Historically, portrayals of nurses as cliché and subservient caricatures, stripped of nuance, have plagued their depictions for decades on television and in film.
However, two current, popular franchises are illustrating that it is very possible to create compelling stories which accurately showcase the professional, autonomous work of nurses inside and outside the hospital. A study published in The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing shows that Claire Temple, a nurse character in the Marvel cinematic universe and the cast of Call the Midwife, on BBC and PBS are portraying nurses in groundbreaking ways.
“Both of these shows are a step in the right direction,” said MarySue Heilemann, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate professor at the UCLA School of Nursing and one of the study’s two authors. “They accurately showcase the professional, autonomous work of nurses inside and outside the hospital.”
In the character Claire Temple, who has had storylines in episodes of Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and The Daredevil, Marvel fans see a nurse taking center stage as she contends with everyday human beings as well as superheroes, anti-heroes and criminals. She has been called a breakthrough character and has inspired critics and fans to ask that she be given her own show.
Call the Midwife is based on the personal memoirs of a nurse who went on to become a midwife and work in east London during the 1950s. The show, currently in its 8th season, puts women and nursing in the center of its dramatic stories and the stars are portrayed as beautiful, important and brave.
“Claire Temple and the midwives of Call the Midwife more closely resemble actual human beings whose motives cannot be necessarily defined as good or bad,” added Cristina Escobar, co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co and first author of the paper. “Rather these nurses do what they do because of their knowledge, skills values, professional ethics, as well as their goal to heal or care for patients.”
Routinely in healthcare dramas, nurses have been depicted as the physician’s helper or handmaiden. These portrayals fuel opinions that nurses have low status, lack autonomy, and depend on physicians for direction.
In the story world of both Claire Temple and Call the Midwife, the characters work outside the hospital which showcases their autonomy as clinicians engaged in problem solving in a variety of settings. Claire and the midwives are seen as interdependent -- seeking, valuing and using input from more experienced nurses, physicians, mentors and scientists.
The breaking of stereotypes and presentations of positive but complicated depictions of nursing is good for the profession. Depictions in the media have the potential of influencing career choice. The World Health Organization has projected a global shortage of nine million nurses and midwives by 2030. Studies have shown that teens and young adults who might have been interested in a nursing career were negatively influenced by media depictions of the work done by nurses in hospital dramas.
Failure to recognize the value of professional nursing is harmful to the profession, including misrepresentation or lack of representation of nurses in the media. This makes it harder for nurses to be understood by the public or policy makers, illustrated by the recent comment by a Washington state senator that “nurses probably play cards for a significant part of the day.”
“Both shows also portray nursing and midwifery as complex, science-based professions, focused on caring, clinical expertise, and healing with a commitment to social justice,” added Heilemann. “The work of these on-screen characters extends far beyond the hospital, exposing compelling aspects of the nursing profession and how it is actually practiced. This gives viewers insight into the richness and value of nursing as a profession.”