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LAce Posted Monday, November 28th, 2005
“Nothing Beats Cold Hard Steel”: Grey’s Anatomy's Depiction of Nurses
Lucy O’Connell

Grey’s Anatomy is a new hit television show that premiered in March 2005. It follows the lives of surgical interns and how the female residents struggle to assert themselves in their profession. It is intended to be a feminist show and is something of a mixture of Sex in the City and ER. Much of the plot, as the title suggests, is about the psyche and sexual exploits of the residents. Like other medical shows Grey’s Anatomy is an extremely physician-centered view into hospital care.

On the whole, Grey’s Anatomy seems to be deplored by nurses. The Center for Nursing Advocacy gives the show a rating of “poor” for its portrayal of nurses (The Center for Nursing Advocacy, 2005). One of the major problems that nurses cite in the reviews available through the center of Nursing Advocacy, is that like other physician-centered shows, nurses are almost altogether absent from the scene. It appears that physicians are providing the majority of care and that they are numerous and always available. Despite the fact that in the real-world US health system, nurses out number doctors 9 to 1. However, after receiving many complaints, the Vice President of Touchstone Television Media Relations, Gilmore, wrote a letter to The Center for Nursing Advocacy explaining that there were many physicians on the medical advisory committee as well as one nurse (Summers, 2005). She also contended that a diverse group of both male and female nurses were portrayed in each episode. Though Summers argued that nursing “wallpaper” is not acceptable, because within the first few episodes not one nurse was ever named. She also points out that besides the dearth of nurse characters, there are often disparaging remarks made about nurses. In fact, in the very first episode the main character Meredith Grey is called “clueless… like a nurse” (The Center for Nursing Advocacy, 2005). Summers also points out that despite the good intentions of including a nurse on the “medical advisory board” it was inappropriate because nursing is actually a very different and separate discipline. Despite the fact that the ABC network was notified of the concerns of nurses within the first month of air, little has changed regarding their depictions of nurses.

As shown by the correspondence from ABC to the Center for Nursing Advocacy, ABC does not seem to understand the full extent of its depiction of nurses. To its credit, ABC did include a “Nurse’s Blog” on the television show website. However, the network continues to nibble on its own toes with this offensive view of a nurse. First, like in the show, the nurse writing the blog is never named. Though she does have her own unique and vindictive voice expressed through the writing. In the faux on-line journal entries, the nurse whines the whole time and focuses only on the activity of the residents. Furthermore, the anonymous nurse really seems to have it in for the female residents and gossips shamelessly about the title character Meredith Grey. Besides this, none of the blogs are realistic. Quite frankly I do not think that nurses even pay that much attention to residents at all, let alone constantly blog about them. ABC completely missed the boat on this public relations effort, and it is amazing to me that the blog continues to be updated.

The creator of Grey’s Anatomy is Shonda Rhimes, an African American woman. She intends the show to be a feminist approach to the medical field and also prides herself on promoting diversity. Ironically enough in an interview on News and Notes with Ed Gordon on NPR (March 25, 2005) she talks about trying to dispel stereotypes when it comes to minorities on television, saying “the way people look at people on television is the way they perceive the world. And for me the idea of the show, part of it, is that we can change the assumptions that people have simply by the images they see in the background of the show.” However, she completely forgets to dispel the nursing stereotype from the show. In fact many articles on the Center for Nursing Advocacy cite examples of reverse misogyny. The female residents seemed to be so intent on asserting themselves as female physicians that they often put down the nurses and their profession. In one episode one of the female residents stands up for her fellow doctors by saying “You're the pig who called Meredith a nurse...I hate you on principle,” and demands that the offender treat her with the respect that a doctor deserves (Center for Nursing Advocacy, 2005, April 5). This is deeply disturbing because it is a destructive and elitist form of feminism. A reviewer labels the new paradigm expressed on the show as “dress for success” feminism and explains that it is “an expression of contempt for a traditionally female profession by bright, ambitious women who think they have left all that lowly "women's work" behind in pursuing high-status,” (Center for Nursing Advocacy, 2005, April 5). Instead of uniting and encouraging all women, Grey’s Anatomy seems to encourage the distinct hierarchy of the medical field. This new feminist approach portrayed on television is only successful by disparaging another whole set of women.

