Is it just me, or do you get riled up about the inaccurate portrayal of nurses in movies and TV? From giving CPR to patients with heartbeats to nasal cannulas hooked up incorrectly, Hollywood deserves a ˈGaffe Awardˈ for its misrepresentation of the profession. And don't even get me started on the steamy nurse-doctor shenanigans between medical procedures and tacky Halloween costumes.
As we delve into the entertainment world, it's evident that nurse portrayals defy reality. We see ourselves transformed into anything from sex symbols to invisible beings, from the supposedly "stupid" to the profoundly caring, and even as unexpected villains. The question arises: why do these contradictory portrayals persist, and how do they affect our profession?
First, let's acknowledge the undeniable influence of popular culture on society. Millions of viewers tune into shows like Grey's Anatomy, where the portrayal of nurses is often far from accurate. The impact of these portrayals on public perception is substantial. It shapes the way society views nursing, and it can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions.
But, instead of feeling discouraged, we can harness the power of this narrative and transform it into a force for change. After all, our profession's honesty ratings, which surpass all others in the United States, are a testament to the trust that the public places in us. We must embrace this trust and use it to redefine our image in pop culture.
Media Influence on Nursing Perception
Television and movies influence our attitudes and opinions—meaning that the inaccurate portrayal of nurses projects a negative image to the public. Nurses are sexualized or seen as being subservient to physicians, unselfish mother figures, heroines, or lacking critical thinking skills.
Studies show that the negative portrayal of the nursing profession has contributed to recruitment challenges, nursing shortages, low pay, and increased workloads.
These societal opinions and beliefs will continue to haunt the nursing profession until nurses from around the globe stand unified to challenge and refute these stereotypes.
Debunking Nursing Stereotypes in the Media
Debunking nursing stereotypes is no easy feat, considering they've been around since the early 1930s—beginning with A Farewell to Arms, where the selfless and noble nurse, Catherine Barkley, falls in love with an ambulance driver during the First World War.
While the Barkley character helps paint a romantic view of the profession, cinematic depictions of nurses doing horrible and vile things tend to hold more ground in pop culture.
First, there's Nurse Ratched, the iconic tyrant from the 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her rigidly authoritarian performance.
Then in 1990, Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Annie Wilkes in Misery. If you're not familiar with Wilkes, she pretty much epitomizes the stereotype of nurses being torturers and angels of mercy.
And let's not forget the many television shows, such as House, that erase nurses into the background, or the Showtime series Nurse Jackie that follows a drug-addicted emergency department nurse. Nurse Jackie received 24 Primetime Emmy Award Nominations. However, there are shows, such as Scrubs and ER, that portray nurses as professionals.
In reality, nurses are anything but villains, sex symbols, or mother figures. Instead, nurses are highly skilled professionals, educated in the discipline of nursing, who have well-defined roles, beliefs, and practices. Here's some factual data about our profession:
Nursing is the nation's largest healthcare profession, with nearly 5.2 million RNs.
Nurses are the primary providers of hospital care and deliver most of the nation's long-term care.
Nurses are key contributors and vital members of multidisciplinary healthcare teams.
Nurses are highly educated, with most of today's RNs entering the profession with a BS in nursing.
Media Impact on Nurse Recruitment and Retention
The sensationalized portrayal of nurses negatively impacts recruitment and retention. Individuals who consider entering the profession are turned off by media representation. After all, who wants to feel upstaged by the TV doctor carrying out essential nursing duties?
Retention is also affected when new nurses realize that the television nurse who drew them into the profession with their perfectly applied makeup, earrings, and attractive uniforms—doesn't exist in the real world.
Most nurses work in hospitals, where their jobs are physically challenging, require critical thinking and problem-solving skills, can be smelly, are sometimes happy and sometimes sad, and regrettably, unsafe. The new nurse is demoralized when they realize that not every nurse can be the leader, manager, or bed board coordinator—and they leave the profession.
Shaping Accurate Nursing Representation
The need for accurate nursing representation is genuine, especially for those considering the profession.
