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November 4, 2010 -- Today the popular daytime television program The Dr. Oz Show offered viewers an amazingly concentrated package of harmful nursing stereotypes, all wrapped up in a short segment about Angel Williams, who lost 200 pounds by dancing. We're all for any safe and effective weight loss strategy. But Williams dressed in a regressive short white nurse's dress, said she was going to "get sexy" and unbuttoned the top of the dress as she prepared to lead Oz in some dancing, and told Oz that she and a group of similarly attired dancers would be "your nurses, we're gonna keep America moving for you." No doubt the show thought it would be fun to present these women as Oz's sexy nurse backup dancers--doesn't every celebrity physician have those? Especially surgeons like Dr. Oz! Unfortunately, this short segment managed to reinforce a slew of stereotypes: the naughty nurse, the low-skilled physician handmaiden, and the idea that nursing is for females living in a past era. And far from looking uncomfortable about these nursing elements, Oz himself twice referred to the dancers as Williams's "fellow nurses." After Williams told Oz what the "nurses" would do "for" him, Oz responded, "I love it." We don't. Please tell Dr. Oz that nurses are skilled, autonomous health professionals--despite the Oprah protégé's multimedia health empire and his position on the Columbia Medical School faculty, it's not clear that he knows.
The segment, titled "Have Mercy: Moves to Lose," is about four and a half minutes long. Oz, who wears dark blue scrubs, introduces the segment by saying that he has always said dancing is a great way to work out. He notes that it helps your heart and boosts your mood. Oz is the author of YOU: The Owner's Manual: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger. So, Oz says, he is excited about his next guest, who lost more than 200 pounds by dancing and is now inspiring others to do the same.
He introduces Angel Williams, and she appears wearing a traditional, short-sleeved white nurses' dress that falls just above the knee. She also wears a red belt, and carries a nurses' cap. Despite the impressive weight loss, she has not attained a shape that most people would associate with a traditional naughty nurse model. There is no suggestion that Williams, or anyone else who appears in the segment, actually is a nurse.
Oz asks Williams how she managed to dance away that much weight. She explains that she loves dancing and just decided she would do it while cleaning, cooking, and doing a range of other daily activities. Pressed about what inspired her, she says she had reached a point in her life where she was down and out, and she needed to make some changes.
Angel: So I did. I started dancing and moving--and watching your show. You know, you're the doctor that gets us eating right, thinking right, thinking bright. And I decided to apply all those things to my life.
Williams and Oz thank each other. Oz says he hears she's going to teach him. She starts quietly laughing--apparently at the very notion that he, a celebrity physician, could learn anything from her! Oz says he's serious, that he does the show in order to learn from how people answer his questions, and from questions they ask that he would never think of asking. So he asks her again to teach him. She asks the audience to stand up and join them, then prepares to lead them in some dancing.
Angel (as she unbuttons the top of her dress to reveal a red bra): You know, we're gonna get sexy too, we gotta, you know, be kinda sexy with it. (Now she puts on the nurse's cap.) Gotta get my hat goin'. So, the first move, Dr. Oz--cause we're your nurses, we're gonna keep America moving for you, OK?
Oz: Oh, I love it.
She proceeds to lead him and the audience through several different hip-shaking dance moves, including one she calls "Sexy salsa girls."
Oz: OK, we got some fellow nurses gonna help us, right? I want you fellow nurses comin' down. We're all gonna do this together, we're gonna put it together for a big party.
As the audience cheers, five identically attired "nurses" descend the steps from the back of the audience and stay on the steps as music begins to play. Some of these "nurses" reveal far more cleavage than Williams, and some are slimmer, but again, none would be considered traditional "naughty nurses." They dance to Welsh pop star Duffy's 2008 hit "Mercy." As they dance, the other "nurses" fully descend and surround Oz and Williams, like backup dancers. After some moments, Oz tells the audience the show will be right back, but meanwhile they will keep dancing, which they do as the segment ends.
