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Philadelphia nurse wins Center's Soap Nurse Sweepstakes!

Soul City logo January 16, 2005 -- The Center is thrilled to announce that non-stereotypical Philadelphia nurse Keynan Hobbs has won our Soap Nurse Sweepstakes for supplying the most examples of non-stereotypical soap opera nurse characters. The winning entry--which also happened to be the only entry--identified three nurse characters from the South African "edutainment" television series "Soul City" who do appear to be more than simply tired, regressive stereotypes. Mr. Hobbs, your Nurse Action Figure is on the way!

Soul City logoSupporters will recall that the Sweepstakes was inspired by Michael Logan's "On Soaps" column in the December 12, 2004 TV Guide, which discussed Sarah Brown's portrayal of "needy, man-hungry nurse" Julia Larrabee on CBS' daytime drama "As the World Turns." Mr. Logan's column reported that the character's antics had "earned Brown several nicknames on the Internet message boards: 'Nurse Skank' and 'Nurse Hands' being among the printable ones." This got us wondering about the extent to which soap operas have ever featured nurse characters that do NOT foster harmful stereotypes: were there any examples of soap opera nurse characters who were not handmaidens, angels, skanks, battleaxes, idle gossipers, peripheral losers, and/or monkeys? Recent research has shown that soap operas do influence health care views and actions.

Mr. Hobbs' winning entry identified three characters on South Africa's popular "Soul City" who appear to be more than stereotypes, though they do not appear to be entirely stereotype-free. "Soul City" is apparently based on a clinic in Alexandra that became legendary during the long struggle against apartheid. Although it's not clear if this show has actually been shown in the United States--technically required under contest rules--the Center's Official Contest Adjudication Committee has voted to accept the entry. The fact that no one has yet identified any non-stereotypical characters in a soap opera set in the U.S. confirms our sense that U.S. soaps continue to perpetuate a highly regressive, physician-centric vision of health care. For more information on this unfortunate situation, supporters may wish to contact Mr. Logan, TV Guide's soap guru, at

Mr. Hobbs, who is a graduate nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania, submitted his winning entry on January 9. He notes:

"Soul City" is a soap opera "edutainment" effort...aimed at teaching South Africans about public health issues like HIV/AIDS, violence against women, smoking, and a host of other topics. There has been some research done on their efficacy, and they seem very aware of their impact on their viewers' health behaviors, attitudes, and decisions...

Mr. Hobbs supplements his entry with three character descriptions from the "Soul City" web site. Some relevant excerpts (FYI: "Sister" is the term for a nurse in some former British colonies):

Sister Bettina Khumalo (played by Lillian Dube) ...
Profession: new director of Masekane clinic. ...
The matriarch - Bettina is the mother-figure of the series - the moral voice of Soul City. ...

In Series III Bettina was also instrumental in mobilizing the community in a housing scheme, getting them to move out of their unstable shacks and build houses. In fact, mobilizing her community is something she is very good at - a great organiser. In Series IV Bettina was largely involved in helping Vusi recover from a stroke he had due to high blood pressure. ... Bettina spent Series V in mourning, burying herself in her work. She became involved in helping the Vilikazi family - the mother was HIV-positive, the father struggling to make ends meet, the family rejected by church and neighbours. ... In Series VI Bettina will carry two Depression messages: "Depression is a real illness and anybody can get it. (Adult-driven - moderate depression syndrome.)" and "Depression is treatable and going for help is the strong thing to do. (Treatment involves more than one approach.)"

Karen Van Niekerk (Greta Fox) ...
Profession: Administrator of Clinic. ...
Always the Brides'maid.

