NCIS: Los Angeles investigates nursing stereotypes
October 23, 2016 – In tonight’s episode, the popular CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles engaged briefly with some nursing stereotypes, especially those that apply to men in nursing. In the episode, Special Agent Kensi Blye has been partly paralyzed in a helicopter crash and lies in a coma in the hospital. Her work and life partner is Detective Marty Deeks, whose mother is concerned enough about Kensi to monitor her in the hospital. When Mom calls Deeks from a hospital hallway, a male nurse politely tells Mom that under hospital policy, she’s not allowed to use the cell phone there. Mom informs the nurse that she’s on “official police business” and asks why he doesn’t “go empty a bedpan or something.” The nurse is taken aback, but promptly disappears from the scene. However, Deeks overhears on the phone and takes it upon himself to ask Mom not to say that, because it’s “condescending.” Mom claims that the nurse was “rude” and adds: “What man becomes a nurse, huh? A doctor school dropout, that’s who.” Deeks responds: “OK, that is sexist, and wrong on so many levels. Also, it’s called medical school.” The nurse scene actually seems like it may have been in part an effort by NCIS-LA to show some support for men in nursing, with Deeks pushing back against his mother’s ignorant slurs. Unfortunately, the show really does nothing to disprove the assumptions underlying those slurs. Neither that nurse character nor any other gets a chance to demonstrate that he is not, in fact, a physician wannabe whose duties consist mainly of emptying bedpans. The show does, however, give a female physician character a couple scenes to display clinical expertise and psychosocial skills, as she reports on Kensi’s improving condition and counsels Deeks on how he might help Kensi. The physician handles everything of importance, including family education and counseling–all of which nurses would be far more likely to do in real life. That amounts to crediting physicians for nursing work. So on balance, the episode may actually be a net loss for nursing. Ironically, in a 2011 episode of NCIS: LA, nursing also played a role in the long-running Kensi-Deeks courtship. In that one, Deeks lay wounded in the hospital, and he treated the visiting Kensi to two comments about his interest in getting a sponge bath from his attractive female nurse. This Oct. 23, 2016 episode, “Ghost Gun,” was written by Kyle Harimoto.
Empty a bedpan or something
In this episode of the long-running crime show, one of the lead characters, Kensi, has been badly wounded and is hospitalized in a coma. For some reason, Deeks’s mother is at the hospital, monitoring how things are going. We see Mom call Deeks on her cell phone from the hallway outside Kensi’s hospital room. She says Deeks has to come to the hospital right away. A man in solid blue scrubs, apparently a nurse, approaches and addresses Mom politely.
Nurse: I’m sorry? There’s no cell phone use in here Ma’am.
Mom holds up her hand in dismissal of this irritant who would dare to interrupt her important call.
Mom: I’m on the phone with LAPD.
Nurse: It’s hospital policy.
Mom (in disbelief): And this is official police business. Why don’t you go, empty a bedpan or something?
The nurse looks at her in disbelief but Mom is already moving away, still on the phone, toward Kensi’s room. Cut to Deeks.
Deeks (overhearing): Oh, don’t, don’t say that, Mom, that’s condescending.
Now in Kensi’s room, Mom continues to speak with Deeks. The nurse has not pursued her into the room and that’s the last we see of him. Behind Mom, we can see a white-coated female, a physician, examining the comatose Kensi.
Mom (to Deeks): He was rude. And what man becomes a nurse, huh? A doctor school dropout, that’s who.
Deeks: OK, that is sexist, and wrong on so many levels. Also, it’s called medical school.
Physician (overhearing): I also said it may be as good as it gets.
Mom (to Deeks on phone): She said she could make a complete recovery.
Physician: Again, I said “may,” if it’s an incomplete spinal cord injury.
The physician, seemingly annoyed with Mom, leaves the room. Mom tells Deeks he has to be there when Kensi comes out of her coma, because, she asks, what if it’s like in the movie Awakenings? Mom elaborates.
Mom: Robin Williams is this doctor, Patch Adams, who brings people out of their comas? And they’re all happy again! But only for a little while, until they fall back asleep. And then they harvest their organs.
Deeks notes that Mom is confusing different movies, but he promises to come down as soon as he can. In a later scene, Deeks, his Mom, and the physician appear with the still-comatose Kensi in her hospital room.
Deeks: Color seems better, I mean, that seems like good news, right?
Physician: She’s improving. She’s been opening up her eyes, saying a word or two. Still disoriented, but these are good signs. We use what’s called the Glasgow Coma Scale, or GCS, to assess a patient’s level of consciousness. Kensi was an 8 out of 15 when she got here. Today she’s a 12. That’s a 50% improvement, which is significant.
Deeks: Hear that, baby, you’re a 12. I mean, Beale’s a 6 and he runs ops, you’re gonna be fine.
Mom: She’s in a coma, Martin. You really think this is a time for making jokes?
Mom: Yeah, well, nobody’s laughing.