More recently, Grey’s Anatomy encouraged another stereotype of nurses that is probably the most offensive to date. An October 2005 episode featured a patient who was unable to treat his pain with medication, but only received relief from watching a series of pornographic movies called “Nasty Naughty Nurses.” In fact, in this episode a physician encourages this use of non-pharmalogical pain relief. Also, the wife of the patient is greatly relieved that nasty, naughty nurses can alleviate her husband’s pain. Although this is supposed to bring a light hearted laugh to all viewers and teach them not be judgmental, it also implies that porn has an important place in health care. One reviewer explains:

It's one thing to believe that pornography objectifies women, but it's a special blow for a nurse, who has been degraded as a professional, as a member of a job that required years of college-level training and that presents huge mental and physical challenges…Each new "naughty nurse"… reinforces these long-standing stereotypes, which continue to discourage practicing and potential nurses, foster sexual violence in the workplace, and contribute to a general atmosphere of disrespect at a time when the profession is in crisis worldwide. (Center for Nursing Advocacy, 2005, October 23)
Amazingly enough this episode encourages the extremely un-politically correct stereotype of nurses as dumb bimbos. It is really astounding to me that this was aired in light of Shonda Rhimes’ previously cited view of stereotypes. Not only was it in bad taste, but what does it say about a profession that is struggling with a shortage?

It is not a coincidence that the only professions in the United States that are experiencing shortages are considered historically as women’s occupations, such as teaching and nursing. The percentage of college educated women is quickly taking over that of men. For example, my graduating class at the University of Virginia was 56% female and 44% male. However, thirty years ago the school did not even accept women outside of the nursing and education schools. Women are doing well in school; they are becoming doctors, lawyers, CEO’s — and yes, surgeons. Medical schools are now enrolling classes with equal ratios of males and females. Nursing, what was thought to be one of the few occupations acceptable for a well-educated woman, is now being ridiculed by those same women, despite the fact that nursing has undergone significant changes in the past twenty years. The stereotypical old fashioned relics of nursing are not around anymore. The cute, and often sexy white uniforms have been replaced by a androgynous scrubs; the old symbol of nursing, the fashionable hat, has been exchanged for the scientific emblem of stethoscope. Nursing is also more mentally challenging than it was years ago. The truth is that nurses are prepared with in-depth courses on anatomy, physiology, and pharmacy.

As Grey’s Anatomy proves that some women are capable of achieving academically and competing with men, it limits the respect for other women who choose different, less male-centered pathways. In shows like this, media exposes its lack of respect for traditional feminine characteristics of nurturing and compassion, while it upholds paternalistic values of competition and success. Despite this intense drive that the American medical system has for accomplishment, our health statistics are worse than most developed countries. I believe that part of the reason this is true is that the American medical system does not appropriately use the strengths of nursing. It puts too much focus on health management through acute medical interventions. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy have terrific influence on the population and what they expect of the medical system. By showing that surgery is the end-all-be-all in medicine, while nursing is the silent handmaiden, it limits the recruitment during a nursing shortage. It is sad that other models of care are being devalued because they are not the traditional dominant, paternalistic model. Though part of the message of the show does ring true about new “dressed for success” feminism and movement away from the “hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” view. In n real-life conversation at a dinner party, a young, female, surgical resident explained to me earnestly that the reason she loves her job and thinks surgery is the best medicine is because “nothing beats cold hard steel.” Well….where do I begin?

ABC. (2005). Nurse’s Blog. Retrieved on November 12, 2005.

Center for Nursing Advocacy. (2005). Review: Grey’s Anatomy. Retrieved on November 12, 2005.

Center for Nursing Advocacy. (2005, April 5). "You're the pig who called Meredith a nurse...I hate you on principle”. Retrieved on November 12, 2005.

Center for Nursing Advocacy. (2005, October 23). "Grey's Anatomy” doesn't care about nurse people. Retrieved on November 12, 2005.

Summers, S. (2005, April, 14). ABC's Touchstone sends a response to nurses' concerns on "Grey's Anatomy”. Retrieved on November 12, 2005.

Gordon, E. (2005, March 25). News and Notes with Ed Gordon: An Ethnically Diverse “Grey's Anatomy”. National Public Radio. Retrieved on November 12, 2005.

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