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A Letter to Hollywood: Nurses Are Not Handmaidens

Specializes in floor to ICU.

Found this on Medscape web site. Thought others may be interested! Let me know what you think


General E. Speaking, RN


A Letter to Hollywood: Nurses Are Not Handmaidens

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS

Authors and Disclosures

Posted: 03/12/2010

Nurse Rating: ( 692 Votes ) Rate This Article:

A Letter to Hollywood: Nurses Are Not Handmaidens

Myths About Nurses Perpetuated by Hollywood and Other Uninformed Media

Spotlight on the Best and Worst Media Portrayals of Nurses


Information from Industry

Effective non-narcotic, non-benzodiazepine treatment of insomnia

Explore a hypothetical case in insomnia A Letter to Hollywood: Nurses Are Not Handmaidens

Dear Hollywood,

We, the nurses of the world, have something to say to you. Nurses are not what you think. Nurses are independent, highly educated, and skilled healthcare experts who save lives every single day. We work hard and are dedicated to making differences in people's lives.

And we are really sick of going home after a 12-hour shift, turning on the television, and seeing ourselves depicted as brainless bimbos. This has been going on far too long, and it has to stop.

The Clown Took a Job as a Nurse

I remember a time when I was in nursing school, watching TV with my roommate, Liz. A skit came on, in which a famous comedienne of the day was dressed up like a clown. For some reason the clown had to leave the circus. "So," said the narrator, "the clown took a job as a nurse." We laughed at the absurdity of this, but I never forgot it. We were in the middle of a demanding 4-year nursing program, and the suggestion that anyone, even a clown, could be a nurse, just like that, was wounding. I think it was then that I began to take notice of how Hollywood represents nurses.

The answer is...badly. But it isn't just disrespect that comes through in Hollywood portrayals -- it's contempt, and it's not at all subtle. You scorn us in the way you pigeonhole nurses on the small screen -- it seems that we're either half-wits, nymphomaniacs, or latter-day Nurse Ratcheds. Obviously, you have no concept of nurses as autonomous, knowledgeable professionals. We work alongside physicians, but we are their colleagues, not their subordinates. Yet in every hospital drama, physician characters are ordering nurses around, treating them like uneducated servants, or performing nursing care themselves and getting the credit for it, while the nurse characters just fade from view.

I can almost hear your reaction to my complaints. There, there, dear, don't take it personally, it's harmless, it's funny. Is it, really? Will it still be harmless or funny one day in the future when you are in the hospital and you press your nurse-call button and no one responds? Or it is answered -- eventually -- by a minimally trained hospital "technician"? The nursing shortage will have reduced our ranks considerably, and driven many of us into early retirement. It doesn't help the situation when schoolchildren and teens already discount the notion of becoming nurses because of the way nurses are portrayed on Grey's Anatomy. Becoming a nurse, they believe, is a waste of their talents.[1]

Maybe You're Misinformed

I'm going to give those in Hollywood the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they just have the wrong impression of nurses, and have no idea what nurses really do. But for the non-nurse readers, we'll pretend that you are in the hospital, and you've just had emergency heart surgery.

*Who do you suppose will be at your side, watching your blood pressure, making sure you don't go into shock?

*Who will be alert for the slightest hint of life-threatening hemorrhage?

*Who will respond in mere seconds if your heart begins to beat irregularly?

*Who will make sure that your chest tube doesn't get blocked and cause you to go into cardiac arrest?

*Who will keep the circulation moving in your lower legs so you a clot doesn't develop and you don't die from a pulmonary embolism?

*Who will be constantly watching to make sure that you don't stop breathing, that you are getting enough oxygen, that postoperative pneumonia is not developing?

*Who will relieve your pain before you even have to ask?

*Who will explain everything that is happening to you and teach you how to take care of yourself after you go home?

I'll give you a hint -- it's not your physician. It is your nurses. They will see you safely through one of the most dangerous times of your life, doing all these things and more.

