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.
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?