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Ratched Redux

December 4, 2005 -- She lives. Two recent episodes of popular U.S. television dramas have retooled Nurse Ratched for the feminist (or post-feminist) era. Neo-Ratched still embodies institutional oppression and sexual intolerance. But these new depictions are less plainly misogynist than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Many of Neo-Ratched's victims are female. And now modern, empowered women are working heroically against her unethical (if not illegal) efforts to enforce what are seen as regressive notions of proper sexual conduct. The season premiere of CBS's "Cold Case," written by series creator Meredith Stiehm and re-aired tonight, followed an investigation into a 1988 case involving an anti-abortion extremist school nurse. This nurse, by unethically manipulating a high school couple into having their baby, set in motion forces that destroyed their lives. The November 2 episode of NBC's "Law and Order," David Slack's "Birthright," focused on an investigation of the death of an abusive mother, who had been jailed for allegedly killing a man who reported her to child protective services. The mother's death was caused by a reaction to an IUD given to her by a nurse practitioner, who was secretly sterilizing inmates she deemed unworthy of having children. The nurses in these plots may seem to take opposite approaches to the reproductive choices of troubled women. But both are denying the women the right to make those choices themselves. Unlike Ratched, the nurses here are motivated by understandable goals. But far beyond merely taking a principled stand against abortion or child abuse, they embrace criminal extremism and a total abdication of their ethical duties to their patients. Law enforcement, if not exactly full of bleeding heart Hollywood progressives, represents the professional tolerance of a modern pluralistic society. Thus, nursing is seen not only as a loser job that smart, ambitious women have left behind, but a backwater populated by medieval zealots. Only a dangerous kook would still be doing such "women's work."

Cold Case

Law and Order

September 25, 2005 episode of Cold Case: "Family"

"Cold Case" follows a team of Philadelphia homicide detectives, including central character Lilly Rush, who tackle old unsolved cases. The season premiere, originally aired on September 25, was called "Family." It centers on the 1988 hit-and-run death of high school student Jimmy on the same night his girlfriend Quinn gave birth to their baby in a bathroom stall at a school graduation party--got that? But it also concerns the current situation of that baby, Claire, now a bitter teen who has spent the last 17 years in foster care. Claire has recently been approached by a stranger who claims to be her real father. Jimmy's killer was never found. The traumatized Quinn, who had left baby Claire in a trash receptacle, served two years in jail for reckless endangerment, lost custody of Claire, and never really recovered. In 2005, she is in a half-way house.

The retro-detectives also speak with Angie, the student who actually found the baby at the 1988 graduation party. Angie tells them the following story (which we see occur in a dramatic flashback) to explain how she already knew Quinn was pregnant. One day, presumably in late 1987, Angie is at the office of the school nurse, Laura Graham. Angie overhears a private conversation between Jimmy and Nurse Laura, who has conveniently left her office door wide open, showing a lack of regard for confidentiality that pales next to what comes next. Jimmy haltingly explains Quinn's pregnancy to Nurse Laura, indicates that they have decided on an abortion, and says he has $200 for that, but needs guidance as to where to go. Calmly, Nurse Laura says the procedure costs $900, which is almost certainly false. She says they'd "both need parental consent," which is false, in 1987 and now (more recent statutory changes require Pennsylvania mothers under 18 to get the consent of one parent or a judge). Nurse Laura finishes with this helpful nugget: "Quinn would never be able to have children again." Then, to Jimmy's horror, she shows him some gruesome abortion photos. She says: "Can you imagine having your legs and arms broken and then suctioned away? You'd probably scream just like the babies do." Jimmy mumbles that he thought it was "early" and "easy." Nurse Laura: "Murder isn't easy." Jimmy slinks away. Back in 2005, the brilliant detectives suggest to Angie that Nurse Laura "had an agenda." Angie says Laura was a "nut job." But Nurse Laura does not strike Jimmy as a nut, but as a supportive and persuasive authority figure.

Back at the police station in 2005, Det. Rush observes that Nurse Laura was "big into operation choose life in '88." Another detective notes that she had actually been arrested three times, once in 1986 for assaulting a patient entering a clinic, and again that same year for breaking windows at a "doctor's office." Rush says her "personal favorite" was the third arrest, from 1987, in which Laura "ran a doctor off the road after his shift at a women's health center."

The detectives, wondering if evil Nurse Laura might be a good suspect, grill her. She claims she just "counseled" the teens in 1988. One male detective responds that she lied to Jimmy and showed him gruesome photos. Laura says she thought he should see what they do "at the killing mills." The detective: "Oh, bite me." Nurse Laura says that she got through to Jimmy, because after the holidays, he asked for the name of an obstetrician. She adds ominously that for that reason, "there was no need for punishment."

