Starring Stephen Glover and Trishelle Cannatella
Executive Producers: Jonathan Murray and Jeff Jenkins
Diagnosis: Promoting naughty nurse stereotype
May 16, 2008 -- One of the new shows in the 2007-2008 television season that was less than helpful to nursing was USA Network's "Dr. Steve-O," which included naughty "nurse" Trishelle. Although we learned today that the reality show will not be returning for a second season, it's worth working past our tears to examine why the show was a problem. The October 21, 2007 episode is a good example. In the episode, "Jackass" veteran Steve Glover "de-wussifies" three awkward men by cajoling them into doing painful or embarrassing stunts. At "Dr. Steve-O"'s side throughout is "beautiful hot babe Trishelle," an actress dressed as a naughty nurse. Trishelle's role involves looking cute, letting Steve-O cuddle with her, and encouraging participants to do as Steve-O says. The show is not quite as stupid or ugly as it sounds. Of course it promotes dangerous behavior, despite the frequent warnings ("do not staple your scrotum"), and destructive notions of masculinity. But there's something oddly endearing about it because Steve-O maintains a positive, almost caring attitude toward his charges, he undergoes everything they do (or worse), and the show seems to avoid overt homophobia. Is Steve-O just a sick dolt, or is he saving the souls of lost boys through focused pain rituals? The show is obviously tongue in cheek, and no doubt the inclusion of Trishelle would be defended as all part of "the joke." Just as Steve-O himself is clearly not a real physician, viewers will realize Trishelle is not a real nurse. But unlike Steve-O, Trishelle will reinforce longstanding stereotypes of nurses as sexually available dimwits and physician handmaidens.
The heavily tattooed, gravelly-voiced Dr. Steve-O is "wag[ing] a war against wussiness in America." Naughty nurse Trishelle might be found smiling at his side, sitting on his lap, or allowing him to place a stethoscope near her cleavage. Also popping up occasionally is the very large Regg, introduced by Steve-O this way: "And if anybody messes with me then Regg is gonna kick their butts!" Since a real macho man would presumably not need Regg, this seems a lot like knowing self-parody.
The show's structure involves taking three willing victims who wish to be "de-wussified" through three stages of treatment designed by Dr. Steve-O: "initial treatment," "personal procedures," and "group procedures." The first two stages are geared to the "diagnosis." A man who "lacks confidence" is pushed to engage in (almost) "naked aerobics" with a group of giggling women--Steve-O joins him. Then this man gets a "tough-guy tattoo." (Trishelle: "Tattoos are very sexy. Girls like tattoos.") Another man who is perceived as too boyish is encouraged to remove his braces with pliers, then go skateboarding in a straightjacket. The third, who fears strangers, must ask for help from strangers while hanging upside down on a city street as Steve-O shoots fireworks at him; then he must go stage-diving at a concert featuring "some soothing death metal." Steve-O joins in most of this, often upping the ante. Steve-O lets the fireworks victim shoot the host's bare back in return, causing visible burns. (Trishelle: "It's very hard, being Dr. Steve-O. Don't try this at home.") Steve-O joins the skateboarding, but only after Trishelle has lit him on fire.
The final stage of the show is "group therapy." In this episode, that involves going to what seems to be an art gallery and doing what Steve-O describes this way:
It's time for some good old fashioned male bonding. So right now we're going to put paint enemas up our butts! It's time for fart art.
This is too much for the participant who thinks he comes off as too youthful. He leaves to call his mother (really), and is rewarded with an onscreen brand of "WUSS" as he departs. (Yet, consistent with the show's surprisingly forgiving nature, Steve-O and the remaining participants give him a kind of "no hard feelings" phone call at show's end.) The enema scene is interesting not so much for the canvas Steve-O and his charges create by squirting paint out of their butts--it's not quite Jackson Pollock--but because the show appears to have hired a real nurse to do the paint enemas. She is labeled onscreen as "Enema Nurse," and she tells one participant: "First you're gonna feel a little pressure, and that's gonna be my finger before insertion, OK?"
