Notorious: Film and Television’s Most Unforgettable Nurses. By Frankie Wallace.
Nursing consistently ranks as one of the world’s most trusted and respected professions. Nurses are revered the world over for their compassion, their selflessness, and their ethics.
It’s little wonder that for all the challenges of nursing school and the hardships of this incredibly demanding profession, the field of nursing continues to draw the best and brightest into its ranks.
But if you were to look only at some of the most famous — and infamous — nurses on film and screen, your image of nurses might not always be quite so rosy.
Ann Perkins — Parks and Recreation
We’ll ease into the exploration of famous nurses in entertainment by looking at a character that really does exemplify all the virtues of nursing: Parks and Recreation’s Ann Perkins. In many ways, Ann is the stabilizing force for her motley crew of bumbling but well-meaning friends. With her calm, steady demeanor, Ann is the quintessential definition of what real-life leaders aim to encompass. She imposes order on her friends’ chaos, all without compromising her compassion, her humanity, and her relatability.
Annie Wilkes — Misery
Now we jump feet first into the deep, and deeply disturbed end of the pool, from the safety and sanity of Ann Perkins to her antithesis. Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery is a spine-tingling spectacle of what can happen when medicine meets madness. The emotionally-unhinged fangirl is an expert in using her vast nursing skills to keep the object of her twisted affections at her mercy. And, in the process, she makes sure we never think of hobblingin the same way again.
Nurse Ratched — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Speaking of mad medicine, who can forget the one who started it all — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s chilling Nurse Ratched. Not only did Louise Fletcher’s unforgettable portrayal breathe life into Ken Kesey’s original supervillain, but it also helped elevate the 1975 film to be one of the greatest in modern cinematic history. And in the process, Nurse Ratched came to be a cultural emblem of the monstrosity the results when power combines with cruelty.
Jackie Peyton — Nurse Jackie
Nurses on film and television aren’t just emotionally disturbed or power-mad and sadistic. Sometimes, like the rest of us, they’re just messed up. Take, for instance, Nurse Jackie, an opioid-addicted nurse in a busy New York City hospital trying to manage her addiction, cope with a highly dysfunctional family life, and avoid killing anyone while she’s high. For all the melodrama of the Showtime series, it provides an important commentary on the incredible demands we place on nurses today, even as it proved remarkably prescient of the devastation of the looming opioid epidemic.
Eric LaBudde — Junkie Nurse (AKA Boppin’ at the Glue Factory)
Jeff Orgill’s dark comedy, Junkie Nurse, like Nurse Jackie, features another drug-addicted nurse using work to score. Instead of taking place in a frantic NYC hospital, though, Orgill’s notorious award-winning film is set in an old-age home practically as debilitated as its hapless residents. The result is a bittersweet commentary on the ravages of neglect, the intractability of unhappiness, the power of relationship, and the temptation to numb oneself by any means possible.
Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan — M*A*S*H
After all this time spent thinking about crazy and cruel, damaged and drug-addicted nurses, we thought we’d end this exploration on a happier note, calling to mind television’s original notorious fantasy nurse, M*A*S*H’s Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan.
Plopped in the middle of a brutal war in a time when women’s identities were still mostly tied up in their husbands and children, Margaret Houlihan embodied strength, courage, and stalwartness as she confronted the worst of human nature. Brainy and beautiful, Hot Lips made nursing both powerful and sexy.
There’s probably nothing more noble than devoting your life to caring for others. It’s no wonder that wherever they may go, nurses find themselves respected and beloved while hopefully exhibiting the same attributes. We can see this in the wise, steady, and loyal Ann Perkins. Likewise, in the example of Margaret Houlihan we can detect all the incredible determination, courage, and devotion that underlies the kindness and compassion of the nurses.
However, nurses in film and on television don’t always represent the high ideals for which the profession is so widely celebrated. Annie Wilkes terrifyingly embodies the consequences when medicine meets madness. Likewise, Nurse Ratched speaks to horrors that can arise when power falls into the hands of the compassionless.
Finally, notorious characters like Jackie Peyton and Eric LaBudde remind us that nurses are people too, and that they grapple with the same frailties we all do. Above all, these characters highlight the often unreasonable demands we make of our nurses, the pressure we place on them to be perfect and to bear up under circumstances and responsibilities that would make even the strongest among us crumble.
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