This is impressively bad. On the surface it's just a tired "joke": Oz is a physician and they're "his" nurses! But consider all the elements. The women are not dressed the way most actual nurses dress today, which is more or less as Oz does here, in scrubs. Why didn't the show have the dancing "nurses" dress that way? Because of the stereotypes embedded in its conception of nursing. Nurses are sexy physician helpers, so they have to dress the part. Of course, no one dancing here really fits the traditional naughty nurse model, and the uniforms are fairly benign by that standard, but there is still a clear focus on "nurses" getting "sexy." The other elements are at least as damaging. The whole spectacle is incredibly regressive, presenting a male physician leading a slew of nurse handmaidens. The lead "nurse" assures the physician that the nurses belong to him ("we're your nurses"), and they will help him do his work, as if they really have no work of their own, no independent duties. They're just helping the physician who is the master of all health care. And Oz himself directs the "fellow nurses" to come down and dance, which confirms the audience's (false) sense that physicians are in charge of nurses. The segment also implies that anyone with a few dance moves could be considered a "nurse," because after all, the basic requirement for nursing is a little hands-on experience helping a physician, right? It's not like they're health professionals with any real expertise.
Ironically, it is a key nursing task to educate patients and the public generally about how to live healthier lives, in part by encouraging regular exercise. But we have no reason to think that's why this segment had the women dressed as nurses. Nor do we think the show set out to reinforce all of the most pernicious nursing stereotypes in one short segment. The creators just did what came naturally. The "nurses" are handy props.
Some might say it's one thing to see these images coming from television producers without a clue about health care, but what about Mehmet Oz, who is an experienced physician, someone who presumably has worked with real nurses for many years? Would Oz be proud to show this segment to the OR nurses at New York-Presbyterian? The sad fact is that many physicians have little better sense of who nurses are and what they do than the average television producer. Many physicians--raised in a culture that tells them nurses are unskilled physician subordinates and/or sex objects, given a medical education that is not well-known for its focus on understanding the role nurses actually play, and then handed unmatched social and economic power--end up as an important part of the problem. Some of the Hollywood hospital dramas that are most damaging to nursing, like Fox's House, have physician writers and advisors.
So Oz's seemingly whole-hearted embrace of the nurse-as-sexy-physician-helpmate image is not really surprising. Still, millions of people watch his show every day, and apparently some regard him as a person who gets people "thinking right." Please join us in urging him to avoid reinforcing damaging stereotypes that undermine nurses' claims to the resources and respect they need to save lives.
Maybe Dr. Oz's next bestselling book could be entitled YOU: Respecting Nurses.
Our letter-writing campaign is now closed. Below if the letter that many nurses sent him.
Dear Dr. Oz:
I am writing about the November 4, 2010, segment on The Dr. Oz Show entitled "Have Mercy: Moves to Lose," which featured Angel Williams, who lost 200 pounds by dancing. I applaud efforts to help people attain a healthy weight, but unfortunately, the segment relied on several highly damaging stereotypes about the nursing profession.
It was not helpful for Williams to dress in a regressive white nurse's outfit, to say that she was going to "get sexy" and unbutton the top of her dress as she prepared to lead you in some dancing, and to tell you that she and a group of similarly attired dancers would be "your nurses, we're gonna keep America moving for you." Nor was it helpful for you to refer to the dancers as Williams's "fellow nurses."
Perhaps you just thought the nurse costumes would be fun, but this short segment managed to reinforce a slew of stereotypes: the naughty nurse, the low-skilled physician handmaiden, and the idea that nursing is for females from a past era.
Because of these stereotypes, nurses--including the nurses who keep your patients alive during and after surgery--struggle to get the respect and the clinical and educational resources they need. These stereotypes are a critical underlying factor in the nursing shortage that has been taking lives worldwide for more than a decade. We hope you understand why it's important not to undermine the already poor public appreciation for nurses' advanced life-saving skills and their autonomous practice.
We urge you to avoid disrespecting nurses in the future, and to consider using your popular show to actually improve understanding of nursing.
Contact info for the show:
Tim Sullivan, Public Relations firstname.lastname@example.org
The Dr. Oz Show
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Kate Forte, President
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