And just so we're clear, I'll tell you what your nurses won't be doing. They won't be clustered around the nurses' station as though at a cocktail party, flirting with physicians. They won't be in the broom closet or the stairwell or behind the patient's curtain giving sexual favors. They won't be trailing after the physician as he marches down the hall, in case he needs a cup of coffee or someone to dump on. Nor will they be in the receptionist's chair, moaning about not being able to get into medical school. If these scenes sound a little familiar -- I'm not surprised. This is how nurses are regularly portrayed on television dramas.

No Angels of Mercy, Please

Hollywood, we're not asking you to glorify nurses. Don't turn us into heroes or martyrs. We just want to be accorded the respect, the esteem that our education, status, and profession warrant. We want our dignity back. We don't want the entire world to think of us as sleazy, dim-witted underlings. We want to erase the image of the "naughty nurse" -- this is your bizarre fantasy, not ours.

We want young, impressionable children to view nursing as a viable, respected, and even admired profession, one they would be proud to call their own. But most of all, we want our patients to trust us and value our knowledge, so that when we teach them how to become healthier people and live longer, healthier lives, they will listen. This, our most treasured ability -- the core of nursing -- is what you threaten with your cheap attempts to increase ratings by ridiculing the nursing profession.

So my question to you is, is it worth it? Is the money you make from entertaining viewers with mentally unbalanced, sexually promiscuous, or idiotically subservient nurse characters worth influencing potentially hundreds of thousands of young men and women to shun a career in nursing? Will you feel content, even proud, the next time you encounter a nurse, in the thought that you regularly chip away at her self-respect and her ability to be effective in her job?

Or will you infuse some realism into your tired stereotypes? You can start by discarding the following myths -- their demise is long overdue.

Section 1 of 3 Next: Myths About Nurses Perpetuated by Hollywood and Other Uninformed Media »

A Letter to Hollywood: Nurses Are Not Handmaidens Myths About Nurses Perpetuated by Hollywood and Other Uninformed Media Spotlight on the Best and Worst Media Portrayals of Nurses

ReferencesInglis M. Put off nursing by TV portrayal. Evening Telegraph (UK), December 18, 2009.American Nurses Association.Definition of Nursing. Available at: http://www.nursingworld.org/FunctionalMenuCategories/FAQs.aspx#def Accessed February 3, 2010.Laurant M, Reeves D, Hermens R, Braspenning J, Grol R, Sibbald B. Substitution of doctors by nurses in primary care. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005;18:CD001271.Dierick-van Daele AT, Metsemakers JF, Derckx EW, Spreeuwenberg C, Vrijhoef HJ. Nurse practitioners substituting for general practitioners: randomized controlled trial. J Adv Nurs. 2009;65:391-401. Abstract Lenz ER, Mundinger MO, Kane RL, Hopkins SC, Lin SX. Primary care outcomes in patients treated by nurse practitioners or physicians: two-year follow-up. Med Care Res Rev. 2004;61:332-351. Abstract Aigner MJ, Drew S, Phipps J. A comparative study of nursing home resident outcomes between care provided by nurse practitioners/physicians versus physicians only. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2004;5:16-23. Abstract The Truth About Nursing. The Truth About Nursing Decade Awards Rank Best and Worst Media Portrayals of Nursing, 2000-2009. January 1, 2020. Available at: http://www.truthaboutnursing.org/press/awards/2000-09_decade/rel.html Accessed January 15, 2010.The National Nurse. Available at: http://nationalnurse.org/ Accessed January 16, 2010.

[ CLOSE WINDOW ]Table 1. Ten Best Media Portrayals of Nurses of the Decade, 2000-20091 Nurse Jackie New York ED nurse Jackie Peyton is tough but talented, and finds creative ways to help patients lead better lives or find lasting peace

2 Mercy Veronica Callahan is an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who leads a crew of smart and committed nurses.

