Academic journal article Hecate

Narratives of the "Not-So-Good Nurse": Rewriting Nursing's Virtue Script

Academic journal article Hecate

Narratives of the "Not-So-Good Nurse": Rewriting Nursing's Virtue Script

Article excerpt

The prolonged commemoration of the ANZAC centenary has flooded popular culture with images of the self-sacrificing, ever-reliable, ably-competent and often feisty, forthright, female nurse. This notion of 'the good nurse" is prevalent and promulgates what Nelson and Gordon (in The Complexities of Care: Nursing Reconsidered, New York, 2006) term a "virtue script" for, and about, nurses. Following this scripting, nurses portray themselves, and are portrayed, as angelic, sweet, kind carers. This positive feedback loop, ironically, traps nursing and nurses (who are still predominantly women) into a continual one-dimensional, unrealistic and de-humanised portrayal. Nurses are undermined and silenced when only one aspect of their identity is understood. There are, however, other representations of nursing, which offer important counter-points to the "good nurse" which, when examined closely, can yield a more nuanced, albeit sometimes shockingly gritty, realistic reading. Re/reading recent auto/biographies of nurses to move beyond the virtue script reveals how a more nuanced, cosmopolitan reading of these nurses and their profession can promote a clearer understanding of how contemporary nursing identity can be understood, characterised and developed.


If there is a grand narrative about nursing--still predominantly a female profession (Jones and Gates; Snyder and Green)--a story that both nurses and non-nurses tell, it is the idea of "the good nurse." This hegemonic discourse is not just of interest to nurses, but to women, because since the days of Florence Nightingale, nursing and female identity have been difficult to prise apart (Hallam). As Nightingale wrote:

    Every woman, or at least almost every woman in England has,
   at one time or another in her life, charge of the personal health
   of somebody, whether child or invalid--in other words,
   every woman is a nurse, (v) 

This idea of the good nurse and its association with the good woman is prevalent within narratives about nurses. However, by repeatedly constructing nurses as "good," angelic, or in other associated one-dimensional and unrealistic ways, individual nurses are effectively dehumanised and undermined. This process reinforces an image that does not reflect the real conditions of nursing work or the identities of nurses.

Carole Ferrier has discussed the role that literary representation can play in the cultural critique of women and gendered professions. In continuing this conversation, we examine three contemporary literary representations of nursing in order to critique the way this profession is popularly understood and to highlight alternative subject positioning. While men do of course work as nurses, the prevailing discourses surrounding the role as a profession and the nurse as a figure in the cultural imagination remain deeply gendered. Nightingale must take some responsibility for this. It was her ambition to forge a profession for women and to recruit middle-class women to her cause, and it was she who appropriated the image of "angel in the house"--that is, of the Victorian middle-class mother, pure, selfless and caring--to stand as nursing's feminine ideal (Hallam). Interestingly, Nightingale also mobilised another image, "the (female) battleaxe": a military, authoritarian female who sets about with stern efficiency to transform chaos into order. Today, both angel and battleaxe contribute to the idea, and ideal, of the good nurse that pervades collective memory and contemporary understanding and undermines the work of the real nurse.

These discourses have been both displayed and energised by the centenary commemorations of the First World War. Spanning four years, this anniversary has prompted the generation of a range of popular culture products. These include films, television series, novels and life writing that glamorise war (as in Fury [2014] and Ardennes Fury [2014]) and foreground the masculine heroic/demonic role in these conflicts (The Monuments Men [2014]; I Am Soldier [2014]; The Water Diviner [2014]; Unbroken [2014]). …

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