Dames at SeaThe dutiful nurse is a reliable fixture in fiction and history alike. Inevitably, screen portrayals of nurses reflect the times in which they are made. World War II-era nurses were often portrayed as no-nonsense, can-do gals, for example. There was never any question about their competence, dedication, and grit.
Nobody’s fool, these tough broads had seen it all, yet remained paragons of feminine virtue. Men were extremely rare in nursing, and in wartime they were either soldiers or relegated to the sidelines on the home front, along with those too old, young, or disabled to serve the war effort. Nurses were dames, plain and simple: Competent contributors to the war effort, at best, cute distractions for weary soldiers, at worst.
In the post-war era there was a renewed sense of order in the world. Former behavior and dress norms were quickly reinstated, which usually meant women were expected to shed the pants they’d begun wearing during the war and return to demure, servile roles, emphasizing their subservience to men. Nurses were “demoted” back to prim, efficient servants in skirts and caps. Decorative to look at, but seldom heard and infrequently consulted.
A Groundbreaking—Stereotype-altering—CharacterThings began to change when Diahann Carroll made history in the 1960s as the first black woman ever to star in her own television show. At a time when African-Americans were seldom seen in film or on television, other than in servant roles, Julia was a standout icon of professional competence and strength. A single mother, she was also a nurse. A professional young woman who proved indispensable to crusty, bumbling old warmhearted Dr. Morton Chegley, but make no mistake Julia was the series’ focus. Here, finally was the complete package in terms of role models: A minority female nurse as the star of a prime-time television show.
Throughout the ‘70s, nurses were largely bit-player characters on implausibly plotted soap operas, or objects of salacious fantasy appearing in less-than-reputable films. One notable exception was MASH, a Korean-war-era comedy film and television series featuring competent nurses with often-complex characters.
And let’s not forget Nurse Ratched, battle-axe nemesis to Jack Nicholson’s more sympathetic character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the multiple-Oscar-winning 1975 film version of Ken Kesey’s namesake novel. If you haven’t seen it, rest assured Nurse Ratched is a worthy nemesis to the hero. Meaning, she’s less than likable; the embodiment of unbridled establishment power and oppression, at least in the addled minds of the main characters.
Real People in Realistic SituationsBy the 1980s a new paradigm began to appear: the nurse as competent professional, involved in patient’s lives in ways that busy doctors seldom seemed to have the time or inclination to match. Shows like St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope offered some of these more meaningful portrayals of nurses and nursing, and of course, the female nurse stereotype gradually gave way to emerging reality, in which men were increasingly represented among the ranks of qualified professional nurses.
The Modern EraNurses arguably came into their own on the screen with the launch in 1994 of ER, one of television’s best-loved, longest-running prime time medical shows in recent memory. Nurses on this well-written drama held power, exercised judgement, endured any number of abuses, challenges and emergencies, and contributed mightily to the ensemble effort of the fictional medical team. Nurses’ specific issues and concerns were examined with more honesty, and more carefully, than ever before in prime time.
Today, Grey’s Anatomy is arguably the longest running, most-influential medical drama on the air. Who knows how many young men and women have been inspired by this and other shows to pursue acceptance to nursing school, enroll in an online nursing program, or pursue an RN to BSN? Of course, reality is seldom as romantic—or dramatic—as fiction, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of what nurses accomplish every single day in the real world.