Karen ... has come a long way from her white conservative roots. Her first boyfriend died in a motorbike accident while she was studying nursing...and it utterly destroyed her life ... She probably wouldn't admit it, but "Soul City" has become her family. Romantically, it's been a series of disasters. She had a brief fling with a doctor but it got messy - she's prone to getting involved with men who will not commit...But she's running out of time when it comes to marriage, etc. Karen is highly organised and efficient. She manages to work wonders on limited resources and always puts the clinic first. Her dedication is not always appreciated. Karen can be quite abrasive - she does not suffer fools easily - but she's bright and has a strong moral base. She had a temporary problem with drinking and driving in the final episode of Series IV which resulted in her knocking down a young boy, Benni Ndlovu - an incident that would change both their lives. In Series V she adopted Benni, a 10 year old impish angel. ... In her new role as "mother", Karen has adopted a practical approach rather than a sentimental one. Karen anyway finds it difficult to express her feelings... Her brother, by contrast, is a racist - he was horrified by Karen's decision to adopt Benni. Similarly he was unsympathetic when Karen was raped in Ep 5 - adopting the stereo-typical male view that she must in some way have "asked for it". Karen let him know, in no uncertain terms, what she thought of him and his opinions. ... Karen pretends to cope but she's vulnerable....

Sipho Ndlovu ...
Occupation: Male Nurse

It was always Sipho's dream to be a doctor and his oldest brother, Ernest, was determined to fulfill it. They came from a working class family so money was always tight. ... Ernest got himself a well paid job working for a trucking company, spending weeks on the road, often travelling as far north as Zambia. This enabled Ernest to pay Sipho's first year Med School (Wits) fees in advance. And the second year. Sipho wasn't the greatest student - his grades were average - but he worked damn hard and always passed. Every once in a while Ernest would pop up and slide Sipho a grand or so - pocket money to buy new clothes - Sipho's a natty dresser, likes to look good, goes to the gym three times a week and builds those biceps. During the holidays Sipho got a job working at Bara Hospital as an orderly...treating it as an apprenticeship for when he would finally graduate. But then a raw twist of fate .... Turns out Ernest is dead - shot while attempting to rob a cash-in-transit van. Turns out Ernest has been doing this for the past three years. Turns out Ernest never worked for the trucking company after all. No more money for Med School fees. Sipho joined Bara full-time, had a year knocked off his nurse's course, completed it three years later, and went to work at Sterkfontein State Psychiatric. Two years on and now he's at Masakhane Clinic. ... Sipho is a well groomed 'sexy' black man of 29 yrs old[,] he is fit and energetic, rides a motobike, a man's man, without being sexist, a role model for the new century. What makes Sipho different is that he's [a] male nurse, because of this he is initially viewed with suspicion, but as the series develops he has a romance with the glamorous doctor Ayanda....

We do detect some possible maternal stereotyping here, and the Sipho plotlines may reflect some physician-centric attitudes and iffy ideas about "male nurses." But the characters do sound like they would not fit easily into any of the stereotypical categories we identified in announcing the contest. Excerpts from Mr. Hobbs' analysis:

So, why are these characters non-stereotypical? The breadth of Bettina is pretty amazing for a TV show ...Karen is characterized as highly organized and efficient, working wonders with limited resources - sound like any nurses you know? ... Other than the usual soap opera complications in her personal life, Karen has fallen a bit farther from the soap opera apple tree than most nurse characters.

Sipho Ndlovu...this is where things go south. ... Sipho is described as "a well groomed 'sexy' black man of 29 yrs old he is fit and energetic, rides a motorbike, a man's man," wait for it..."without being sexist, a role model for the new century." I'm pretty sure that sexism is part and parcel there! [The character description notes:] "What makes Sipho different is that he's male nurse, because of this he is initially viewed with suspicion, but as the series develops he has a romance with the glamorous doctor Ayanda." Clearly, the "suspicion" about Sipho is that he is gay, but thankfully everyone's worst fears are not realized once he takes up with the "glamorous" FEMALE doctor. ... [W]ell, maybe he's just the South African Abby Lockhart [an "ER" nurse whose medical school studies were temporarily halted when her ex-husband failed to make alimony payments]; which presents an interesting opportunity for cross-over between "Soul City" and "ER," yes?

Mr. Hobbs adds:

But, here is the best for last: the show gives out yearly "Soul City" Health and Development Worker of the Year Awards, and the award went to nurses in 2001 and 2003. ... The people behind the show clearly recognize the contributions of nurses to South Africa's health challenges, and I just can't help but [] think that if "Soul City" took on the image of nurses and nursing in South Africa the way they have HIV/AIDS, STD's, TB, and neonatal health, then maybe the effects of an outgoing tide of nurses to developed countries could be eased.

See "Soul City"'s web site here.

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