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

By McAllister, Margaret; Brien, Donna Lee | Hecate, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

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


McAllister, Margaret, Brien, Donna Lee, Hecate


Introduction

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]). Stories about wartime nursing provide a counterpoint to these narratives of aggression. The Australian television series ANZAC Girls (2014) has, for instance, been screened twice in the last twelve months and the BBC series The Crimson Field (2014) covers the same subject matter, although with British characters. Both series show "the good nurse" in action: female characters provide competent and empathic care to others, while setting aside their own needs and desires (McAllister, Rogers and Brien). Not only do these stories of wartime nursing feature characters who are feminine, orderly and purposeful in order to provide a counterpoint to the heroic male figures swept up in destruction and chaos in the more traditional narratives of war, more than this, they cement the idea of "the good nurse" in contemporary culture.

Nelson and Gordon suggest that the narrative of "the good nurse" is so culturally embedded that nurses and patients (as well as wouldbe nurses and patients) unconsciously access an already-written script about nursing which codifies, structures and necessarily limits the role nurses can perform. Nelson and Gordon's term for this is "the virtue script" (7): nurses are portrayed (and nurses portray themselves) as angelic carers, and this entices others to interact with nurses in ways that are expectant of a person whose sole focus is on providing succour and nurture. …

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