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Nursing: good enough for media feminists' mothers, but not their daughters

TV Guide coverFebruary 14, 2004 -- In a cover story in this week's TV Guide, the makers of NBC's "ER" claim credit for a huge upsurge in the number of female ED physicians, even as they deny any responsibility for the nursing shortage that now threatens the lives of ED patients. Mary Murphy's flattering profile, "The Women Who Revived 'ER,'" amounts to an argument that the characters played by actresses Maura Tierney (nurse/medical student Abby Lockhart), Parminder Nagra (medical student Neela Rasgotra), and Linda Cardellini ("strident" nurse Sam Taggart) have reinvigorated a veteran show that had already increased female empowerment in the ranks of real ED physicians. Though two of these three characters are nurses, the article ignores nursing.

The show's makers and TV Guide are eager to award "ER" credit for having motivated women to enter emergency medicine, and for reflecting what's really going on with women in trauma centers today--which is apparently the same thing as what's going on with ED physicians. Co-executive producer Dee Johnson notes that when Michael Crichton started the show 10 years ago, "emergency rooms were mostly male. This year, ER reflects what's going on with women in the trauma centers we visited." Actually, ED's were probably not "mostly male" in 1994 because most ED professionals were and are female nurses. Of course, what Ms. Johnson really means is that the ED physicians--evidently the only people who matter to her--were mostly male. We are also impressed with the show's admission that it seeks to show "what's really going on," despite its frequent argument that dramatic license frees it from having to portray nursing accurately and one "ER" medical advisor's comment that Hollywood has "no obligation to be accurate whatsoever."

TV Guide flatly states that the show's "impact on the culture is undeniable. Consider the increased enrollment of women in medical schools since 'ER''s 1994 debut." The piece quotes "ER" technical advisor physician Fred Einesman, who says the show "has definitely influenced women in terms of recognizing emergency medicine as a career path....Once ER went on the air, emergency medicine became the most popular residency and the number of women who applied went up dramatically." In other words, the show is well aware that viewers take it so seriously that it affects their career choices. And although it seems likely that the relatively controlled lifestyle of ED physicians is also a factor in this trend, it's easy to agree that the show's relentless, decade-long deification of ED physicians has greatly affected how its tens of millions of viewers see emergency medicine. In fact, those responsible for "ER" have long taken credit for educating the public about important health care issues, and for highlighting important social matters.

This self-congratulation belies the show's refusal to consider whether its longtime marginalization of nursing has had the same kind of effect on the career choices of potential nurses, and on how the public at large views nursing. Indeed, "ER" has publicly scoffed at the notion that it has affected how people see nursing. But the show can't have it both ways. If it wants credit for using its global influence to promote positive change, it cannot deny responsibility for its harmful portrayal of nurses as peripheral subordinates who are dying to become physicians, date physicians, or (preferably) both. And though the show's makers appear to see themselves as feminists for advancing female physicians and other women's causes, it is hard to see the feminist virtue in a show that regularly disrespects over two million hard-working female nurses in the United States alone.

Unfortunately, the media elite includes too many people who appear to equate female achievement in health care with advancement in the ranks of physicians, as a recent episode of ABC's "The View" made clear. These people seem to regard nursing as a quaint, servile job that newly empowered women have left behind. Unburdened by a real understanding of nursing, much of the media appears to believe that any woman with brains and talent would choose medicine over nursing as a matter of course. Thus, nursing can be safely disrespected or ignored. Perhaps some feminists even feel traditionally female professions like nursing must be treated that way, in order to reinforce their own hard-won empowerment: we've come a long way, baby! But what this means is that many media feminists treat nurses with the same kind of unjustified contempt that fueled the women's movement itself.

In other words, nurses are the new women.


Please send your comments to Mary Murphy about her article "The Women Who Revived 'ER,'" in the February 14-20, 2004 edition of TV Guide. The article appears to have been transcribed by someone here, but it does not appear in TV Guide's online edition. The cover photo above of the three actresses is from the edition that was sent to subscribers. A Nascar photo appeared on the cover of the issue released for the newsstands.


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