The detectives question a track coach named Johnson, who was something of a mentor to Jimmy and who had given him the $200 for the abortion. In flashback we see Johnson urge Jimmy to get Quinn to go through with the procedure, and even suggest that Quinn has been seeing other guys, so maybe the baby is not Jimmy's. Jimmy confronts Quinn. She confirms that there was one other, older guy, who took advantage of her in a way that was not really consensual: Coach Johnson. Jimmy can't believe it, and the couple seem to break up. But Quinn later tells the detectives that she and Jimmy reconciled, and that Jimmy found "someone" else to take their baby after delivery. But after she gave birth to Claire at the party, Jimmy went to get that other person...and never returned.

The detectives learn who accompanied Jimmy and Quinn to see the OB: their math teacher Jared Wyatt. Wyatt tells them he did that because Jimmy had something over him. One day at school, Jimmy had walked in on the married Wyatt and Nurse Laura (!) in a very passionate embrace. When the detectives confront Nurse Laura, she suggests they talk to Angie, who found the baby. Laura notes that back in the day, Angie was in her office every day to take her anti-psychotic meds. Nurse Laura reveals that Angie was obsessed with Jimmy, that she was very capable of violence when off her meds, and that she had gone off them for graduation. (Where's that confounded patient confidentiality?)

The detectives confront Angie. She says that she approached Jimmy in the school parking lot during the graduation party, but he just wanted to find Wyatt, the math teacher. When the detectives question Wyatt, he confesses. He and his wife were desperate to have kids, and he agreed to take the baby from Jimmy. But after helping Quinn give birth, Jimmy decided he could not give up the baby or Quinn. He found Wyatt outside the school, told him this, and started walking away. In a rage, Wyatt got in his car and ran Jimmy down.

Meanwhile, back in 2005, Claire has been abducted by the man claiming to be her father, who turns out to be Coach Johnson. The detectives track the two to a hotel. Claire seems unharmed, Johnson is arrested, and Det. Lilly has arranged for Quinn to be brought from her half way house for a tearful reunion with the now more understanding Claire.

In a series of final shots wrapping things up for the major characters, we see the 2005 Nurse Laura reading alone at the undefined health care institution where she works. She is engrossed in a romance novel called "Love's Passion." Clearly, the show is suggesting that Laura is still a hypocritical loser, trying to control others' sexual conduct while acting out her own fantasies on the sly. Filmgoers might have guessed that Mildred Ratched was like this, but "Cuckoo's Nest" did not hit us over the head with it like this.

November 2, 2005 episode of Law and Order: "Birthright"

Meanwhile, across the dial at NBC, a recent episode of "Law and Order" reportedly had a similar subtext. The NBC site summarizes the show's November 2 episode this way:

When an abusive young mother and murder suspect suddenly dies in her prison cell, an autopsy tells Detectives Fontana...and Green...that the woman has died from an I.U.D. containing benecrine -- an illegal drug that sterilizes its users -- given by a nurse practitioner...with a social agenda. As A.D.A.s McCoy...and Borgia...consider filing second-degree manslaughter charges, they meet a former A.D.A. ...who is now defending the nurse and thinks he has a good case. ...

The "social agenda" is evidently that some women should not have the right to have more children, and this NP is taking it into her own hands to deprive them of that right. Thus, there is no question here as to whether that might be constitutional if the government did it. Because the NP is doing it with no state sanction, it is a crime, and of course unethical.

In both episodes, things are not quite so simple as "fascist nurses destroy society," which is one plausible reading of "Cuckoo's Nest," since we never did see that the sociopathic Ratched had a decent rationale for torturing her patients. But in "Cold Case," Nurse Laura (tactics aside) is trying to prevent what she sees as murder. The show does suggest that perhaps in the end Jimmy and Quinn were right to have the baby (which of course is not the same thing as saying they should have been forced to do so). And though Nurse Laura's action may have ultimately led to Jimmy's death and Quinn's wrecked life, obviously Wyatt bears direct responsibility, and Coach Johnson hasn't exactly been helpful. Similarly, in "Law and Order," the NP (tactics aside) is trying to prevent more children from suffering with abusive mothers who seem plainly unfit to raise them.

But we can't leave tactics aside. Nurse Laura instills terror in those whom she is obliged to tell the truth. Both TV nurses are presented as violent fundamentalist criminals with no use for the lawful avenues modern democracies offer them to effect social change. Neo-Ratched is a bitter throwback, doing a job that enlightened women like our law enforcement heroes have left behind, and she must be stopped before her myopic absolutism tears a bigger hole in the social fabric.

Hollywood apparently sees nurses as convenient foils to set off the more attractive qualities of the important professionals it respects (physicians, police, lawyers). Nurses are versatile: they can represent sexual degradation or petty bureaucracy ("Grey's Anatomy"), menial clean-up work ("House"), shallow vindictiveness ("Inconceivable"), unhinged female aggression ("ER"), or mute deference ("Strong Medicine").

And now, even the Taliban.

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