From Scrubs to Casualty male nurses are a staple of any medical TV series and a new study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing asks if these shows reinforce or expose stereotypes. The study found that men in nursing are presented in contradictory ways that both expose and reinforce stereotypes.
The research analyzed five shows from U.S. TV: Grey’s Anatomy, Hawthorne, Mercy, Nurse Jackie and Private Practice and found that male nurses are shown as being competent but unimportant nurses, often reduced to prop, minority group representative or the object of comedy.
The majority of characters did not conform to conventional notions of masculinity and there remains an underlying question about the sexuality of men in nursing. Contradictorily, although the programs sought to expose common stereotypes about men in nursing, they nonetheless often reinforced those same stereotypes in more implicit ways.
‘First of all, a female football coach, like a male nurse: sin against nature.’
As a line appearing in the television comedy Glee, this startling comment about female football coaches and male nurses is intended to be humorous and is not meant to be taken seriously as a comment on gender in nursing, or, for that matter, football coaching. Yet, the dialogue perhaps unwittingly reveals the relatively invisible status of men who nurse in our society. Over time, the numbers of men in nursing have increased and this is reflected in a growing presence on screen, from Peter Petrelli of Heroes to Greg Focker of Meet the Parents. Such characters are often described simply as ‘male nurse’, a descriptor that draws attention to gender and profession in ways that assume it is unusual. When plot summaries speak of ‘Male nurse Greg’ rather than simply ‘Nurse Greg’, we are reminded that female characters would not be described as ‘Female nurse Jackie’ or the like.
Although the nursing profession historically has been predominantly female, the numbers of men in nursing are increasing slightly in Australia (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare 2011) and elsewhere. In the USA, the proportion of men who are registered nurses has increased from <3% in 1970 to >9% in 2011 (US Census Bureau 2013). The percentage of men remains small, however, with men accounting for approximately 9% of the workforce in the UK (Nursing & Midwifery Council 2012) and nearly 10% in Australia (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare 2012). In view of the persistently low percentage of men in the nursing workforce, more male recruits are needed to counter the looming nursing shortage, instead of an ongoing dependence on only half of the population to supply the bulk of the new nursing recruits; furthermore, greater diversification of the nursing workforce is necessary if the composition of the nursing workforce is to better reflect the diversity of the society it serves (Anthony 2006, McLaughlin et al. 2010).
Images of nursing on television and in other popular media can play some part in recruitment by presenting the profession as an attractive career that welcomes a diverse range of people and the images can also affect retention by contributing to the self-image of men already in nursing. Yet, to date, there is relatively little critical work available on the images of men in nursing in popular media.