A comedy of errors
Inside Amy Schumer mocks nurses
In 2014 Inside Amy Schumer aired a segment called The Nurses (a parody of The Doctors) that viciously reinforced most major anti-nurse stereotypes, including the ignorant physician handmaiden, the petty battle-axe, and the naughty nurse.
May 2018 – Recently we learned that a sketch on the May 20, 2014 episode of Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central) mounted an amazingly vicious and comprehensive attack on nursing. “The Nurses” was a loose parody of the syndicated daytime show The Doctors. The segment presented four female “RN” characters as lazy; abusive; socially oblivious; bone-ignorant, yet oddly confident in their knowledge; resentful of physicians, yet prone to desperate efforts to attract them sexually; and last but not least, completely flummoxed by an actual health emergency. The three-and-a-half-minute segment was a tour de force of modern nurse stereotyping: Clad in patterned scrubs, these “nurses” embodied the unskilled physician handmaiden, the naughty nurse / physician gold-digger, the backwards female serf, and the petty, rule-bound battle-axe. But the segment went further, targeting some positive traits of real nurses and suggesting that those are illusory and even harmful. First, the sketch indicated that the practical health advice that real nurses deliver, in terms lay people can actually understand, is in fact silly or dangerous, and yet nurses are so deluded that they think they know more than physicians. Second, the show had the leader of its “nurse” crew start off by claiming that although the audience no doubt wanted to hear from physicians, it was going to have to “settle for the unsung heroes up here who do all the real work.” That tapped into resentment that some real nurses have, then told viewers that it is bogus, because nurses are as far from heroic hard workers as you can get. And third, the segment indicated that nurses are helpless to address serious injuries they encounter outside the clinical setting. But our experience indicates that it is often nurses who step up to help strangers in distress, using their college science educations to save lives (no, really, Amy—look it up). Sure, you might find some real nurses who act a little like these “nurses.” But that is no excuse for vilifying the whole profession. Of course, damaging stereotypes of disempowered groups like nurses are a far cry from critical depictions of empowered groups like physicians, lawyers, or billionaires, who may be depicted as flawed, but viewers are rarely left with the idea that they are incompetent, powerless uneducated serfs. In addition, they continue to enjoy great resources and respect regardless. And here there was no counterexample of a knowledgeable, caring, or skilled nurse. Inside Amy Schumer has been renewed for a fifth season, although production seems to be some way off (as of early 2018 the show was still on hiatus). In the meantime, please let Schumer and her producers know what you think of “The Nurses.” See the video and read our full analysis below:
If you have viewed the video, you can skip over our recap of the segment and go straight to our analysis and campaign. But if you are unable to watch the video, you can read a description of the segment directly below.
Behind every great doctor
The segment begins with a female voiceover: “Behind every great doctor is an even greater The Nurses.” Schumer is one of four “nurses” who enter and sit at a long desk facing the studio audience. All are dressed in patterned scrubs. Three are white, one African-American. Each of them will get an onscreen identifier, and we see Schumer’s first: “Amy, RN. Nurse in Physician’s office Mon., Wed., Thurs.” In other words, a part-timer controlled by someone else.
We see a scale near the young man, and an African-American male in solid maroon scrubs next to it.
The nurses murmur apparent agreement.
All four nurses take long, slow drinks from their enormous identical cold drink containers.
The man trips over the scale and goes crashing to the ground, resulting in amputations of both legs by the accident. The special effects are intentionally unrealistic. The man screams. All the nurses seem shocked, unable to do anything.
All four nurses recover enough to get on their cell phones.
And we fade back to the main title: “The Nurses.”
Go straight to our campaign or read our analysis below.
Some women are more equal than others
Once you manage to stop laughing, consider some of the key elements in play here. First, these “nurses” are plainly clueless about health care and, really, about everything. Their responses to health questions range from obvious evasions, to telling patients to “Google it,” to demands and advice that are not necessarily wrong in general (e.g., step on the scale; wash your hands) but are non sequiturs in the context of what the nurses are actually being asked. Yet the nurses have total confidence in their expertise, with Joselyn assuring the audience that “we know more than the doctors,” then proceeding to assert that clear mucus and an absence of fever guarantee good health. Does this sound like a health professional with a college science degree?
