Open Up and Say...Naah!
March 7, 2011 -- The issue of People magazine dated December 27, 2010 includes Poison singer and reality TV star Bret Michaels as one of its "most intriguing" people of 2010, in a two-page layout dominated by a photo of Michaels surrounded by four naughty nurse models, a reference to his well-publicized recovery from a brain hemorrhage and other health problems. In Justin Stephens' photo, the models' outfits are not extreme by naughty nurse standards--very short white "nurse dresses" and high heels, caps 'n' cleavage. But their poses and facial expressions, along with the ways they are touching Michaels and brandishing basic health equipment, clearly present an image of generic seduction. This is not the first time the enterprising Mr. Michaels has used naughty nurse imagery in connection with publicity of his health problems. In a blog post following his emergency appendectomy in April 2010, he said that he had "hot nurses" taking care of him, referring to the "nurse fantasy" that "every man has." Maybe naughty nurse imagery helps Mr. Michaels meet some hair metal cliché quota and reduce the sense of illness-related vulnerability that might be bad for a celebrity whose image is built on strength and sexual attractiveness. But whatever it's fair to expect of Mr. Michaels, we can certainly expect People magazine--which "reaches more adult readers (more than 45 million as of fall 2009) with each issue than any consumer magazine ever"--to resist such an obvious reinforcement of the brainless naughty nurse image that has long undermined real nurses' claims to respect and resources. We contacted the CEO of Time Inc., and later, People editor Larry Hackett called us in response. He apologized and promised that People will use no other degrading images of nurses while he is there. People also published Truth director Sandy Summers's letter explaining why such images are harmful in the Mailbag section of today's issue. We commend the magazine for being responsive to our concerns about the image of nurses. We have given People some ideas about real nurses whose life-saving work it may wish to highlight. If you have any suggestions about such nurses, please send them to us, and we will collect them and present them to People. Thank you!
The issue of People in which the photo appears is the magazine's annual double issue that includes the "best and worst" of the year, as well as the "most intriguing" celebrities. The Bret Michaels spread (subhead: "Ultimate Survivor") appears in that "intriguing" section, after "Royal Couple" Prince William and Kate Middleton, but before "Out and Proud" Ricky Martin. Michaels appears wearing jeans but shirtless, standing on a silver platform with a white and green cross on it. Surrounding him are four models in the very short white "nurse" dresses, complete with white caps and extremely high white heels. You know it's relatively benign in naughty nurse terms when only one "nurse" is displaying some of her breasts and a little of her black bra. That's the one holding onto the bandage she's applying backwards to Michaels' arm. The other three "nurses" are (in order) holding a blood pressure cuff, pulling on a latex glove, and brandishing a syringe with a needle as she holds onto Michaels' upper leg. We won't bore you with analysis of how each of those activities could be interpreted sexually, but suffice it to say that the models all look like they're ready for action. The accompanying interview includes Michaels' responses to questions about what he's learned from the brain hemorrhage ("Do what rocks your world"); the extent of his recovery (he has short-term memory loss, and he can't kickbox or sleep: "My goal next year is to rock harder and sleep more"); his partying ("I haven't had a drop of alcohol since my appendectomy"); whether he will propose to longtime girlfriend Kristi, which other reports say he has recently done ("I respect marriage, but it's the leading cause of divorce [laughs]."); his upcoming reality show ventures, and how his young daughters reacted to news of the January heart surgery. Oh, and in response to a question about whether he has had any "false alarms" in which he thought he was having another hemorrhage:
Yes, I've had two severe headaches where I thought I was, but I wasn't. The doctors told me it's to be expected.
That's physicians, the health professionals who actually know things, as opposed to the Stepford Nurses who surround Michaels in the photo.
By now, Michaels is an old hand at talking to the public about his health problems. After his emergency appendectomy, which happened while he was on tour with Poison in April 2010, he posted blog entries to let fans know how he was doing. At one point, he could not resist raising the "hot nurse" issue.
And yes there are hot nurses taking care of me, in case you were curious. I mean, come on, every man has the nurse fantasy don't they? Actually again, the staff has been amazing and wonderful people.
Obviously this reinforces the naughty nurse image, and the media was happy to play up that angle, as coverage of the blog post showed. And while the People photo may not have been Michaels's idea, the blog post almost surely was. Of course, the final sentence, like other parts of the post, do suggest that Michaels was at least somewhat aware that the people taking care of him were doing more than looking "hot." But being "amazing and wonderful" is the kind of vague praise that does nothing for nursing, because it allows people to continue to believe that there's nothing substantive about the profession, it's just about having a big heart and being (ideally) "hot." However, the nursing crisis did not happen because people forgot that nurses were "wonderful." We urge Mr. Michaels to consider whether he really needs to keep reinforcing these damaging stereotypes of the people who are keeping him alive during his visits to the hospital.
Mr. Michaels had another operation, on his heart in late January, and he appears to have emerged in good health. We would love to hear him give credit to the nursing professionals who expertly monitored his condition, prevented deadly complications, and taught him how to recover--not because they were "hot," or even "wonderful," but because they had advanced health training and skills.
We hold People magazine to a higher standard. We know it's devoted to celebrities, but we don't think it's too much to ask that the magazine avoid trashing serious professions by gratuitously relying on damaging stereotypes. The Michaels photo did not need to include "nurses" at all. If those responsible for the photo wanted a health care theme, they could have showed Michaels with some of the people who actually took care of him, or showed him by himself with some relevant health care objects or graphics; there are many possibilities. We suppose the naughty nurses were the most obvious image to use to highlight the heavy metal star's health issues, particularly since Michaels' first big foray into reality TV was Rock of Love (2007-2009), the VH1 show in which a large group of women who looked a lot like these models competed to be Michaels's girfriend. Maybe the photo creators figured that since nurses are kinda sexually interested in any male patient, imagine how hot they must be for Bret!
The photo idea may have been easy, but it doesn't seem consistent with the "trusted" image of People publisher Time Inc., the largest magazine media company in the United States, or with its parent company Time Warner, a global media and entertainment leader that plainly takes pride in the many ethics, diversity, and image awards it has received, including its designation by Ethisphere as one of the "world's most ethical companies" for 2010. Perhaps Time Warner can demonstrate its commitment to community values by refraining from exploiting images that undermine nursing at a time when the profession remains in the midst of a global crisis driven in large part by poor public understanding of the true value of what nurse do, which leads decision-makers to underfund their clinical practice, education, residencies, and research.
We contacted Jack Griffin, then the CEO of Time Inc., and as a result, we received a call from People editor Larry Hackett. We explained the problems with the naughty nurse image, and Hackett apologized and promised that People will not use such images while he is there. The magazine published Truth director Sandy Summers's letter (above) explaining why such images are harmful in the Mailbag section of today's issue. We have also given People some ideas about real nurses whose work it may wish to cover. If you have any suggestions about that, please send them to us, and we will collect them and present them to the magazine. Thank you!