Have you noticed the way that many cartoons try to teach children to be kinder by avoiding common biases we adults run into all too often?
Caillou had to learn to treat his classmate with diabetes just like any other friend, even though she got to eat more snacks than he did. Sesame Street has celebrated diversity since its beginning, with episodes evolving over the years to address more prejudices that we adults are working to dismantle.
Doc McStuffins, which has been around since 2012, certainly does this, too. Not only is the main character a female child who plays doctor to her toys, Doc is African-American and the parent to whom she turns for help the most often is her father. She helps children feel good about going to the doctor by singing a catchy tune about checkups and models how fun scientific inquiry can be by figuring out how to diagnose and cure her toy patients.
The message that these anti-prejudice stories wish to convey is usually pretty transparent, which is what makes “The New Nurse” Doc McStuffins episode of November 2015 telling. A male toy named Dress-Up Declan, voiced by Taye Diggs, dresses up like a nurse. While this isn’t surprising to most of the characters and Declan shows no shame, one female toy character is troubled by it. She tries to get Declan to change. “Wouldn’t he rather dress as a cowboy?” she asks. Not only does she think that Declan should not be a nurse because he is a boy, she also believes that doing something other than caring for others is more fun. The story wraps up quickly and neatly with Doc’s message that anyone can be a nurse and that anyone can and should enjoy the work of caring for others, but the fact that this prejudice had to be addressed in 2015 should make us adults think more deeply about gender and healthcare.
There are two parts to the prejudice that Dress-Up Declan focuses on in this better-late-than-never episode. First of all, it suggests that people believe the caretaking nurses do is not enjoyable or fulfilling work. Secondly, the episode acknowledges that we tend to think this unenjoyable work should be done by women. (When we consider the common sexualization of the work of nurses, dismantling this prejudice becomes even more vital to improving healthcare.)
These two assumptions are obvious problems, with obvious practical consequences. In light of the dramatic shortage of nurses in the U.S., the continued prevalence of cultural attitudes that make nursing unappealing to half of the domestic work population is no small matter.
What, then, can we do to carry this message to a wider (and perhaps older) audience? How would it change healthcare to seriously examine how rigid gender roles influence not only the way that we live in our bodies but the way that we provide for their care?
Are you a nurse who identifies as male? We’d love to hear from you about your experience.