Deeks: Well, maybe I gotta up the dosage. (Seeing the physician smiling.) Oh, see, she thinks it’s hysterical. Actually, while you’re here doc, maybe you could explain to her [his Mom] the health hazards of smoking.
Mom tells him not to “get smart.” The physician asks if Mom is a smoker. Mom denies that, saying she’s just been under “a lot of stress,” and changing the subject, she starts to pull out her phone, saying she’s going to update Kensi’s mom.
Physician: You’ll have to take that outside.
Mom: I’ve seen doctors in here on their phones all the time.
Deeks urges Mom to comply and she grudgingly agrees to take it outside. Deeks can’t resist a parting remark about her grabbing a cigarette while she’s out there. Mom responds that people ask her why she has only one child, meaning this is why, because Deeks is so difficult. Deeks turns back to the physician and Kensi.
Deeks: I’m sorry, that’s a lot to process. What can I be doing now?
Physician: Being here. Talking to her, touching her. I personally think it can only help them find their way back to us.
Deeks: I’ll do it. Thank you doc.
The physician leaves. And Deeks starts talking to Kensi, holding her hand, telling her now is the time, she has to come back to him.
Help them find their way back to us
The most obvious point here for nursing is that the episode presents two key stereotypes: that nurses are just unskilled peons who change bedpans, and that men in nursing are inadequate wannabe physicians. But the context is critical, and here it seems likely that show producers at least believe they are trying to subvert the stereotypes by (1) having them delivered by someone who is ignorant, unreliable, and mean; and (2) having the generally positive Deeks character push back against the slurs by terming them “condescending” and “sexist.” The nurse character himself is polite and reasonable, to the extent we can tell from his limited role. On the whole, attentive viewers will get that the show is expressing disapproval of the stereotypes here.
Sadly, aside from Mom’s comments and Deeks’s responses, the clinical elements of the episode tend to reinforce the idea that nurses really are at best peripheral to the hospital care that matters. The nurse reacts blankly to the slurs, and we never see him do anything else. Nor does any other nurse. Deeks is the closest thing the episode offers to a nursing advocate, but he says nothing affirmative about what nurses actually do. Possibly it’s just wrong to insult them–and counterproductive if you have a hospitalized friend. The lack of any information about nursing is certainly consistent with the view that nurses are low-skilled and unimportant. Maybe they really are all about bedpans and enforcing minor hospital rules. Similarly, maybe men in nursing really are failed wannabe physicians. As for the cell phone policy, such things have existed at some hospitals, and the show does not fault the nurse’s enforcement of the policy. In fact, the physician character also makes an effort to enforce it and Deeks gets his mother to comply. But it’s hardly something that’s going to strike most viewers as important.
Meanwhile, the physician character comes off as a technical expert, with her discussion of spinal injuries and the GCS. She also seems to be an astute, sensitive provider of psychosocial care, with her advice to Deeks about drawing Kensi out of the coma, and she also does all the family education—things that nurses would do in real life. The physician’s inquiry about Mom’s smoking is at least a nod toward public health advocacy, also a focus of nursing. She even has a sense of humor, smiling at Deeks’s GCS jokes.
Why did the episode include the nurse at all? Producers didn’t need him to show us what kind of person Deeks’s Mom is. Was someone on the show trying, in some small way, to make amends for the 2011 sponge bath plotline, which, in a remarkable coincidence, involved these same two detective characters in reversed roles? In fact, Deeks’s fairly progressive comments here are a little hard to reconcile with the Deeks of the earlier episode. There, after Deeks was shot and ended up in the hospital, he flirted with attractive Nurse Debbie and twice lightheartedly mentioned to Kensi his interest in getting sponge baths from Debbie. Of course, what he was mostly doing was flirting with Kensi, who gently chided him. Debbie got more lines than the unnamed nurse here, but as here, she did nothing to suggest she was a serious professional. Has Deeks evolved? Has the show? Two of the show’s veteran producers worked on ER: executive producer R. Scott Gemmill and consulting producer Joe Sachs, a physician. That makes sense. ER did include some robust nursing depictions, but it relied heavily on the kind of physician nursing we see here, presenting nurses as merely the faithful assistants of expert physicians.
Speaking of evolution, we note that not even the backwards Mom character, who thinks people attend “doctor school,” questions the presence of women in medicine. That is now old hat and no problem, even to her. But evidently men in nursing remain suspect, because even in our brave new world, nursing is still stuck in a sad, gendered time warp. Hey Mom: Don’t be mean to nurses, because that might be “sexist” and “condescending.” The little people deserve some basic respect, even though—or perhaps because—their work is inconsequential.
Please write to the show with your thoughts and if you do, please blind copy us so we can also know your comments. Thank you!
CBS Television Studios:
John Peter Kousakis, executive producer, via his representative Gregory Shephard at firstname.lastname@example.org
Shane Brennan, executive producer, via his representative Debbee Klein at dklein@Paradigm-agency.com
R. Scott Gemmill and Frank Military are also executive producers but their contact information was not easily locatable.