July 17, 2005 -- More than 500 nurses and physicians across Canada, the United States and overseas have written to object to the lyrics of a song performed by some University of Alberta medical students at their recent "MedShow," a traditionally irreverent annual event. The "Nurses' Song," sung to the tune of a song from "Jesus Christ Superstar," stated that nurses were "whores" and "bitches" whose "incompetence" threatened to "make our patients die," but that they were qualified to "fill up my coffeepot" and "give good head." The refrain urged nurses to "show me those boobs."
Controversy about the song erupted soon after the "MedShow" performance in March and it has continued since. University officials in Edmonton have expressed regret about the show, given assurances that the students responsible do not really hold the views expressed, and taken limited measures in response to nurses' concerns. But many health professionals say those responses are inadequate to deal with the attitudes the performance reflects.
"We know the song was supposed to be funny, but it hammers home toxic stereotypes that have plagued nursing for decades: the unskilled handmaiden, the naughty nurse, the battleaxe," said Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH, executive director of the Baltimore-based Center for Nursing Advocacy, which launched the letter-writing campaign earlier this month.
The University of Alberta medical school dean, Tom Marrie, MD, initially asked the students to submit an apology to then-dean of nursing Genevieve Gray, RN, PhD, but Gray found the apology inadequate. Marrie also asked the students to submit a plan to avoid similar problems at the MedShow next year. But he has refused the Center's request that the school discipline the individual students responsible and establish a permanent program where nursing leaders educate medical students about nursing, to "make medical lemonade from the MedShow lemons," as Summers put it.
Among the physicians critical of the show was Alan Fein, MD, a professor at the University of Florida, who said: "We physicians have a long and checkered history when it comes to our treatment of our nursing colleagues. We cannot provide health care without them. Physicians who treat nurses as 'handmaids' are doomed to be third-rate practitioners."
In response to local press coverage of the Center's campaign, Dean Marrie and the University's acting dean of nursing Rene Day, Ph.D., wrote a joint letter on July 14 expressing regret for the students' "very failed attempt at humor." They argued that "the views expressed in the song were meant to convey mockery of an antiquated stereotype" and that they were satisfied that the students involved do not hold those views. On that same day, the University's Medical Students Association issued an unequivocal apology to nurses for the "lapse in judgment" the song represents. Their statement likewise argues that the students felt the song's self-mocking context made it clear that the "outrageous" views expressed were merely being "lampooned."
Summers commended the students for their apology, but said that it did not fully resolve the problem. "We know many of the students reject those stereotypes," she said. "But as for the stereotypes being 'antiquated' or widely understood to be 'outrageous,' we wish. In fact they remain powerful, especially the handmaiden, which is the prevailing societal view of nurses--just turn on your TV."
Summers expressed doubt about the "parody" defense, pointing to the ambiguous context. "There were evidently self-mocking elements in the performance, but clearly not in the lyrics, many of which express how many physicians really see nurses. Look at the superior attitude, and the resentment of nurses who express views on care, which nurses are obligated to do. Look at the very realistic complaints about nurses who can't get their work done--that's a big issue now that short-staffing is rampant. And the sexual aggression in the song is not reassuring at a time when physician abuse is still driving nurses out of the workforce."
Other medical students have argued that the song was a comic "roast," which struck Summers as more plausible. "The idea there is, 'there's some truth in what we're saying, but we still like you,'" she said. "But you can't immunize this kind of ugliness by saying 'just joking'--not when you're pushing the same negative views that are a key factor in the global nursing shortage. Nursing research, education and clinical practice are starved for resources because few people know what nurses really do."
The local coverage to which the University deans responded was Jodie Sinnema's "U of A Med Show sparks protest letter flood: Song lyrics about nurses deemed offensive by medical practitioners" in the Edmonton Journal. She did an initial article on it in May.
The Center for Nursing Advocacy, founded in 2001, is an international non-profit that seeks to increase public understanding of the central, front-line role nurses play in modern health care. The focus of the Center is to promote more accurate, balanced and frequent media portrayals of nurses and increase the media's use of nurses as expert sources.
For more information contact:
Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Nurses we are overjoyed
So you are a nurse
Nurses you just won't believe
So you are a nurse
Nurses like to bitch and moan
So you are a nurse
DISCLAIMER: We couldn't have
The URL for this page is www.truthaboutnursing.org/news_alerts/press/releases/2005/jul17.html