In the Media: Media Portrayal of the Nursing Profession, from Two Perspectives

    • May 28, 2009

Over the past century, the film industry has tended to reduce nurses to trite, often unflattering stereotypes such as the leading character’s love interest (Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms”), the sex object (Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in “M.A.S.H.”), and the evil psychopath (Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”).

But the film industry is beginning to break its longstanding habit of belittling the nursing profession, according to a recent study of nurse characters in 280 movies made since 1900. In a study published last year, Australian nurse instructor David Stanley, R.N., M.Sc., Nurs.D., R.M., says there are welcome signs that the industry is abandoning past stereotypes and in some cases portraying nurses as strong, intelligent and complex professionals.

Not so fast, cautions Sandy Summers, R.N., M.S.N., M.P.H., co-author of the new book, Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All At Risk. Summers takes issue with Stanley’s conclusion, and says she isn’t “all that thrilled” with depictions of nurses in recent movies such as “Akeelah and the Bee,” released in 2006, and “Gracie,” released in 2007.  Summers says both denigrate nursing as a second-rate profession. She faults Stanley’s research for failing to address the most prevalent nursing stereotype—the invisible nurse, where physician characters perform the work that real-life nurses do—and for failing to weigh the influence of each film.

What do you think?  Tell us about the best and worst images of nurses you’ve seen in movies, and whether you see progress in how nurses are depicted. Share your views on the nurses portrayed in films at nursing@rwjf.org

Please note that this column is designed to feature feedback and comments from readers.  Editors reserve the right to use the comments our readers submit to nursing@rwjf.org, but will only use a commenter’s name with express permission.