These “nurses” are also obsessed with physicians. They do not seem like meek or deferential handmaidens; they are more in the disagreeable flunky category. The nurses resent physicians a lot, suggesting that physicians are “unapproachable,” entitled, people who grab all the credit and esteem despite not doing “the real work,” and who are all about having sex with pharmaceutical representatives. Yet Rosemary is clearly upset that she has been unable to attract “Dr. Rosen” despite flaunting her body at work, as if what the nurses really object to is not so much the physicians’ interest in drug reps as it is their lack of sufficient interest in the nurses themselves. This is the pathetic, physician-seeking strand of the naughty nurse image. The only thing the writers forgot was to have the poor nurses refer bitterly to how male physicians prefer to have relationships with female physicians, their only true peers, as millions of Grey’s Anatomy viewers know.
Then there is the notion that nurses, even those whose fields are emergency and school nursing, are helpless in the face of a real emergency. This is not the case in real life. In fact, many accounts in major media sources confirm that, we believe in part because the media has tended to find it so amazing that a nurse could save a life on her own without any physician help. “Google it”: try a search for “nurse plane save,” or “school nurse save.” And although some physicians do assist in such situations, our experience is that many physicians avoid getting involved, perhaps due to malpractice concerns. Consider the story Echo Heron told in her foreword to our book Saving Lives about a physician consultant on a popular Hollywood drama who, appearing with Heron as a guest on a television talk show, refused even to help her treat an injured audience member—a real-life scene eerily like the final scenario on Schumer’s comic segment, except in reverse. Why go out of your way to stress that nurses are helpless in an emergency? Well, imagine you were a media creator looking to degrade nurses because of some problem you had with a particular nurse (or more likely, someone dressed like a nurse) on your last visit to a “doctor’s office.” Maybe that nurse, or “nurse,” was all uppity, acting like she actually knew something. So, you’re feeling pretty superior, and nurses are an easy target given the array of enduring stereotypes. But their close association with life and death situations might give you some pause–is it possible they actually know something? Nah! Let’s reassure ourselves that physicians are solely responsible for the life-saving and nurses don’t do anything important. Nothing to be intimidated by on that score, professional comedy writers.
And why are these “nurses” such abusive, petty bureaucrats? Why does “Amy” in particular berate those around her with shrill demands that they get on a scale, that they wait till she is done her “break,” that they pay her three dollars? To some extent, these actions fit the traditional battle-axe image, which is often a reaction to female power. Indeed, powerful nurses are seen as a threat to the natural order, so they have had to be diminished as abusive, sexually frustrated shrews, from Nurse Ratched onwards. And the nurses here do seem to have some power in the limited context of “The Nurses.” Audience members have shown up to listen and ask advice, and the nurses seem to have the power to hold their attention and to abuse them in response. But these nurses do not seem like they have much authority in the clinical setting. They are just sniping serfs. In any case, the portrayal here is consistent with the misdirected aggression an abused group might display. If health workers did act this way, it would hardly be a surprising reaction to abuse from more powerful actors in the clinical setting. Maybe the writers are even hinting at this, with the suggestion that physicians can be “unapproachable.” But regardless, the battle-axe elements of the sketch suggest that it is the writers’ revenge on nurses for some real or imagined abuse, a way of saying, “I am a successful television creator, and you are backwards losers doing a dumb job that women with actual ability have left far behind.”
Did the segment include anything that was not damaging? Well, there was a little diversity. One nurse was African-American, as was the male colleague in solid scrubs who stood around during the segment and at one point demanded that the audience member “piss in this.” It’s not clear if he was supposed to be an RN. Would it have been helpful if he was?
It’s no mystery how this kind of comedy works. Take negative traits of a target that are rooted in reality, or the audience’s perception of reality, then exaggerate them to the point of absurdity. And it can be especially effective if the resulting portrayal draws a sharp contrast between how society thinks the targeted person or group is supposed to be—in the case of nurses, that means dedicated, practical, meekly competent, virtuous, kind, submissive—and how the target is actually presented in the segment—in this case selfish, deluded, aggressively ignorant, sexually degraded, mean, bossy. Nurses are not exempt from being targets of humor, and some things are probably fair game; we wouldn’t object to mockery of patterned scrubs, for example. But jokes aren’t jokes unless everyone is laughing. A large body of research shows that jokes that target groups of people reinforce stereotypes and make those who hear the jokes more tolerant of discrimination in the future. The themes in this Inside Amy Schumer segment reinforce stereotypes of the nursing profession that contribute to a global nursing shortage. Schumer often tries to puncture stereotypes of women generally. But the nursing imagery in this segment closely tracks many of those same misogynist stereotypes, with no suggestion that Schumer and her colleagues are questioning them. On the contrary, they are using them as weapons.
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