How We Portray Nurses on TV Affects Real Nurses

How We Portray Nurses on TV Affects Real Nurses

You don’t have to work in healthcare to know that nurses are the heart of the global health system. Anyone who has experienced the illness of a loved one or has been through an illness themselves knows that nurses are the lynchpin holding healthcare teams together in times of crisis, combining expertise with empathy and science with soul.

Unfortunately, though, entertainment rarely captures all that nurses are, all that they do, and all that they mean for patients, families, and colleagues alike. All too often, in fact, nurses in film and television are objectified, sexualized, or demonized — that is, when they are represented at all.

That misrepresentation and underrepresentation can have a profound and detrimental effect on real-life nurses.

The Object of My Affection

The “naughty nurse” trope is by no means a new phenomenon in popular media. So commonplace is the stereotype in today’s culture, in fact, that it’s become a perennial favorite for Halloween costumes and theme parties alike.

Importantly, though, the sexualization of the nurse character is not confined to trashy B-movies produced for hormone-drenched teenage boys. Indeed, some of the most acclaimed medical dramas in modern media have played on this stereotype.

Consider, for example, the iconic character of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the multi-award-winning series, MASH. Portrayed on film by the sultry Sally Kellerman and television by the equally bodacious Loretta Swit, Houlihan, despite being a tough and talented wartime nurse, is best known for her adulterous relationship with Army doctor and borderline buffoon, Major Frank Burns.

In subsequent decades, the tendency to define nurse characters principally through their romantic relationships would continue. Once again, this can be seen in another long-running, critically-lauded drama, ER.  

Indeed, a major plot point of the series’ first episode is the attempted suicide of head nurse, Carol Hathaway, who is presumably despondent over the breakup of her relationship with heartthrob and womanizer, Dr. Doug Ross, played by an up-and-coming George Clooney. The pair’s on-again, off-again relationship would be a major focus of the series narrative for several seasons to come.

From Sex Object to Demon Seed

When TV nurses are not being portrayed as either sex objects or put-upon love interests for the male doctors around them, then they’re frequently portrayed as the embodiment of patients’ worst fears. A significant example of this can be found in the recent Netflix series, Ratched

Based on the notorious character of the same name in the novel and subsequent film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched is a sadistic psychopath. She wields her power over patients and colleagues alike with merciless cruelty and often seems to exalt in the pain and terror she inflicts. 

In this way, the trope of the demonic nurse may be understood as a reflection of deep societal fears. Specifically, a woman with knowledge and power, such as that which nurses yield, is represented here as a significant threat, particularly to men who are at their most vulnerable, as when they are under Nurse Ratched’s “care.” 

The Vanishing

As ubiquitous as the objectification, sexualization, and demonization of fictional nurses may be, perhaps the most common form of representation is little or no representation at all.

Indeed, in some of television’s most popular and celebrated medical dramas, nurses are hardly seen at all. Rather, the focus is almost exclusively on physicians, their exploits, and their relationships both with patients and with one another.

When nurses are invoked at all, it is usually done with the air of an afterthought, as if nurses simply exist to carry out the dictates of their medical “superiors.” They execute doctors’ orders but seem to have precious little autonomy or agency of their own. 

Examples of such representations, or lack thereof, are plentiful. Series such as Grey’s Anatomy, House, and The Good Doctor revolve almost exclusively around their doctor characters. This grossly misrepresents the extent to which nurses engage in patient care and treatment planning. Indeed, in real life, when it comes to building relationships with and advocating for patients, far more often than not, it’s the nurses, not the doctors, who lead the way.

The Takeaway

Real-life nurses save lives and provide comfort. They shepherd us through our darkest hours. They are scientists, advocates, nurturers, and gurus. They are the glue that holds the modern health system together.

Unfortunately, however, you would not know this if media representations alone were your only source of knowledge about today’s nurses.

In film and television, nurse characters are too often depicted as mindless sexpots whose sole meaning, value, and purpose is in landing, or at least bedding, one of the wealthy doctors they work with.

Conversely, when the nurse isn’t portrayed as a voracious sex object, then she’s shown as a monster, wielding her power as a nurse to hurt and control the vulnerable, men in particular.

Finally, when fictional nurses are cast neither as seductresses or sadists, then they’re hardly represented at all, and this absence of representation may well be the most damaging and dangerous of them all.


What are your thoughts on nurses depicted in TV shows? Do you think they’ve been misrepresented? Do let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!

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