his head on a table, and loses consciousness. They end up in the emergency department, where a standoffish "real" nurse seems to take Whitney for a sex worker and bars her from going back with her injured boyfriend (who soon recovers anyway!). We could interpret the plotline as a rejection of the naughty nurse and even an implication that the image threatens public health. Whitney's outfit sets in motion events that hurt Alex and impair her ability to be with him, and the "real" nurse expresses contempt for Whitney. But we think the message that will stay with most viewers of this show is that the attractive Cummings really spends a pretty long time flirting and preening in her revealing "nurse" outfit. The "real" nurse doesn't display any expertise, and to the extent she shows authority, it's more as a petty hospital bureaucrat, barring a loved one from seeing a patient--a common example of the modern battleaxe stereotype. We urge NBC and the show creators to see if they can offer observations on modern romance without using witless nursing stereotypes.
Watch the preview on YouTube:
Plenty of wrong ways
NBC has also posted promotional clips for the show on its website and placed a four-minute compilation of them on YouTube. The network is not exactly downplaying the naughty nurse element, since it displays that clip on its main Whitney page with the headline, "It's sexy nurse time!" It's not clear from the available clips what prompts the naughty nurse seduction, though it appears to be what the NBC site describes as a fear of "relationship boredom"; another clip suggests that Whitney is concerned that she and Alex are not having sex enough. Other promotional language explains that Cummings "brings her unique and hilarious perspective on love to this new comedy series that proves there's no right way to be together... but there are plenty of wrong ways."
Perhaps to illustrate that important concept, in one clip Whitney appears in fairly standard naughty nurse attire in what seems to be the couple's apartment. She wears a short white skirt, an old-school white cap, a white top showing her red bra, red panties, white stockings connected with a red garter belt and bows, and high heels. As Alex enters, Whitney greets him by asking if he's there to "see the doctor." Alex is kind of slow on the uptake and is not sure. Whitney, adopting a sultry voice and manner, assures him that he is, and that she will need him to "sign in," showing him a clipboard. Alex gets it now, and moves to embrace her, but Whitney seems too into the role. She stops him and purrs, "I'm going to need your . . . insurance card." He's puzzled, and pretends to give her one. She breaks nurse character, and says in her Whitney voice, "Come on, do it for real!" He responds that he's pretty sure that Dr . . . . She finishes: "Quinn." He says, "Medicine Woman?" referring to the old television show. She nods. He says he's pretty sure the doctor has his information already. Whitney tucks his card into her bra and says she doubts that, so she will need him to have a seat and fill out these forms. Baffled again, Alex takes the forms and sits, frustrated. This is somewhat inventive--a naughty nurse who makes the object of her seduction do paperwork, just like in a real clinical setting! (The NBC site clip breaks here, but the one on YouTube continues.) Whitney studies her clipboard, and as she does so, she turns around and bends over to show Alex her butt. He asks if she really needs his employer's address. She begins walking toward another room, turns around and says, "Our file room is huge . . . " gesturing with her hands to show him, then, adopting a little girl voice and demeanor, "and sometimes I get lost in there!" Then, back to the sultry seductress, she asks, "You wanna come . . . help?" Whitney enters what is presumably the bedroom, but not before bending over again so he can get another look at her behind. Alex begins walking toward the bedroom and taking off his pants at the same time. He loses his balance, and bashes his head against a table, then passes out.
Next we see the two of them arriving at a hospital emergency department. As Alex is being wheeled back, Whitney asks an apparent nurse character whether he will be OK. The nurse makes little effort to be polite or helpful, apparently because she assumes that Whitney is some kind of sex worker, though the nurse character's conduct may also be related to the fact that she seems to fall within the television caricature of the sassy full-size African-American woman.
The nurse leaves and we don't see her again. Whitney's friends show up to be with her, but she is pretty distressed about Alex. When Whitney babbles about Alex's health issues generally, her friend Neal corrects her, noting that Alex takes Co-Q-10 pills for his heart, not his brain--in case there was any doubt about whether Whitney's own brain contained any health knowledge. When Whitney finally gets back to see Alex, he seems OK. She says wants to be with him for the rest of her life, and asks him to marry her. He refuses, saying he loves her so much that he won't marry her. She's thrilled and climbs on top of him to kiss him, still wearing the naughty nurse outfit.
Of course, as always, we understand that the naughty nurse imagery is a "joke." Cummings and the other show creators are not directly suggesting that real nurses go to work in lingerie and seduce patients, a point made clearer here by the appearance of a "real" nurse who is no seductress and who actually mocks Whitney for the outfit, explicitly noting that she is not a nurse. In fact, the show seems to be mocking the Whitney character for resorting to such a silly seduction tactic. The filling out forms bit is also an interesting touch, suggesting some awareness of the silliness of the naughty nurse image, though the scene is underdeveloped and less funny than it sounds. And we assume that the show will have little reason to return to the naughty nurse imagery in future episodes.
But the show is still getting cheap laughs out a damaging and enduring stereotype. We can read the plotline as a subtle critique of the naughty nurse image, but we doubt many viewers will. Instead, they will likely just see it as another sexualized nurse image, and the show makes sure that we get good long looks at sexy nurse Whitney. Those images will stay with viewers at some level, and we will all have another image to add to our huge subconscious naughty nurse storehouse, which for most U.S. adults surely contains hundreds of images--sometimes we get lost in there! Even "jokes" have some effect on how people think and act, and that is why they are so often the vehicle through which disempowered groups are attacked. The naughty nurse reinforces the longstanding association of nursing with female sexuality, an association that undermines real nurses' claims to the respect and resources they need. And although the show does counter the stereotype in a way, with the "real" ED nurse, she is really nothing but another stereotype, the battleaxe who enforces hospital rules to the detriment of patients. The nurse has no reason to doubt that Whitney is Alex's girlfriend, despite her outfit, and there is no good reason why a patient's girlfriend of five years should be excluded from his bedside. The nurse does nothing to tell viewers that nurses are skilled, autonomous professionals who save lives.
We normally hesitate to analyze a media product when we can't see the whole thing, in this case the entire episode with the naughty nurse. It is not impossible that some other portion of the episode has a good illustration of real nursing skill and autonomy, or even that someone explicitly notes that Whitney's naughty nurse outfit is a threat to public health. Also, whales may begin to fly.
We have been in touch with the show to express our concerns about the naughty nurse theme and to urge the creators to consider modifying the episode to eliminate the nursing element (which is unnecessary to the overall plotline). And based on those contacts, we have no reason to think the rest of the episode does anything to ameliorate the harmful nurse imagery.
Contact information for the show:
Nikki Lichterman (818-777-2845)
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