Man who has a woman's job
Black-ish exploits nursing stereotypes
October 8, 2014 -- The new ABC sitcom Black-ish is about a financially successful black family that struggles with its racial identity in a mostly white social environment. Tonight's episode reinforced the tired stereotypes that nurses are low-skilled physician assistants and that men in nursing are doing women's work. The show's mother character, Rainbow Johnson, appears to be an anesthesiologist. In this episode, Rainbow tries to inspire her precocious six-year-old daughter Diane to be a physician by showing her around the hospital where Rainbow practices. She shows her daughter medication administration and monitoring tasks that anesthesiologists do, but that ironically also bear a striking resemblance to things nurses do. Diane is bored with the hospital at first; she is more impressed with her father's job in advertising, which involves Justin Bieber! When Rainbow is paged to the emergency department (ED), she assigns "Nurse Larry" to babysit Diane. Apparently Larry has nothing to do except whatever some physician tells him. He does try to amuse Diane by making a "turkey" from a blown-up medical glove. Diane condescendingly tells him: "I love it, man who has a woman's job!" There is no indication the show finds that comment problematic; we are invited to laugh at it. After Diane effortlessly slips away from poor Nurse Larry, she encounters the real life-and-death work of the ED, which involves a crush of injured patients, including one with a hatchet in his head. The patient dies despite Rainbow's best efforts, and Rainbow fears Diane will be traumatized, but instead she finally falls in love with the idea of being a physician. Yay! Unfortunately this empowerment plotline exploits ugly stereotypes of nurses as passive helpers who are irrelevant to serious health care and of male nurses in particular as sad, emasculated, and useless. The episode was "The Nod," written by Kenya Barris. Please join us in urging the show to make amends and to avoid expressing further contempt for nursing.
Making sure people don't die
Early in the episode, we see the scrubs-clad Rainbow at the family's lovely home, talking to cute little Diane about what she wants to be in life. Diane says she wants to work in advertising like Daddy, and Rainbow is distressed. The precocious tyke wants to know how many years of school it takes to be a physician. Her mother says that it takes four years of college, four years of medical school, "and then three years of . . . "-- before Diane cuts her off, saying Daddy had to go to college. Rainbow confides that she really needs Diane to be a physician because, she implies, none of her other kids are likely to amount to much career-wise. Later, Rainbow makes another enticing reference to being on the way to her very cool job where she gets to save lives. Diane is unmoved.
Later, we see Rainbow and Diane walking down the hall of the hospital. Diane evidently has the day off from school to explore careers. But she is way too jaded and cool to be excited, or even polite, about the hospital. She tells her mother she was hoping the day would be fun. Rainbow assures her it will be, because later they'll go to the cafeteria "and because I'm a doctor, you're gonna get some free frozen yogurt." But Diane says that hospital yogurt was not how she saw her day going. Next, Rainbow shows her daughter her "work station," which seems to consist of a monitor and a supply cart in a standard room on the floor, maybe in some pre-op area. Rainbow says this is where "I put an IV into the patient's arm, and then I monitor their vitals during the procedure to make sure that they don't die." But Diane counters that her father's advertising job recently enabled her to watch Justin Bieber wrestling a dog in a rehearsal for a Nike commercial. Rainbow tries again: "I make sure people don't die." Boring.
Later, after Diane has whined about lunch -- apparently the chicken noodle soup was just "warm" -- her mother continues the tour: "This is our locked drug cabinet and it's filled with very dangerous and very powerful narcotics, and there's only one key, and I have it!" But Diane immediately opens a drawer, so obviously it's not even locked. Rainbow frets that "they're going to take away my key!" We have to give the show one point for this scene. Just then, "Dr. Johnson" is paged to the ER. Rainbow says, "that's me," and then tells a man in scrubs who happens to be nearby, "Nurse Larry, this is my child, I'll be right back." Then she tells Diane: "You stay with him, OK?" Larry seems nonplussed, but obviously he will comply; he has nothing to do except whatever physicians command. He says hello and tells Diane he likes her glasses. Diane thanks him, condescendingly. A little later, we see that Larry has managed to make a rubber turkey for Diane from a surgical glove. She is not impressed.
Diane (facetiously): I love it, man who has a woman's job!