3 Critical Care: The Making of an ICU Nurse Boston Globe article chronicled the 8-month training of a new ICU nurse showing the high level of skill required to care for these complex patients

4 The Rookies Episode 1 of Lifeline: the Nursing Diaries shows nurses engaged in routine nursing functions, such as life-saving interventions and patient education

5 Angels in America Nurses at the center of AIDS care, balancing skill, determination, humor, and caring

6 Media by Diana Mason Weekly radio show Healthstyles with nurse experts; garnered mainstream press for nursing research

7 HawthoRNe Chief nursing officer Christina Hawthorne is a strong and skilled expert nurse in Richmond, Virginia.

8 Media by Theresa Brown Blog for New York Times about nurses, giving nursing perspective on key policy issues

9 Media by Suzanne Gordon Wrote the book Nursing Against the Odds: How Health Care Cost-Cutting, Media Stereotypes, and Medical Hubris Undermine Nursing and Patient Care (2005)

10 California and Massachusetts Nursing Associations. Advocated for nursing through mass media campaigns explaining the value of nursing and presenting nurses as articulate, holistic advocates of public health

Adapted from The Truth About Nursing Decade Awards[7]

Table 2. Ten Worst Media Portrayals of Nurses of the Decade 2000-2009

1 Grey's Anatomy Nurses are insignificant, as physicians perform real-life nursing work. Nurses are portrayed as bitter or fawning losers.

2 House Ignores nurses completely or treats them as annoying fools who are there to clean up the mess.

3 Private Practice Mocks clueless nurse character who works as a receptionist.

4 The Naughty Nurse Many appearances throughout the decade, including ads by Virgin Mobile, Gzhelka Vodka, the Lung Cancer Alliance, the Heart Attack Grill; and in degrading comments made by Kelly Ripa and "Dr. Phil" McGraw on TV.

5 The Today Show For attacks on advanced practice nurses, including nurse midwives and nurse practitioners.

6 ER (2000-2005) Portrayed nurses as physician handmaidens whose highest aspirations are to go to medical school.

7 Passions An orangutan named Precious serves as a private-duty nurse, suggesting that apes can do nurses' jobs.

8 Hopkins 24/7 & Hopkins Repeatedly suggested that physicians perform all important care; virtually ignored the thousands of highly skilled nurses who work there.

9 Media by the American Medical Association Comments in major news media questioning the competence and qualifications of nurse practitioners, in spite of evidence of their effectiveness.

10 The robot nurse Doesn't exist, but makes appearances in the media as "robo-nurse," "virtual nurse," "nurse robot," electronic nurse," etc., reinforcing the view that a "nurse" is anyone or anything that acts as an assistive caregiver.

Adapted from The Truth About Nursing Decade Awards

Annual awards for the year 2009 are found in Table 3.

Table 3. Best and Worst Portrayals of Nurses in the Media, 2009Best Worst

1 Nurse Jackie 1 Grey's Anatomy

2 Mercy 2 House

3 HawthoRNe 3 Private Practice

4 Theresa Brown 4 The Today Show

5 Pauline Chen, New York Times 5 Minette Marrin, Sunday Times (UK)

6 Nurses advocating in the media 6 New York Times damaging portrayals

7 Reports on nurse innovators 7 "Naughty nurse" advertisements

8 Zara Nicholson, Cape Argus (S. Africa) 8 Three Rivers

9 Erin Thompson, USA Today 9 Mental

10 Reports on school nurses 10 The robot nurse

Adapted from The Truth About Nursing Annual Awards, 2009.

Available at: http://truthaboutnursing.org/press/awards/2009/awd.html.

Used with permission

Authors and DisclosuresAuthor(s)Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MSStaff Nurse, Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children, Falls Church, Virginia; Editor, Medscape Ask the Experts Advanced Practice Nurses

Disclosure: Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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newtress, LPN

Has 3 years experience. Specializes in med surg ltc psych.

This.. is a masterpiece.


Has 10 years experience. Specializes in Cardiac ICU.


evolvingrn, BSN, RN

Specializes in Hospice.

That is sooooo true. I watched an old episode of scrubs the other day. Where carla (the nurse) and the resident were hanging out and he asked her if she took up photography in college and she got all upset and said "i never went to college' and then it turned into this 'social issue' of privledge/education. the whole time im thinking :eek: how can a modern tv show insinuate nurses don't have a college education.

