Can you guess what role Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera have all played? It’s the naughty nurse! That’s no real surprise. Some research has indicated it’s the most popular sexual fantasy for men.
But now it’s Halloween. And real nurses — many suffering due to the Covid-19 crisis — once again have to deal with an annual, gross parade.
Why should people resist being a naughty nurse this Halloween? Well, mainly because the image reduces a life-saving modern health profession to a tired joke about female sexuality. That contributes to the high rates of sexual abuse real nurses experience, while undermining their struggle for adequate respect and clinical resources, which is especially pressing during the pandemic.
Nurses have traditionally been predominantly women, and regressive men seem to be scared by three-dimensional, educated, self-driven women. It’s easier to control women if we put them into categories that express narrow feminine extremes. And not surprisingly, these are some of the main stereotypes of nurses: the handmaiden to a male physician, the angel/maternal figure, the shrew/battle-axe, and yes, the naughty nurse.
In the first half of the 20th century, the handmaiden and maternal images may have predominated, capturing a view of the profession as a group of females who sacrifice personally and unconditionally. But with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the naughty nurse appeared. The image fuses caregiving with easy sex — an offer of unidirectional sexual healing, presumably appealing to men who think sex is solely about their needs.
Of course, in the decades since, women have pushed back. Look no further than Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, whose recent hit “WAP” clearly expressed women’s demand for equality in sexual relationships. The song plainly rejected the regressive unidirectional model of relations between women and men.
Or consider the acclaimed movie “Promising Young Woman.” The main character dresses up as a naughty nurse, using the offer of unilateral sex to lull toxic men into a false sense of security and power, so she can turn the tables. The character is arguably a naughty-axe, a blend of the naughty and battle-axe images that can reflect a fear of female sexuality, but here expresses women’s own rejection of sexual assault.
That’s understandable, and you could see such an image as an effort to reclaim the stereotype. But associating the profession of nursing with female sexuality will always be a problem. And presenting nurses as malevolent vigilantes does nurses no favor either.
It’s true that during the Covid-19 crisis, nurses have received positive public attention, with some media finally covering nurses’ contributions to saving lives. Yet too much of the news media, along with Hollywood shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Good Doctor,” have continued to portray physicians as providing all the care that matters. And the “hero” narrative has not helped nurses on the ground much in terms of workplace improvements.
How could retiring the naughty nurse Halloween costume and a better public image help nurses and their patients? It would build the real respect that would lead to adequate resources and staffing, including mandatory minimum staffing ratios, as California has. Extensive research shows that poor nurse staffing costs lives. Hospitals should also hire secretaries and liberate nurses from the burdensome electronic charting, which seems to have been designed by people who never consulted a nurse. And hospitals should hire support staff so nurses can make patients their priority.
Want to be a nurse for Halloween? Try scrubs and PPE!
Sandy Summers and Harry Jacobs Summers are the leaders of The Truth About Nursing and co-authors of “Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nursing Puts Us All at Risk.” They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org