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Scrubbing out: Nurses fight pop culture stereotypes

Home > Scrubbing out: Nurses fight pop culture stereotypes

This October, MTV launched a reality TV show called "Scrubbing In," a 10-part series focusing on the lives of travel nurses on temporary assignment in Orange County, Calif. There is just one problem: This "reality" show is anything but, and, according to National Nurses United (NNU), its portrayal of nurses as unreliable party animals is damaging.

The NNU isn't the only nursing organization to take issue with the show. In an open letter to MTV President Stephen Friedman, American Nurse Association President Karen A. Daley said the negative stereotypes of nurses featured in the show "play a role in shaping the values, impressions and ultimately career choices of young people," which the industry desperately needs. Even worse, wrote Daley, the portrayals erode patient regard for nurses and their expertise. "This show is neither 'reality' nor entertainment," she wrote, "it is harmful and irresponsible."

Unfortunately, nurses are so accustomed to battling negative stereotypes about their professions in the media that prior to production, nurses working at the hospital in which much of the show is filmed refused to sign waivers to be filmed. According to NNU, the union representing these nurses, they were worried the show would "trivialize and distort" the realities of hospital nursing. It seems their fears were founded: Upon the show's first airing, nurses and nurse advocacy groups began circulating petitions on sites like Change.org and NNU calling for its cancellation.

Nursing Stereotypes Persist in Popular Culture

"Scrubbing In" is not the first show criticized for its depiction of nurses, and it is unlikely to be the last. According to the National Student Nurses Association (NSNA), common media stereotypes portray nurses as overbearing (think: Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest"), sexual objects (a la Hot Lips from "M*A*S*H") or incompetent. Popular culture also often portrays nurses as doctors' handmaidens rather than self-reliant professionals. In shows like "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy," nurses wait in the wings while physicians and surgeons hold the floor.

The New York Times reports that this theme is so common and aggravating for nurses that one even co-authored a book about it called "Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All At Risk." In it, Sandy Summers -- a nurse and founder of The Truth About Nursing -- and Harry Summers argue that nurses are not doctors' "helpers," but rather autonomous professionals hired, developed and managed by their own. They do the bulk of patient care work and protect patient health, not just from disease, but from physicians' mistakes. "One of nurses' most important professional roles is to act as an independent check on physician care plans to protect patients and ensure good care," they write.

Another troubling stereotype of nursing is that it should be reserved for women (or at least effeminate men). Anyone who has seen the popular comedy "Meet the Fockers" may remember Ben Stiller's character, Gaylord Focker, being teased for being a male nurse. According to Minority Nurse, studies on gender associations in nursing have found that male nurses are no more "feminine" than other men, and that fear of having one's gender identity questioned may prevent more qualified, dedicated men from entering the field.

This is not to say that movies, television shows and news reporters have never gotten nursing right. Summers once told Minority Nurse that the television show "ER" at least maintained a solid and diverse cast of nurses, and the comedy TV show "Scrubs"even featured a nurse among its lead characters -- one that held her own in a room full of surgeons, so to speak. The media occasionally gets it right, too. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy terrorized New York University's Langone Medical Center, nurses evacuated 260 patients -- including babies from the neonatal intensive care unit. This marks one of the rare occasions that news reporters featured and interviewed nurses rather than doctors, notes Summers. Even President Barack Obama made a point to honor their heroics.

Busting myths: Nurses fight back

No, not all nursing portrayals are not necessarily bad, but a survey of them would probably suggest these health care professionals take more flack than praise. According to the NSNA, that needs to change, and the fight begins with nurses themselves. Nurses and nursing students need to promote positive images of nurses, actively educate others on the true meaning of nursing and fight negative stereotypes, much like nursing groups are doing now with their petitions to cancel "Scrubbing In." Such campaigns have worked before: the NSNA notes that shoemaker Sketchers once pulled a racy ad featuring Christina Aguilera when nurses' groups complained. Perhaps as more groups push for change, the portrayal -- and perception -- of nurses will evolve in a more positive direction, and nurses will be recognized for the smart, dedicated workers they are.

Sources:

"MTV, It's Time to Get a Reality Check on the Portrayal of Nursing!" National Nurses United, http://www.nationalnursesunited.org/blog/entry/national-nurses-united-statement-new-mtv-series-scrubbing-in/

Open Letter to MTV President Stephen Friedman, American Nurse Association, October 25, 2013, http://www.nursingworld.org/FunctionalMenuCategories/MediaResources/PressReleases/2013-PR/Friedman-MTV-Scrubbing-In-letter.pdf

"Breaking Negative Nursing Stereotypes," National Student Nurses Association, http://www.nsna.org/Portals/0/Skins/NSNA/pdf/Nursing_Breaking_Neg_Powerpoint.pdf

"Rethinking Gender Stereotypes in Nursing," Minority Nurse, Kenny Thompson, http://www.minoritynurse.com/article/rethinking-gender-stereotypes-nursing

"Why Nurse Stereotypes Are Bad for Health," The New York Times, July 1, 2009, Theresa Brown, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/nurses-helpers-angels-or-something-more/?_r=0

"Lights, Camera, Accuracy: Nurses in the Media," Minority Nurse, Erica Patino, http://www.minoritynurse.com/article/lights-camera-accuracy-nurses-media

"Concerns and Opposition Grow in Anticipation of the Upcoming MTV Nurse Series Scrubbing In," National Nurses United, October 22, 2013, http://www.nationalnursesunited.org/blog/entry/concerns-and-opposition-grow-in-anticipation-of-upcoming-mtv-nurse-series-s/


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