The character of the nurse in Indian films is loaded with sexual innuendo.

Why do you vilify and sexualize our profession Nurses ask filmmakers
Features Cinema Monday, October 10, 2016 - 16:16

The nurse in Indian movies usually appears in a comic role that is routinely loaded with sexual innuendo. From the uniform to their behaviour with the patients and the doctors, the nurse is portrayed as either a woman of loose morals or someone who can be exploited sexually without raising any eyebrows. Very few films like "Engeyum Eppothum" have shown the nurse as a respectable woman.

Even when a male actor cross-dresses as a female nurse, as in Sivakarthikeyan’s “Remo”, constant references are made to the character’s body and “she” is shown to excite patients and the public sexually. 

Sample this:

25-year-old Sneha’s* voice trembles when asked how she feels about such portrayals.

“I never wanted to become a nurse,” she says. “My parents pushed me into this job because they thought it was a noble profession. But now, everyone treats me like I’m a sex worker.”

Sneha has been working as a nurse for the past five years in different cities in the country. She’s currently employed at a hospital in Chennai.

“The field has become very sexualized,” Sneha says. “The wards boys, patients and even the doctors think that they can say whatever they want to nurses and get away with it. The harassment is so bad but we cannot complain about it to anyone.”

Sneha, who works as many as 12 hours a day, carrying out difficult and exhausting tasks in the hospital, says, “People, especially elderly men, have such a bad impression of nurses. They try to touch me, talk to me in a suggestive way. I’ve not seen even one film in which the character of the nurse has been shown with dignity. All this affects how people see us. I get fed up and frustrated.”

Sneha feels that since nursing is a feminized field, people sexualize it automatically. “Even in other countries, sexual exploitation of nurses is quite high. I know many nurses who’ve come back because of this,” she observes. “It’s quite scary to enter the private rooms of patients. We don’t know what sort of patient we’ll find…how he will treat us. They think it’s okay to put their hand on my shoulder, ask if they can lie down on my lap!”

Sneha does not understand why filmmakers continue to show nurses in such poor light over the years. “Nobody wants nurses as wives,” she says. “Once, when I refused to do something that a male patient asked me to do, he said ‘I know you’re here just for the money, what’s your problem?’ I felt devastated when I heard that.”

27-year-old Mridula* was a nurse but when she decided to get married to her boyfriend of eight years, she had to quit the profession because her in-laws were not comfortable with her working as a nurse.

“For four years, I worked in a tiring schedule, serving people. It was very pressurizing but I enjoyed it. I was posted in a rural area too and I took up the challenge,” Mridula says.

However, what Mriduala considers to be a noble profession is not how it’s seen by the public: “My mother-in-law feels ashamed to tell people that I’m a qualified nurse. She just says that I’m sitting at home when someone asks her what I do.”

Mridula worked primarily in the Intensive Care Unit where the patients were very sick. “I did not face much harassment from them, but nurses who take care of the general ward and so on have a tough time,” she says.

“When I see the way my profession is shown in films, I get really angry,” Mridula exclaims. “It’s so dirty, the way they imagine that doctors and nurses are sleeping together at the hospital or that the nurses are doing patients sexual favours. It really hurts me when I see that.”

Mridula claims that whenever she tells someone that she’s a nurse, there’s a certain judgment she can see in their eyes.

As a man in a profession that is considered to be exclusive to women, Mani* has observed a lot of sexism at the workplace.

“I’m a male nurse and I know how much disrespect patients show to nurses in general. But it’s far worse for a female nurse. I’ve heard patients making nasty comments on their clothes, calling them to do unnecessary things,” Mani states.

Mani, who has a son and daughter, is very clear that he will not encourage them to take up nursing: “You have to put in gruelling hours and in the end what do you get? Low pay and no respect. Especially when it comes to my daughter, knowing how badly women nurses are treated, I will not tell her to take this job.”

Mani is convinced that the image of the nursing profession has been damaged a lot by how it is portrayed in popular media.

Given that they are in a demanding service that requires them to work inhuman hours to do a humane job, these nurses question why they must be demonized by popular media.

“After all, when people fall sick, they will need nurses. Even if they happen to be filmmakers. And we will still look after them…despite what they have done to us,” says Mridula. 

*Name changed to protect privacy

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