"Will & Grace" bombshell: gay men like nursing!
November 14, 2003 -- In its November 13 episode, NBC's popular sitcom "Will & Grace" began a wacky but worrisome foray into the world of "student nursing." Though no one takes what the show does at face value, this episode's treatment of nursing was misleading and damaging to the profession.
Any analysis of a show like "Will & Grace" has to acknowledge the show's irreverent dissection of everything and everyone--nothing is sacred. But even in that environment, certain assumptions and themes are likely to stay with a viewer, at some level, after the party's over. That is what concerns us here.
In the episode, "Nice in White Satin," Will persuades Karen to get an annual corporate physical, and together with Jack they head to see a physician. In the waiting room, Jack encounters an attractive man dressed all in white. The smitten Jack thinks he's a physician, but the man explains that he's "just a student nurse." With that, and the frolic that apparently follows, Jack has found his true calling. Meanwhile, the physician who examines Karen turns out to be a little eccentric: in the presence of Karen and Will, he cries uncontrollably about another patient, yells insults at his partner, and exchanges increasingly lewd sexual innuendo with the nurse who brings him some instruments--a nurse with whom he says he would be having sex, if she weren't his sister. Jack eventually persuades Will and Karen, who are essentially his surrogate parents, to pay for a semester of nursing school. But he quits after a week to pursue another supposedly vital interest: surfing. Will and Karen seek a refund at the "school," which turns out to be more like a hospital unit. One of the teachers--or at any rate, someone who staffs the nurses' station--is dismayed that Jack has dropped out, assuring Will and Karen that Jack was one of the most promising students they've ever had. Will and Karen urge Jack to reconsider, especially after he demonstrates his aptitude by getting Karen to swallow a calcium pill. The episode ends with Jack admiring himself in his new white nursing outfit.
Well, we had a few problems with this. On the up side, despite plenty of opportunities, the show never really aims verbal shots directly at nursing ("just a student nurse," while not great, isn't a clean hit because of the "student" element). And the profession is presented as a legitimate and worthwhile career choice for Jack. Of course, to say something's a good career choice for the flighty, immature Jack--or that he is the most promising student in a long time--isn't necessarily a compliment to that field.
Both the episode and the show's NBC web site seem to regard "student nursing" as a calling unto itself, rather than a path to the nursing profession. In general, many feel that the expression "student nurse" is itself unhelpful, since it suggests that nursing students are nurses, thus that you can be a "nurse" with very little training or experience. By contrast, there are no "student physicians."
Other elements of the plot also send troubling messages. Of course, nursing should and does welcome gay nurses. But the gay male nurse is also a stereotype, and one the show seems happy to embrace. Jack discovers his "vocation" after hooking up with an attractive male nurse. A fellow male student's emotional reaction to Jack's quitting the program is not inconsistent with gay stereotypes. And the show's final scene suggests that a big part of Jack's interest relates to the hot nursing uniform. As it happens, we believe that most male nurses are not gay. But it would not be hard to read this episode as saying nursing is for women and gay men, a damaging impression in view of the global nursing shortage.
The "nursing school" elements clearly reflect little or no understanding of how nurses are trained. The vast majority of nurses are now trained at colleges and universities, and very few hospital-based nursing schools remain. Nursing is a serious academic program, and students cannot generally decide to enroll one week and be in class the next. And students would not find themselves in a clinical setting the first week.
Finally, of course, there's the crazy physician-nurse sex talk. This is obviously a big surreal joke, and the physician's behavior is at least as wildly inappropriate as the nurse's. The problem is that there is no "naughty physician" stereotype. No one really thinks that physicians act this way. By contrast, the "naughty nurse" stereotype is alive and well in television, video, and the rest of our society. We may find the scene funny partly because we know the contrast between this physician and real ones is so jarring. But many people don't have a clear understanding of the real nursing profession, and this may have a very different effect on their attitudes about nursing. In addition, despite the shenanigans, the physician does display some professional expertise. The same cannot really be said of the nurse, who job seems to be essentially to be at his beck and call, ready with the flirting and the equipment, if you know what we mean.
Oh, and one more thing. Satin and nursing? Not a good combination. Nursing is hard mental and physical work, not some formal gala at Disney Hall.
Nurses can take jokes, even in the midst of the current shortage, if they reflect some understanding of the profession. But we don't see that in this episode, which falls short even for a non-health care sitcom. And this is not the end of it: Jack's career in "student nursing" is slated to continue in at least the November 20 episode, when, according to the NBC web site, Jack "struggles with his new nursing teacher."
Feel free to write to the executive producers of Will & Grace--David Kohan, Max Mutchnick, James Burrows, Jeff Greenstein, Jhoni Marchinko and Alex Herschlag--at WillGrace@nbc.com. Please blind carbon copy us at the Center at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can follow your opinions on Will & Grace's treatment of nursing.