I have chosen the MASH television series, and Chief Nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan for the character portrayed. She is certainly a leading character in the series, however, there are other, secondary character nurses. She and other nurses are very active within the show: they are not simply there for décor. They are often engaged in nursing activities, considering that one of the bases of the show is dealing with wounded who arrive from the front lines. It is actually the nurse characters who provide actual nursing care: indeed, in one episode it is underlined that nurse characters are qualified professionals. When they are removed from the scene of action, the other characters are shown as being absolutely clueless as to a nurse’s duties. There seems to be an equality as to who does most of the talking within the show – this seems to depend on the character’s personality, rather than their profession. For instance, Major Houlihan is certainly one of the louder characters of the show! In scenes with physicians, however, the nurses are shown mostly as assistants to the physicians, and not as actual professions on their own. Still, this is one of the more professional portrayals of nurses on television – for instance, the nurses answer to Houlihan rather than to the physicians. The nurses also debate patient care with surgeons, assess patients, and even point out the mistakes of doctors.
The series shows only female nurses, in some contrast to the male surgeons. The nurses are of varying ages: ranging from the twenties to the thirties. Their love lives are a separate story: the nurses’ relationships are one of the points of focus within the series, and they are portrayed rather differently, though mostly as wartime relationships which arise from stress. Major Houlihan, however, is shown as continuing rather desperate relationships, and marrying and divorcing within the space of the show.
Major Houlihan is portrayed as intelligent, confident, ambitious – she exhibits quite a few positive qualities. However, she is also the epitome of criticality and dogmatism, which seriously harms her image. The other characters are portrayed as less dogmatic, especially the doctors, who seem to think much more freely. However, she becomes much more humane as the series goes on: becoming both a better nurse and a better person for it.
Nurse characters do portray service to others: they are dedicated to their work enough to work in the depicted hell of Korea, even though this is pointedly unpleasant to them. They are shown as the bearers of a wartime humanity, which can survive only by masquerading as bitterness or scabrousness. Rarely do the characters let their true feelings show: they cannot allow it. They are certainly scholarly: they are well-informed and well-trained. However, they are not scientists: their patients are not lab rats, but people to be saved. This they usually achieve. There are no standards of achievement as there are in a civil situation, however, if achievement is taken to mean successful performance of duty, then, yes, the nurses in this show are achievers.
The sexuality within this show is also a wartime kind of sexuality. The nurses are seen as quite the sex objects, but this is only in part tied with the stereotype of nurse. I think this is more a depiction of how human beings react to stress, especially in war. Eros and Thanatos always go hand in hand, and making sexually derogative jokes and passes at colleagues is a universal incident in these occurrences. The nurses aren’t shown as being especially beautiful or glamorous: however, they are shown as being sexually attractive. Nonetheless, they aren’t mere sex objects: when the men of the show want sex, they extensively utilize Korean whorehouses.
The nursing profession is depicted as a difficult, yet certainly needed career – thus, one that is fulfilling to anyone to whom fulfillment means being needed. It is difficult to elaborate on this further due to the different standards of fulfillment. It is not the most creative job – emphasis is often made on the dogmatism of nursing, especially in the earlier parts of the series in Major Houlihan. I would not call it exciting in the awe-inciting sense – however, it is certainly not boring!
To Houlihan, nursing is almost her all. She is a nurse through and through, it runs in the blood and in the desire. The characters are all dedicated individuals, but Houlihan is the very epitome of dedication. This, however, seems to be more the quality of the individual character than the nursing profession.
1. M*A*S*H (1972-1983), produced by: Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalfe, 20th Century Fox.