Updated 18 September 2013

TV fuels male nurse stereotypes

Television shows are creating stereotypes that are making it harder in reality to recruit men to nursing and retain them, according to a new study.

Fictional male nurses on television are sidelined in supporting roles, portrayed as the butt of jokes and cast as commentary providers or minority representatives, all of which makes it harder in reality to recruit men to nursing and retain them, according to a new study.

"People don't make decisions about which profession to choose just based on television, but students have told us that popular TV shows can help them choose a career, or that TV perpetuates negative stereotypes about nursing that they then have to address in practice," said Dr Roslyn Weaver, of the University of Western Sydney School of Nursing and Midwifery, who led the research.

"So when men in nursing are almost invisible in popular culture, or are stereotyped as incompetent, or somehow 'effeminate', then men who choose to enter nursing can find it difficult to combat this," she said, adding, "perhaps reflecting this, there are often higher attrition rates for male students than female students in nursing."

In the US, men account for roughly 9% of nurses, according to the census bureau. And that figure is similar in the UK and Australia. Past research has documented "stereotypical images around nursing, such as the battle-axe, naughty nurse and handmaiden."

Weaver and her colleagues write in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. With a growing number of men entering the profession, the authors point out, it's just as important to examine how male nurses are portrayed in popular culture.

Popular TV shows investigated

For their study, the researchers viewed one season of each of five American medical television dramas, including Grey's Anatomy, Hawthorne, Mercy, Nurse Jackie and Private Practice. They evaluated aspects of the episodes such as dialogue, costumes, casting, cinematography and editing to compile a perspective on the ways that male nurses are characterised. To their credit, the shows tended to expose and reject stereotypes.

But, in a contradictory trend, they also reinforced the cliches by characterising male nurses as men who are not traditionally masculine, the researchers found.

Common stereotypes that the shows reinforced include the nurse who is mistaken for a doctor and the gay or emasculated male nurse. Male nurses and midwives in the shows tend to suffer condescension from their colleagues and patients and are the object of comedy.

The male nurse characters also tend to hit multiple diversity targets in casting. The researchers coined the term "minority loading" to denote characters who represent more than one minority group, such as Angel Garcia on Mercy, a gay Hispanic male nurse, and Mo-Mo on Nurse Jackie, a gay Muslim male nurse.

The results were "pretty consistent" with a prior study of male nurses in film that Dr David Stanley, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Western Australia, published in 2012.

"Apart from Nurse Jackie the medical programmes used in the analysis reflected programmes aimed at a medically focused perspective of health where nursing is seen lower in relative status and where male nurses are seen as lower still," said Stanley, who was not involved in the current study.

Stereotypes become reality

Some of the stereotypes may persist off screen.

Male nurses can be regarded as lazy or more readily promoted, Stanley said, though generally they are accepted by patients and female nurses alike. Being in the minority may put male nurses at a disadvantage, Weaver said.

"This not only means men might be stereotyped but they can also be excluded from particular clinical specialties, face difficulties dealing with older female patients and be expected to do more 'masculine' work such as heavier manual work."

"Improving recruitment efforts could help, and fewer negative stereotypes in television programmes might make a difference, the researchers say.




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