Then Diane has to go to the bathroom. Larry starts to ask if she knows where that is, but she cuts him off, saying "yeah"--the pathetic nurse doesn't even know that little fact that Diane does not!
A few moments later, we see Diane exit the "staff only" bathroom (so precocious!). She sees hospital staff wheeling a patient past and follows them to the ED. There, she stares at a critical patient with a hatchet in his head, amidst the seeming chaos of rushing wheelchairs and gurneys. Diane enters what seems like a trauma room, just as her mom is turning away from the patient on whom she and others have been working. We hear a steady tone from the monitor--apparently indicating that the patient has just died.
Rainbow (distressed): Oh my God, baby . . . how much did you see?
Diane: All of it.
Later, Diane's father Andre chastises Rainbow, and Rainbow shares his concern that what Diane saw at the hospital has traumatized her. Rainbow tells Diane she is sorry that Diane saw all those terrible things. But Diane isn't sorry: "I saw a man with a hatchet in
his head. It was awesome! And that guy with coyote bites? Sweet! And you said sometimes people die, and it could be the doctor's fault. But no one can actually say so for sure. Right?. . . . I definitely want to be a doctor. Definitely." Diane
leaves the room. Rainbow is elated. And why not? It's clear that her daughter has everything she seems to need to succeed as, for example, a young physician on Grey's Anatomy: the arrogance, the self-absorption, the gleeful
disregard for others' wellbeing, and the contempt for nursing.
The portrayal of Nurse Larry on this episode of Black-ish is standard Hollywood--the nurse as peripheral loser with nothing much to do except whatever a physician tells him, including babysitting her child. Larry is also an easy target for Diane's contempt (and by extension ours). Of course, the most troubling single element of the plotline is probably Diane's "man who has a woman's job" comment. Far from giving viewers any reason to doubt the accuracy of the comment, the show offers it as just another example of Diane's savvy-beyond-her-years truth-telling, which is funny because of the disconnect with her age and little-girl demeanor. In fact, although the regressive gender stereotyping in Diane's comment has been undermining nursing for decades, it's especially insidious coming from her, a character the show presents as unusually perceptive and clever. Just as on Grey's Anatomy, it seems vital to the show creators that women and people of color like Diane be permitted to join professions from which they were long excluded. But that doesn't seem to be enough; they also seem to feel the need to explicitly put distance between such characters and work that the show creators consider low-skilled and subordinate, work the characters might have had to settle for back in the bad old days.
Apparently unknown to the show creators, modern nursing is a job for autonomous health professionals of both genders who use their college science degrees to save lives, in part by doing things very much like the tasks Rainbow brags to her daughter about doing. It's true that nursing remains less than ten percent male in the U.S. And how motivated do you suppose young males will be to consider the profession after seeing episodes like this?
This episode's title is "The Nod," a reference to what the show presents as the common practice of blacks nodding to each other in public to recognize that they see each other, a basic expression of solidarity in "the struggle." Unfortunately, the show also seems to be passing on the idea that people of color prosper only by joining professions that are esteemed by the dominant culture they are "struggling" against, not by questioning that culture's assumptions about what work has worth. Laurence Fishburne plays the patriarch in the show, Andre's father, and we recall Akeelah and the Bee, the 2006 film in which Fishburne's character mentored another young, gifted, and black female. Akeelah aimed higher than her bitter mother's dead-end nursing job. Here, Diane's mother actually is the role model, but the underlying point is the same. Another obvious reference point is Doc McStuffins, the popular children's show in which a precocious African-American girl emulates her physician mother by diagnosing and treating her sick toys, with the help of her dolls--among them a "nurse" hippo who reflects a shifting set of nurse stereotypes, notably the unskilled idiot, the handmaiden, the battle-axe, and the angel.
We urge the creators of Black-ish to try to get by without expressing more uninformed contempt for nursing, and ideally to make amends, perhaps with a later episode that includes a nurse character who actually has something to contribute or at least something to say. In particular, we wonder how Diane would do sparring with Nurse Jackie.
Talk to the Executive Producers of Black-ish
We are unable to find an email address for the producers, but you can reach them by telephone or snail mail.
Kenya Barris, Laurence Fishburne, Executive Producers
Cinema Gypsy Productions
4116 W Magnolia Blvd
Burbank, CA 91505
phone 1-818 556 5400