When I worked as a registered nurse in an intensive care unit (ICU), we regularly had fourth-year students cycle through the unit to shadow us for a day or two. While my team and I mixed potent medications, treated arrhythmias, ran code blues, cleaned up bodily fluids, and thrived on adrenaline, it was always surprising to see the mortified looks of some of the students. What were they expecting?
Perhaps the most memorable mentee was a nurse who showed up—in a crisp white uniform, complete with a pink nursing lab coat, matching pink fingernails, and a pink cell phone, on which she was busily texting while sitting behind our desk. She could have walked out of a television show.
The public and potential nursing students need to understand what being a nurse truly is—so they can better appreciate the level of education, specialized training, and resilience nurses command daily on the job.
There's a disconnect between the weak, invisible, or sexualized nurses seen on television—and the warnings by nursing associations of future doom and gloom when there are no nurses left to take care of the sick, promote health, or research ways to improve health outcomes. Because if the nurses seen on television and in movies are representative of nurses in real life, who really needs them?
Educating the Public
So, the question begs asking. How do nurses educate the public on their professional image and importance to the healthcare system? The answer stems from the profession itself. Here are two suggestions:
1. Establish Nurse Identifiers
Years ago, everyone could identify nursing students and registered nurses by uniforms. Even nurses who worked in public health jobs wore distinctive attire. Now, registered nurses disappear into the mix of scrubs in hospitals and relaxed business attire when they work in public health and administrative positions.
Some organizations have tried branding and forcing nurses to don distinguishing uniforms once again. This mandate caused rifts and distrust between association leaders and the bedside nurse—and didn't solve the problem of unmistakable identity.
However, what if nurses sewed identifiers onto their scrubs and work attire, something to separate them from physicians, respiratory and occupational therapists, laboratory technicians, and every other healthcare worker who wears scrubs?
2. Present a United Front
How can nurses educate the public when they cannot present a united front? Unhealthy conflict exists between different nursing positions and hospital units, which has worsened with heavier workloads.
An example is when nursing units blame the emergency department (ED) for sending heavy patients who haven't completed their medical testing or are unstable, and vice versa, with the ED nurses complaining that the floor nurses don't want to work or are incapable of looking after sick patients.
In reality, both sets of nurses are overworked and burnt out. Nurses must stop fighting and band together because fractured splinters will never be strong. Another way to make nurses more visible is by presenting a stronger voice to the public through nursing associations.
Promoting Positive Media Representations
Nurses, through no fault of our own, have enabled movies and television to define our profession. We don't have the time or mental capacity to take on Hollywood. However, we can take steps to dispel pop culture myths surrounding our work using the power of social media.
Many nurses have already taken to TikTok and Instagram to share the realities of the profession. Check out these nurse influencers and consider sharing their content. These influencers may even inspire you to create and share nursing content of your own.
Mentorship in Nursing
A nursing mentorship is a long-term relationship developed between two nurses that offers support and feedback to new employees—but ends up benefiting both the mentor and mentee.
So, how does mentorship help overcome society's view of nurses? Do you remember the need to present a united front to the public? Mentorship helps to grow relationships between nurses and gives them a safe place to identify issues and receive feedback.
Your mentor is your cheering squad as you become a confident and competent nurse. Conflict dissipates between nursing units as you turn around and mentor another new nurse.
As a nurse, I watched ED and ICU nurses bond through friendships and mentorships to create a unified front that helped them through the recent pandemic.
For us, nursing isn't a job; it's a calling. We're compassionate caregivers, patient advocates, and the backbone of the healthcare system. Our portrayal in popular culture should reflect our dedication, expertise, and unwavering commitment to providing the best care possible.
Let's rise above the confusion and misconceptions created by Hollywood and unite in our mission to redefine the nursing narrative. Together, we can ensure that the world sees us as the dedicated professionals we genuinely are. And in doing so, we'll not only strengthen our profession but also enhance the quality of healthcare for all.
Alice Blackmore, MN, RN, Content Writer
Alice is a registered nurse and healthcare writer. She has more than 20 years of nursing experience, which ranges from labor and delivery to long-term care, with pediatrics, community nursing, and critical care sandwiched in the middle.