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Brainless, sex mad bimbos

Dundee University
December 18, 2009 -- Today the Evening Telegraph (Dundee, Scotland) ran a short but helpful item about a recent University of Dundee (right) study that found stereotypical television images of nurses as "brainless, sex mad bimbos" were discouraging academically advanced primary school students from pursuing the profession. Marjory Inglis's "Put off nursing by TV portrayal" reports that professor of nursing Liz Wilson presented the research at a meeting of the National Health Service -- Tayside's governance committee at King's Cross Hospital. The piece includes quotes from Wilson, and it describes local plans to try to counter the stereotypes. The study results are consistent with those of a 2000 study of U.S. school children by JWT Communications, which found that students got their main impression of nursing from NBC's ER, and that they considered nursing a technical job for girls, one that was unworthy of private school students. We thank Ms. Inglis and the Evening Telegraph for its report on this research, which shows again that fictional media have a powerful effect on views and actions related to nursing.

"Put off nursing by TV portrayal"

Donelan, Buerhaus study on "respect" in Nursing Economics
"Put off nursing by TV portrayal"

The article appeared to be based largely on the presentation by Professor Wilson, who is also NHS Tayside's director of nursing. The piece says that the Dundee researchers interviewed "fifth and sixth-year pupils with a record of high academic achievement." They found that stereotypical media images influenced the students' career decisions. In a finding similar to that of the JWT study a decade earlier, the high achievers' "main source of images regarding nursing appears to be through TV," such as the long-running BBC drama Casualty. And in a finding similar to the JWT study's finding about private school students, the Dundee researchers reported that advanced students "who considered nursing as a career decided against it, concluding it would not be using their good examination grades to maximum benefit."

The Evening Telegraph piece includes revealing quotes from a couple of the students:

In Casualty some nurses are portrayed as brainless, sex mad bimbos out to try to romance doctors and get a doctor for a husband.

The sexual stereotype is always there and seems to be reinforced when you view TV programmes and if you see nurses on adverts or in films they are always female with short skirts and enormous chests -- really not what any intellectual female would want to be seen as.

The remark about looking to romance physicians is also reminiscent of the JWT study, which found that students knew more about the ER nurse characters' love lives than their professional ones.

Professor Wilson reportedly described local efforts to counter these impressions and encourage students to consider nursing. These include a primary school "arts project related to healthcare," an initiative to start health care "work placements" for 15-year-olds, and another effort which allows youngsters to be "gowned up" and work on "lifelike models used to train medical students." The piece closes with brief quotes from government officials, who vow to explore ways to help students make more informed career choices. Of course, while it would be good if students (and adults) could be persuaded to look past the stereotyping nursing continues to suffer in the popular media, it would also be helpful if that media made an effort to stop stereotyping nurses in the first place, and to give a sense of the real value and complexity of nursing today.

Donelan, Buerhaus study on "respect" in Nursing Economics

A 2008 study published in Nursing Economics (Donelan, Buerhaus, DesRoches, Dittus and Dutwin), also found that the media affects how the public views nursing, but it suggested that the profession is actually "highly respected." Key questions in that survey asked whether broad categories of media products made respondents more or less likely to "respect" nurses. Supposedly, none of the categories of media had a large negative effect. One category consisting of major television shows (House, Grey's Anatomy, ER, and Scrubs) reportedly made no difference to 66 percent of respondents but made 28 percent respect nurses more, and only 5 percent respect nurses less. But few adults are likely to admit to a pollster that the media makes them "respect" real nurses less. People know that we're supposed to admire nurses in a generalized, sentimental way; that's why nurses top the annual Gallup polls for the most "trusted and ethical" professions. However, that kind of "respect"--for nurses' hearts of gold!--evidently does not lead decision-makers to allocate sufficient resources to the profession. Nor does it seem sufficient to encourage the brightest students to consider nursing as a career. The JWT and Dundee studies focused on a specific decision (career choice) to be made by specific groups and elicited specific comments about the images of nursing that dominate the influential popular media. By contrast, the Nursing Economics study relied on a vague, undefined notion of "respect" and made no effort to reconcile the supposedly positive effects of shows like House and Grey's Anatomy with those shows' actual portrayal of nurses as dim, peripheral subordinates to the brilliant physicians who provide all meaningful care.

We commend Ms. Inglis and the Evening Standard for their helpful report on this important research about public understanding of nursing.

See the study "What do high academic achieving school pupils really think about a career in nursing: Analysis of the narrative from paradigmatic case interviews" by Gavin R. Neilson and William Lauder published in Nurse Education Today 28 (2008): 680-690.

See the article by Marjory Inglis: "Put off nursing by TV portrayal: TV images of nurses as "brainless, sex mad bimbos" are putting young people off a career in nursing."


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