At the end, the two survivors are deemed "CURED," and Steve-O celebrates by reviewing their achievements and stapling to their bare chests the "Dr. Steve-O Clean Bill of Health." One survivor reports feeling more confident than he has ever felt. The other, one month later, happily video phones in from the tattoo parlor; he now has a Mohawk.
One obvious theme is the obsession with proving manhood, or even achieving manhood, by purposefully undergoing pain. In a solo interlude, Steve-O says he is about to staple "my you-know-what sac to my leg." He does, and we see the blood through his shorts. Onscreen:
"Warning: do not staple your scrotum."
Sponsor Sneaux brand sneakers thinks this is cool enough to stick its product next to it.
The show's obsession with pain reminded us of those who undergo ritual pain to obtain spiritual benefit, a practice ranging from the Flagellants to the ritual piercings in many traditions. Not unlike such practitioners, Steve-O aspires to something greater in the pain, though it may be notions of masculinity and strength rather than transcendence as it is traditionally understood. Of course, from a conventional health care perspective, research shows that pain tends to inhibit recovery from illness and undermine health in general, so even if there appears to be no permanent injury, there may be some damage from enduring severe pain. On the other hand, whatever negative clinical effects pain may have, we would not scoff at the spiritual benefits some appear to derive, and perhaps there is some benefit in cultivating a stoic approach to pain, within reason. So maybe we can give the show a pass for suggesting that a "nurse" figure would encourage people to undergo ritual pain.
But we are less comfortable with the dangerous acts the show might encourage impressionable viewers to engage in in less controlled settings, where there may not be anyone waiting with a working fire extinguisher, or ready to ensure that fireworks or staplers do not do more damage than intended.
We're also concerned that a real nurse would give paint enemas to Steve-O and the two remaining participants. It seems to us she performed this act without knowing what dangers might be involved since we can't believe there is any research finding that paint enemas are safe.
When real nurses allow their bosses--no matter who they might be--to convince them to perform unsafe procedures, it gives the appearance that nurses are uneducated manual laborers who do as they are told without regard to patient safety, nursing practice acts or nursing codes of ethics. This sort of "my boss told me to do it" mentality is undoubtedly what leads some nurses to participate in state-sponsored executions--a clear violation of any nursing code of ethics. This mentality also leads to some nurses to fail to stand up to physicians, hospital administrators or health insurance companies who prescribe dangerous treatments or lack of treatments for their patients. Nurses must first and foremost staunchly advocate for their patients and refuse to do anything that is not in the patient's best interest, not matter who is prescribing the work to be done.
And of course, we can't let the naughty nurse go. Yes, Trishelle's "nurse" role is a joke and viewers are unlikely to see her as a real nurse, any more than Steve-O will be seen as a real physician. But medicine has not been plagued for decades with the stereotypes that its members are exhibitionists obsessed with promoting a macho brotherhood of pain. Nurses have been seen as brainless bimbos who serve as physician handmaidens, doing whatever physicians say without question. The Trishelle character does little if anything to counter these stereotypes; she is a sexual object in a provocative outfit, she permits Steve-O's juvenile sexual attentions, and we have not seen her question anything he does or says.
The "enema nurse" might help a bit by showing some slight skill, but this is more than canceled out by the phrase "enema nurse" and the scene as a whole, which reduces the profession to a little boy joke, and as we noted suggests real nurses would participate in something unsafe. Jokes often have real subtexts, and when your humor exploits harmful stereotypes--as this does--it is no defense to claim that it is "just a joke."
In other September 2007 episodes, naughty nurse Trishelle take a more active role in the fun. At one point, she spanks a participant with a wooden paddle and a whip. She also dons dead chickens for boxing gloves, then punches another participant in the face, which is also covered by a dead chicken. A third participant endures a "nutwacker" pendulum device, which repeatedly crashes into his testicles. How awesome can it get? This obviously raises some of the concerns we note above in associating nursing with dangerous stunts. See that video on YouTube here.
Please send your comments on the show and ask them to refrain from further damaging portrayals of nurses to two addresses. And please send us a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Jonathan Murray, President
Jeff Wachtel, EVP Original Programming
Bunim / Murray Productions
6007 Sepulveda Blvd.
Van Nuys CA 91411-2502
Bonnie Hammer, President
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112-0015
Review by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed May 16, 2008
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.