The best and brightest in nursing is exemplified by Natania Abebe, RN, a young woman who shares her personal nursing mission to amplify the profile of nursing through media representation. Natania is a recent graduate that is using art, filmmaking, and writing to express her experience as a new nurse, a woman of color and young professional entering a working world mired in sexism, racism and antiquated views of what it means to be a nurse in the 21st Century. I am beyond honored to host Natania’s guest blog on The Relentless School Nurse. Please share her message far and wide, we have much to learn from her insights and I hope this important perspectives piece will open frank discussion about that state of our profession. Kudos to you Natania for “speaking truth to power.” We have much to learn from you and your generation of nurses!
Commodified Health Care versus Commodified Consumer Attention: A Case for Nursing Engagement in the Media – Natania Abebe, RN
“When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive” – James Gleick
In 2017, I graduated from nursing school with a joy-de-vivre that was powered by an overly romanticized image I had of myself as a “compassionate healer”. However, by 2018, I was quickly disillusioned by the realities of what it was like to be a “real nurse”. I was no longer a nursing student. I was a Black woman, working in an overwhelmingly female profession that was plagued by a history of sexism. And it is with my experiences as a woman, being Black and being a nurse that resulted in my realization that my work was not only undermined by society but also, by the people I worked with. I felt as though the assumptions others made about my work was inherently tied to my gender and this reinforced not only hierarchical divides but unsafe, tribalistic and unprofessional behaviour in the workplace. I also realized that many people hold this image of “nurse” in their mind based on antiquated depictions that not only affects my practice but affects health care as a whole. These images – whose roots are planted in media – have manipulated and distorted the work that I do but also holds consequences for women as a whole.
The idea that the media has biopolitical and market-driven dimensions to it is not new (Natalio, 2015). Media, has an “ability to “affect” thinking and/or the body” (Natalio, 2015, p. 107) and “cinematographization of everyday life” (Natalio, 2015, p. 113) has real repercussions for everyone. In a world where attention has become a prized commodity, it has become increasingly apparent how the media is used to transcend itself to have “social implications beyond its function within the work of art” (“gaze”, n.d). This is particularly true for nurse activists working in a landscape affected by the financialization and globalization of the health care free-market. The ground-breaking 1997 paper titled the “Woodhull Study” portrayed a bleak picture of nursing in the media, citing nurses as sources in only 4% of news stories (Mason et al., 2018). Fast forward to today, a second Woodhull Study was conducted and demonstrated that there is little to no difference in nursing representation in the media than over 20 years ago!
The lack of nurses being involved in public discourse on “real” health issues via the media has been something I think about often. I believe it places the profession in a precarious position because it implicitly communicates that nurses are devoid of power and are apolitical. The militaristic/hierarchical paradigm of health care governance combined with the lack of nursing representation in the media has been the perfect recipe to have shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” reinforce and maintain power structures in real life. What this means is that in 2019, people still don’t know that nurses can get PhDs let alone a four year undergraduate degree. It also means that in 2019, images of nurses as “docile, caring sex objects” still plagues the profession and has enabled rampant levels of sexual harassment, physical assault, verbal abuse and bullying in the workplace from both patients and staff (of which I myself can attest to) (Nelson, 2018). But more importantly, it means that in 2019, nurses have a harder time progressing in their political advocacy work and in addressing austere policies related to the commodification of health care.
My journey into filmmaking and visual art was more of a happy accident than something intentional. As a new grad, I started to keep tabs of inaccurate images I saw of nurses in the media on my phone. I started doing this mostly because I felt like I was “making up” how often I came across disparaging images of nurses.
A screenshot of my list of images of nurses in the media
By Fall of 2018, I had quite the list. At this point, it no longer became something I did for myself. It was a list that proved that 1) nurses are clearly not the ones depicting their work in the media and 2) these images reinforce harmful stereotypes, which is both a public health and feminist issue.
At around this time, I saw this competition for a story telling contest run by two organizations called the Representation Project and World Merit. The competition’s focus was to address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality. I was particularly enticed to submit my work because the Representation Project is the brain child of filmmaker Jennifer Seibel Newsom, who made Miss Representation, a ground-breaking documentary for me as a teen. Long story short, I won the contest for my film, Just a Nurse which was a dig into media’s role in abetting institutional racism, sexism and glaring gender inequality in nursing and healthcare.
Subsequently, my film was featured on World Merit’s platform and I was flown to Lucasfilm Studios to have my film screened in front of a live audience followed by a Q& A at the Rep Summit.
Panel discussion at the Rep Summit
As a Canadian, flying to sunny California to tell my story about nursing was eye-opening to say in the least. It made me realize that if you tell your story well, people will listen.
Article on Just a Nurse in Enfermería Facultativa. Número 287 Magazine
Following the success with my film, I have made it one of my own personal missions to advance nursing through media representation.
An article about my film featured in the Registered Nurse Journal
Interview on CKCU radio about Just a Nurse
I now am on the Media Lab Editorial Board of the Representation Project and my most recent project was on mental health, and is called Conversations (in Mental Health #Nursing).
Podcast episode on Mental Health
Nurses make up the largest segment of the healthcare workforce yet are underrepresented in healthcare leadership. People’s lives are relying on nurses to advocate on the issues that both create and sustain health disparities and unequal access to care.
My art piece, Salad Days (Spring 2019) at the Brain and Mental Health Art Show.
My opinion is that nurses are a great case study in looking at how the media can plague a profession through negative associations to things such as female biology and sexuality. BUT, despite all of this, I believe that there is power in honing one’s creativity to raise your voice about nursing issues in a critical way. I love the quote by James Gleick that says, “When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive”. In a snapchat/Instagram world, I believe nursing’s next big issue is learning how to capture public attention on our work and our political advocacy. The pernicious yet elusive nature of attention economics should not be ignored by nurses. My hope is that in reading this, you too can get started in making waves in media with me!!
Film screening of Just a Nurse in Ottawa with nurses from RNAO
gaze. (n.d). In The Chicago School of Media Theory. Retrieved July 26, 2019 from https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/gaze/
Mason, D.J, Nixon, L., Glickstein, B., Han, S., Westphaln, K. & Carter, L. (2018). The Woodhull Study Revisited: Nurses’ Representation in Health News Media 20 Years Later. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 50(6), 695–704. doi: 10.1111/jnu.12429
Natalio, C. (2015). Cinema, biopolitics and “cinematic operative model”. La Deleuziana – Online Journal of Philosophy (1), 107 – 120. Retrieved from: http://www.ladeleuziana.org/wpcontent/uploads/2015/05/Natalio.pdf
Nelson, R. (2018). Sexual Harassment in Nursing: A Long-Standing, but Rarely Studied Problem. American Journal of Nursing, 118(50), 19-20. Doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000532826.47647.42
Cool things to check out:
- The Representation Project: http://therepresentationproject.org/
- The Global Gender Gap Report, 2018: https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2018
- The Truth About Nursing: https://www.truthaboutnursing.org/
- Time’s UP Health Care: https://www.timesuphealthcare.org/
Natania Abebe RN is a professional registered nurse working in both public health and mental health in Canada. She is the founder and CEO of Stars in a Jar (www.starsinajar.org). She’s been recognized for her latest film, Just a Nurse by The Representation Project and World Merit. She will be pursuing a master’s in nursing and a master’s in public health in Fall 2019.
Follow her on Twitter: @Natania_Abebe