Nurses have a PR problem.
That's the view of the Ontario Nurses' Association, which is fed up with the "negative" image of nurses seen in the media – where they are too often portrayed as a profession of " 'doctors' handmaidens,' 'battleaxes,' and most prominent of all, ''naughty nurses.' "
The ONA, which is the union representing nurses in Ontario, is objecting to the new MTV reality series, Scrubbing In, which features a cast of buxom, hard-partying young nurses in California. Judging by the trailer, the cast is also shown in their workplaces, caring for patients and problem-solving before partying at night. (There is at least one male nurse in the cast.) But a letter from the Ontario association sees the many scenes depicting the nurses' steamy nightlife as demeaning to the profession.
"It is insulting and simply unacceptable to those of us who use our skills every day to provide quality patient care," ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud said in an open letter. "The nurses portrayed in the show [are presented] as sexual objects, exploit negative stereotypes and diminish the fact that we are knowledgeable health care professionals who make the difference between life and death for patients every day."
The letter encourages ONA members and others to sign an online petition to cancel the program.
The ONA is not alone in its complaint: The petition was started in the U.S. and has exceeded 8,000 signatures, with an accompanying Facebook group opposing the show. The industry association Registered Nurses of Ontario has also sent letters to MTV and encouraged its members to sign the petition. And the president of the Canadian Nurses Association, Barbara Mildon, has also weighed in with an open letter to MTV, objecting to the show's "sexual objectification and negative stereotypes."
MTV Canada replied to requests for comment on Tuesday, with an emailed statement, and declined requests for an interview.
"MTV Canada holds the nursing profession in the highest regard," the statement reads. "…'Scrubbing In' is a program about nine individuals that work in travel nursing in Orange County, California and focuses in large part on their social lives during their off-work hours. The program should not be considered representative of the nursing profession in general. Just like fans of 'Grey's Anatomy,' we believe our viewers will see 'Scrubbing In' for what it is – a TV series meant to entertain, not inform."
Nurses' associations have campaigned against the objectification of nurses in the media before: In 2007, after complaints from the trade association, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, Cadbury Schweppes Canada pulled an ad for Dentyne Ice. The ad depicted a female nurse who, responding to a patient's call button, climbed on to beds with the patients chewing the gum.
"Furthermore, we will commit to you that if we have nurses in our future Canadian or U.S. advertising, we will test the ads in advance with nurses. We're making this decision to support your overall goal of fair depiction of nurses in the media," the company said in a letter to the RNAO at the time.
In the case of the MTV show, it could be argued that the show depicts nurses who work hard and use their social lives to blow off steam – and that objecting to their moral character or choice of dress is also problematic.
However, in a position paper on the subject, the ONA makes the point that the countless portrayals of nurses as sex objects in advertising and other media are essentially chipping away at their status as respected professionals who play a serious role in the health care system – part of a larger, more insidious devaluing of anything stereotypically considered women's work. That devaluing of nurses in pop culture imagery could hurt the profession in its attempts to attract quality workers, and to hold the respect of the other health care professionals and the patients that those nurses work with, the ONA believes.
"At a time when we are grappling with a devastating worldwide nursing shortage, ONA believes these portrayals discourage people from entering and remaining in the profession and diminish the worth of nurses to the very people for whom they care," the ONA's position paper states. "… We will never attract women into our profession if they believe the public thinks of them as little more than mindless showpieces. And the relentless stereotyping of nurses as sexy women will stop men from choosing nursing as a serious career choice as well."