Changing Nurse Stereotypes Through Creative Control

At a restaurant, I demurely settled onto a chair pulled out by my escort. Glancing at the menu,  I wonder out loud what the night’s special might be. In a gesture meant to display his bravado, my date raises his finger to signal the server, shouting, “Nurse!”

Another relationship bites the dust.

If Kafka Wrote About a Nurse by jparadisi
If Kafka Wrote About a Nurse by jparadisi

The public’s image of nurses hasn’t changed for decades. Every Halloween, sexy nurse costumes appear out of nowhere, as if summoned by call lights. On TV shows, doctors do hands-on patient care while nurses find the necessary supplies STAT! from wherever TV hospitals store their supplies.

The media represents nurses as one of five basic archetypes. Oncology nurses, in particular, tend to get lumped into the nurse saint group, perhaps because of the longstanding relationships we tend to develop with our patients. It’s a difficult persona to uphold during long, short-staffed shifts.

Additional images are created from combinations of the basic five, which are:

  • Nurse bitch
  • Nurse saint
  • Smart-ass nurse
  • Nurse/mother substitute
  • Sexy nurse

Why do derivative portrayals persist?

Because screenplay writers do not write from a nurse’s perspective.They write about nurses from their own point of view, limiting the possible creation of new characters. These portrayals of nurses are weak because depth of knowledge, intuition, internal dialogue, and a range of personalities cannot be grasped through observation without familiarity. Writing workshop instructors will tell you: Authenticity only occurs when a writer has a clear understanding of her topic.

For instance, in his deeply moving novel, Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese creates a complex tapestry of personality for his character, the surgeon Thomas Stone. However, in his portrayal of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, the mother of Stone’s twin sons, Verghese resorts to a clichéd saintly-sexy-mother nurse composite who dies early in the story, saving him from further character development.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Verghese is more familiar with the personality traits of surgeons (he’s an MD) than of nurses. He writes a stronger character when he’s familiar with his character’s point of view.

With this in mind, I believe nurses will not be authentically represented in the media until we raise book writers, novelists, and screenplay writers, or TV and filmmakers, from within our ranks. The media’s portrayal of nurses will change when nurses take creative control of it.

What might occur if grants were available to nurses desiring to make film documentaries, write books, or create paintings from our point of view? What if hospitals allowed, and encouraged, creative sabbaticals for nurses to pursue such projects, as do many other industries? Would the public perception of nursing change? Would nurses’ perception of themselves change? Would patient care and delivery of service also benefit from nurse empowerment through creative control?


    1. Boy, I can go on and on about that stereotype. The challenges facing men in nursing are a topic worthy their own post. Recently, I wrote that post for another website. I will write about it for this blog in the near future.


      1. And I must be asked to write on it every year, somewhere. Now the spectre of men making more than women in nursing is back from some 2011data…and me, married to a physician (but she wasn’t a “doctor” wen I married her, just to be clear).

        Dr. Nurse Bob


  1. This is such an important topic, and we look forward to touching on this during your interview on RN.FM Radio next week. Thanks for being such a voice of sanity and thoughtful inquiry.


  2. I also think it is important to note that this is probably not separate from sexism in general. Nursing has, in the past, been associated with women, therefore the characters who fill the roles of “nurse” also fulfill typical female archetypes — saint/whore/mother, etc. I understand that sexism is not the focus of the post, but it may be a related issue. Maybe nurse stereotypes will begin to end as more “heterosexual males” enter the field. Just a thought! Good post, though.


    1. Elizabeth, I agree. Sexism IS the focus of this post, and I’m glad you actually picked up on it. Gender issues apply to men in nursing too, whether or not they are gay.
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to write a thoughtful comment!


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