I feel like standing up and shouting, "AMEN!" :thankya:

Thanks for posting.


Has 2 years experience. Specializes in Hospice, Ortho/Neuro Rehab, camp nurse.

Awesome! I worked as an EMT-B for 8 years, and when I decided to go to nursing school was scoffed at. "you can't do anything without a Dr's orders, (we can we have protocols) you'll be wiping butts all day(we don't have to). but wait, many of those medics I worked with are, guess what, nursing school. Some of them are doing an online program, they think it's that easy, that they do not have to do any cliniclas. Oh yea the money's better as a nurse that's why they are doing it, not because they think nursing is a valuable, HARD, physically, and mentally challenging career. It's all about just giving out meds, and sitting at the nurses station drinking coffee. And don't forget that ALL the nurses depicted on TV get a lunch AND dinner break. HHMMM, wonder where they get the idea from. there is a huge difference between the two professions, not one is better than the other. Both nurses and medics are in it (hopefully) to help the Pt's they care for. I know , I did it, w/ some great medics. Sorry don't mean to gripe but I am griping, just tired of all the medics thinking it's easy as pie, anyone can do it. Boy there are days after my shift that I long to be back on the streets in an ambulance where it was "easier". No disrespect to any EMT-B's or P's out there just please stop telling us.... pppffffft nursing I could do that with my eyes closed.

OK so come to work w/ me and do my whole shift without me telling you this:

6 patients, 5 on tele,

1) s/p MI w/ new pacer,

2) etoh,pancreatitis, severe pain, demanding more pain med & food, is NPO.

3) from group home (doesn't communicate) picc, trache, suprapubic, bowel regimen, pulls out tubes, g tube w/ hourly meds, and tpn and bolus which can only go through the J-tube because G-tube is not functioning, so all meds need to be crushed into fine powder and dissolved and put through J slowly.

4) admission, w/ dementia, UTI, high fall risk, screaming profanities (doesn't realize he is doing this), keeps climbing out of bed,needs posey, no extra staff for 1:1, oh and his Na is 118.

5) GI bleed w/ HcT of 22 getting 2 units blood, and drinking go-lytely for colonoscopy in am, (commode q 10 mins or incontinent, feeling SOB, and dizzy, tachy.

6) CMO Pt w/ all of family, call bell q5 mins because he/she is having perieds of apnea, end of life teaching was not done. How come we don't see this on TV LOL, because nobody would watch. :clown:

just a couple more things, charting, looking up labs, restart IV, get meds out on time, call MD w/ results, admit assessment, dsg changes, oh and BTW you cannot keep your coffee at the nurses station, JACHO rules. Just use your nursing judgment, who needs you first, etc. it's so easy just close your eyes and do it. ANd yes I, we (nurses) are highly college educated, skilled, professionals. :nurse::nurse:

OK they're all yours have a great shift, and don't forget to smile.

Edited by mightymitern

From Medscape Nurses:

Dear Hollywood,

We, the nurses of the world, have something to say to you. Nurses are not what you think. Nurses are independent, highly educated, and skilled healthcare experts who save lives every single day. We work hard and are dedicated to making differences in people's lives.

And we are really sick of going home after a 12-hour shift, turning on the television, and seeing ourselves depicted as brainless bimbos. This has been going on far too long, and it has to stop.

It isn't just disrespect that comes through in Hollywood portrayals -- it's contempt, and it's not at all subtle. You scorn us in the way you pigeonhole nurses on the small screen -- it seems that we're either half-wits, nymphomaniacs, or latter-day Nurse Ratcheds


isn,t nurse Jackie a on the job drug abuser/ She may be tough ,but I hope my patients don't think I am in the getiing percs with a little on the side:confused:


Has 3 years experience. Specializes in hospice, corrections.

There are reasons I do not watch "professional" shows. Worked at as a 911 dispatcher, so I know Rescue 911 was about the cops, not really about the dispatchers. Cop shows are hilarious. I really didn't know that many "donut eating" officers. My dad was a firefighter, so we make fun of all the movies that show firefighters running into burning buildings without safety equipment, say like breathing apparatus???? :eek: So when I watch medical shows, I just laugh, because it is just the same.

