Dear SNL: Next year, do better for Nurses’ Week

Driving people away from nursing careers is no laughing matter.

When the Nurses’ Appreciation Week banner appeared across the Saturday Night Live screen on its season finale on May 11, nurses across the country watched in anticipation. We wondered if we’d see the same old tropes — or would we get something new this time?

I turned up the volume and leaned in.

“What?” asked my family. “It’s about nurses. It’s funny.”

As someone who has spent more than a decade scraping for positive nursing representation in popular discourse, how could I explain the magnitude of this moment?

Saturday Night Live episodes reach millions of viewers each week, and its sketches echo for decades and permeate the zeitgeist. Every generation of my family can quote the same silly SNL moments, and those moments aren’t going anywhere. SNL is the culture.

Nursing, on the other hand, is notably invisible in the culture. That is, despite being the largest health care profession, it is rare to see nurses in popular media at all. When nursing does appear, it tends to be portrayed in stereotypes, steeped in a long history of class, gender and race discrimination:

“It’s time to honor the hardworking women — and men, I guess,” said character Jeffrey Reed, a doctor, in the SNL sketch on nurses. The perception that nursing is “women’s work” contributes to many serious issues in our profession: barriers to top executive roles, gender-based pay gaps and the low recruitment of men. A lack of male nurses leads to men not having equal access to clinicians who share their gender identity.

The sketch relied on racist tropes, too. One nurse had an accent from “the Jamaica part of Ireland.” Huh? And the characters of color were shown in the “comic relief” roles — doing the dirty work, joking about bodily fluids — in alternating cutaways from serious, professional white clinician counterparts.

Credit: handout

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Credit: handout

Consider: “90% of my job is cleaning up a grown man’s dookie,” said the character played by Ego Nwodim. “The other 10 percent is sponge baths, which is somehow worse,” replied the character played by Maya Rudolf.

Not only did this particular portrayal blend several harmful stereotypes, but it got the very foundation of nursing wrong. Time and again, the “bedpan and sponge bath” stereotype obliterates the science, professionalism and complexity of nursing care. It leaves people with a cartoonish, false understanding of what nurses do.

Of course, there were jokes about sexual harassment. Sorry, but these jokes did not land with — or help to “appreciate” — a workforce of individuals who really do face workplace violence, sexual assault and harassment on a regular basis.

And then there was the parting advice for prospective nurses across the country: “Listen, if you can do any other job, do it! Cleaning a graveyard, coal mining, any other job.”

We are experiencing a historic nursing shortage that is threatening patient safety and contributing to health care facility closures in real time. This crisis is driven, in large part, by public misperceptions about nursing. The equation should not be difficult for a national media outlet to follow: Not enough nurses means human lives are at risk. At a time when shows like SNL should be using their platform to help address this crisis, their messaging stands to reinforce it.

But here’s the thing, SNL: We know our job can be funny.

For better or worse, bowel health (poop) can be — a fractional — part of some nurses’ work. Poop is funny.

Death is part of the job for many of us. Death can be funny.

Our workplaces are pretty dramatic. Workplace drama is funny.

It can be healthy, and helpful, to laugh at frustrations that many of us share.

Nursing encompasses the full spectrum of human experience. There’s a lot of material there. Please, by all means, use it. But please do not reduce the vast expanse of nursing work to bedpans and stereotypes.

It’s not necessary to misrepresent nursing to access the rich trove of nursing comedy.

Nursing is its own field of science and clinical care, not lesser than, but different from medicine and other health disciplines. Nurses are advanced practitioners, clinical specialists, health system leaders, researchers, advocates, case workers, lawyers, policymakers and data analysts. We care for people during life’s most harrowing and vulnerable moments across every age, care setting and specialty. Whether they are shown on the news or not, nurses are present at every natural disaster, mass casualty incident and public health crisis. There are many communities in the United States where a nurse or nurse practitioner is the only clinician available to offer lifesaving care.

We are more than the antiquated stereotypes shown on Saturday Night Live. We would love to help the SNL cast uncover the real comedy in our work. Take us up on the invitation to draft “Nurses’ Appreciation” Take 2 and consider bringing a nurse to the writers’ room.

Rose Hayes is a nurse and writer. She is director of engagement for Emory University Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.