skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXVII, No. 19
September 11, 2015
cover

previous story

next story



Scholar-Activist Challenges Media Stereotypes of Nurses

On the front page...

Dr. MarySue Heilemann looks at nurse portrayals.

Dr. MarySue Heilemann looks at nurse portrayals.

Nurses are often unsung heroes. From providing round-the-clock assessment and bedside care to administering medicines, wound care, diagnostics and counseling, nurses are indispensable clinicians. Yet stereotypes in television, film and other media have long cultivated public misperceptions of the nursing profession. One nurse-turned-researcher/producer, Dr. MarySue Heilemann, is working to change that.

“Nursing has been called the glue, the core or the backbone of the health care system,” said Heilemann, associate professor, UCLA School of Nursing, at a recent NINR Director’s Lecture. “But despite our significance and our presence clinically with patients 24/7 in the hospital and all kinds of settings outside the hospital, the actual work nurses do remains mostly hidden and misrepresented in the media.”

Continued...

Media Stereotypes

In film and television, nurses have often been portrayed as villains, sex objects, subordinates and other demeaning roles, said Heilemann. These stereotypes get embedded in the public psyche. Research indicates that such depictions sometimes take a toll on real-life nurses, affecting work behavior, burnout, turnover and recruitment.

Nurses on film and TV often serve as romantic partners for physicians in leading roles or they’re peripheral characters, if given a role at all, said Heilemann. Recent TV medical dramas such as House focused on busy doctors, excluding nurses from the plot. Nurses also aren’t featured in Grey’s Anatomy. Instead, female doctors star in the lead roles, said Heilemann, and these physician characters are often shown doing work that, in reality, nurses actually do. Other shows, such as China Beach, based on a book by a former U.S. Army nurse, portrayed nurses more positively, but that show was short-lived.

Earlier popular television dramas such as Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey in the 1960s had compelling storylines but also focused on the handsome physician lead. When The Nurses debuted opposite Dr. Kildare, poor ratings—even after adding a couple of doctor characters and moving to a new time slot—knocked the show off the air.

Heilemann stressed the importance of increased activism to help articulate the actual life-saving and life-sustaining clinical work nurses do.

Heilemann stressed the importance of increased activism to help articulate the actual life-saving and life-sustaining clinical work nurses do.

PHOTOS: DANIEL SOÑÉ

Recently, a nurse-centered TV show got great ratings and lasted 7 seasons. But in this award-winning comedy, Nurse Jackie was a controversial, often villainous character who was addicted to painkillers and had questionable ethics. Other shows based on portrayals of dedicated but somewhat idealized nurses, such as Hawthorne and Mercy, quickly tanked.

When nurses first appeared in film, they were depicted in silent movies of the 1920s as trained professionals, with a modicum of intrigue, said Heilemann. In succeeding decades, however, movies often trivialized the work of nurses and portrayed them as evil, naughty or crazy, such as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Annie Wilkes in Misery. Films also have long perpetuated the stereotype of nurses as females. In the popular 2000 movie Meet the Parents, for example, lead character Greg Focker is an often-mocked male nurse, which served as comedic fodder throughout the film.

Mail Nurses

For generations, nursing has been the subject of art, from paintings to postcards. More than 140 billion postcards were mailed worldwide during the golden age of the postcard from 1907 to 1918, and many featured nurses during times of war and disease. Some portrayed nurses as courageous guardians against evil; others portrayed nurses as angels.

“The danger of these images is that if nurses are natural angels, born that way,” said Heilemann, “this undermines the reality that nurses have to go to college to gain a science-based education, gain skill through clinical practice, that they are licensed and that their expertise as a clinician is not only worthy of a salary and leadership positions, but also invaluable for making decisions in both policy and practice.”

Some postcards and early Hollywood movies portrayed nurses as sensual, glamorous and charming. Even advertisers took this sense of allure and used nurses to help boost product sales, from bread to stout to clothing. Nurses also appeared in early cigarette ads, from the 1930s to 1950s.

Heilemann stressed the importance of increased activism to help articulate the actual life-saving and life-sustaining clinical work nurses do. If more nurses shared the extent of their clinical work experiences with the media, advised screenwriters or even collaborated on scripts, she said, such efforts could vastly improve the public’s image of the nursing profession through more accurate and compelling nurse portrayals.

Advocacy & Innovation

Heilemann has been putting her own research into practice. Taking her experience working with low-income, second-generation Latinas, she is producing an interactive multimedia project. This transmedia form of storytelling uses multiple digital platforms so viewers can watch an online video, then interact with episodes or videos using a smartphone and social media.

“Transmedia requires stories that are realistic and nurses have access to [such] stories because the public trusts us, because of the privileged intimacy we share with our patients,” said Heilemann.

To succeed, transmedia storytelling needs compelling stories and relatable characters. In Catalina: Confronting My Emotions, Catalina suffers from depression and talks with her nurse-therapist Veronica Sanchez, a character Heilemann created with data compiled from real-life patients. The videos include viewer exercises, resources and support to help women with depression and anxiety.

Heilemann’s advocacy work, scholarly commitments and qualitative research with Latinas made this project a reality. She recently organized two national symposia that convened scholars, nurses, writers and Hollywood filmmakers to explore ways to improve the accuracy of portrayals of nursing in media.

And this is where science meets the arts. From connections made during these symposia, she then collaborated with IT and engineers at UCLA as well as Hollywood actors to produce this transmedia project. With the many nursing, computer and theater departments at universities across the country, Heilemann said, opportunities are boundless for creating transmedia stories on a wide range of health topics based on insight about the lives of real people gained through nursing research.

Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection

Dozens of postcards that span more than a century of cultural perceptions of nurses around the world were recently on view at a National Library of Medicine exhibit. Acquired from the extensive collection of nurse Michael Zwerdling, the NLM exhibit was on display through mid-August

Dozens of postcards that span more than a century of cultural perceptions of nurses around the world were recently on view at a National Library of Medicine exhibit. Acquired from the extensive collection of nurse Michael Zwerdling, the NLM exhibit was on display through mid-August. An online digital gallery with more than 600 images can still be found at http://apps.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/digitalgallery/index.cfm.


back to top of page