There is no such thing is reality TV. Who wants to see someone get up at 5:15 am, rush to use the shower before the hot water is used up by a husband and 2 teens, try to get ready when one of the kids yell upstairs that I am supposed to sign a permission slip and didn't they tell me that they needed something for school today that I didn't magically pick up on my way home from work yesterday. Then the kids start squabbling over who's turn it is to feed the dog and someone used up the last of their favorite cereal yesterday and mom, is there clean socks somewhere? Finally, ready for work, slurp down an instant breakfast because who has time to eat, pile kids in the car for early morning jazz band class, realize that I forgot my lunch, mentally think if I have any soup in my desk. Get to work, do my shift, assessing patients, working with docs, passing meds, admits, discharges, (oh my back, the beds do not go up high enough for tall nurses to put foleys in comfortably), then I can go home. Nope, have to go to the store to pick up whatever the kids forgot to tell me yesterday, we are out of milk, what's for dinner, I need help with homework. Have an adult conversation with my husband that doesn't involve bodily fluids. Oh, band concert tomorrow? Clothes need to be washed? Lunch money?

Then it starts again tomorrow... Do you think any networks would pick this up as a pilot? LOL! :lol2: I wouln't have my life anyother way. Thank goodness for my family. They help me stay insane!


Specializes in Psych.

I :redbeathe this article!!! I was so affected by this stereotype as a child that I actually grew up thinking nurses in the hospital worked for, and could be fired by, doctors. As a child watching TV, I came to the conclusion that all doctors were men, all nurses were women, and the doctors were in charge of the nurses. As a little tomboy/feminists type of child :p, I was annoyed by this and had little respect for nurses because of it. Both of my grandmothers, and a few aunts and cousins were all nurses, and my mother is a PA (who encouraged me to be a NP instead). I always thought that it was crazy for them to want to work a job where they were simply servants to some "doctor dude".

I now know that nurses and doctors are independent members of the same team, not boss and employee. Hollywood, however, hasn't caught on just yet (although Hawthorne and Mercy are huge improvement).


Has 35 years experience. Specializes in Hospice, Case Mgt., RN Consultant, ICU.

Totally agree! Refuse to watch those programs because they are so harmful to our profession. In all my years as a hospital nurse I never saw nurses going out for lunch or swooning over doctors or getting a quickie with the pharmacist! Saw the beginning show of Nurse Jackie - nauseating garbage!! I wonder if this negative protrayal of nurses has anything to do with the fact that many of the Hollywood producers are Jewish. I am not trying to upset anyone, but when I was a student nurse only one of my classmates (out of 60) was Jewish. She was a friend and often spoke of the difficulty she experienced within her family for wanting to be a nurse. Her family did not respect nurses and considered my classmate's decision to go to nursing school something of a disgrace. Just last night there was a Law and Order program which protrayed three male nurses as being private duty nurses for a quadruplegic black woman who was unable to speak due to advanced MS. Each of these nurses were very rough looking characters and 2/3 had criminal histories. One had kept a video camera at this patient's home to protect himself from false allegations of abuse or theft by his patient and/or their family. But when he viewed the tape and saw the patient's sister beating on the patient all he did was report it to his boss who did nothing!


Specializes in Med Surg.

Problem is that as long as the only place that stuff gets discussed is on sites like this. When we gripe about it here we are definitely preaching to the choir.

Maybe an e-mail campaign to Dr. Phil, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, CNN. Maybe Dr. Oz. Surely one of the national organizations that claims to "be there" for nurses could set up enough of a stink to at least throw a little public notice on the subject.


Has 7 years experience. Specializes in LTC, Home Health.

How about in the movie "Precious" where the CNA introduces himself as a nurse? This is Hollywood and even though Joe Shmoe probably didn't care it ticked off a lot of people around me. I also went to the cable company to upgrade my service and saw a poster on the wall for Nurse Jackie. The woman insisted that it was a realistic show and I just laughed and tried to reassure her that nurses really didn't have the time to have sex and do drugs while working. I do love that show though and I know I shouldn't.

Also the play "Wit" where the nurse is portrayed as really being there for the patient in her dying moments while others may treat her as just another patient.


Has 2 years experience. Specializes in Hospice, Ortho/Neuro Rehab, camp nurse.

I have to admit I watch reruns of Gage & Desoto, and Nurse Daisy. " start a line, give d5w, and transport" No gloves, no PPE, lol. You are all wonderful, intelligent, nurses. Thanks for the letter General E. Speaking.


Has 7 years experience. Specializes in ED.

We nurses have been working to improve our image in the media for years, with some success (ie. ER). I don't watch Greys Anatomy because it sucks, so I can't speak for it. However, I have seen and stopped watching house. House has the worst portrayal of nurses i have ever seen. They almost never show a nurse, and when they do it's to come clean up bloody feces off the bed. They are also pushed or thrown out of the way during a "code" (which is a buzz word House uses for everything from seizures to arrests) and the residents come in and start doing CPR and pushing drugs. Right, because that happens. The residents also have one patient for like 3 weeks and they run the MRI, run lab work, start IV's, push drugs and do just about anything. I stopped watching House the day I saw one of the stupid residents walk a patient down the steps and he fell on top of her so she slapped the imaginary star-trek style communicator on her chest and called a "code" in the stairwell. House sucks.

You get a big amen from me :yeah:


Has 4 years experience. Specializes in Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes.

:heartbeat:heartbeat love it! :heartbeat:heartbeat


Has 25+ years experience. Specializes in Peds/outpatient FP,derm,allergy/private duty.

Oh, I know I'm about to be royally flamed. . .but there are premises in the "Letter to Hollywood" that I take issue with. First (unrelated to subject matter) What's the hypothetical case of insomnia?

I know there are characterizations of nurses as brainless bimbos in the entertainment industry, but there are equal characterizations or maybe "charicatures" would be a better word, of many professionals. "Hollywood" is a catchall word for a vast amount of available media, spanning decade after decade. There are dramas about nurses, and there are comedies. There are reality series (ie Code Blue), historicals, documentaries and news features. I don't have a "nurse as clown" memory (btw what are the historical roots of today's "clowns"? Maybe they should be insulted, too) of my childhood, I have a black woman named Julia starring in her own show as my memory. Normally in a drama, such as St. Elsewhere, the nurse is treated with respect. In a comedy, they're not. But neither are the doctors. I really don't think people are as unsophisticated as you assume them to be, and unable to tell the difference. If I cast my mind backwards into the Golden Age of Hollywood, I can think of many movies where the nurse is the heroine and the protagonist. I can't think of one that genuinely is resting on the premise that a nurse is a clown or a bimbo.

I'm sure we can agree that a teacher and a parent are at least on par with nurses in the amount of respect that should be given them. If you turn on Nickolodeon or CN, you will be saturated with images of teachers as clowns, jerks, nerds and lechers. Parent figures are portrayed as clueless goofballs. Normally I restrict my viewing of these channels to Spongebob, but I can't recall nurses being portrayed, especially to children, in these ways and in this amount.

The author is also saying that the reason for the "nursing shortage" (sic) is these Hollywood portrayals and soon there will be no nurses to save people's lives. That pre-supposes that the entertainment industry is the sole influence in a student's decision to become a nurse, and further, that it will invariably turn the student away from being a nurse, rather than toward it. I don't think either of those are valid. We're turning out record numbers of new grads, it seems. Not only that, but as allnurses itself is a pretty good barometer of what's going on in the field, I have never seen a prospective nurse say that "the bimbo image" factored into their decision even a little bit.

Right now we're in the middle of an information explosion. The number of sources, the availability of information, it's low cost, etc etc are making these arguments somewhat obsolete anyway. Generally, the younger the person, the more familiarity, facility, and frequency with these ever-expanding resources. I trust people considering nursing to have the same ability to discern fact from fiction that I have.

Well that's it for now. Fire away!! :chair:

Edited by nursel56


Has 2 years experience. Specializes in med/surg and Tele.

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