Tube Tied: Why Aren't You Watching Nurse Jackie?

Michelle Dean
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Image from susanphotography at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

I am just about the only person I know - and certainly the only feminist - who has been religiously watching Showtime's Nurse Jackie (In fairness, Jezebel started out covering it but seemed to lose interest very quickly, and the only regular commentary I see on it is Jacob's excellent recaps at TWoP.)  Maybe I should be generous to the fools people who don't watch the show. Perhaps the neglect is due to the unfortunate dead end of July and August.  Perhaps it's because the show has the unfortunate timing of airing whilst we are all salivating at the imminent prospect of a new season of Mad Men (more on that tomorrow, by the by), which happens to be everybody's favourite feminist-food-for-television thought nowadays.  Perhaps it's because most people I know only watch television shows once they are out on DVD anyway, so all first seasons on cable are kind of a wash, popularity-wise.

These excuses always strike me as weak, though, particularly in light of my firm conviction that Nurse Jackie is the closest thing to an unqualifiedly feminist television show airing anywhere at the moment.

In the interests of fairness, I shall state my grounds for bias on that score up front: in my dream world, every television show, movie, and play would star Edie Falco, and she'd additionally be my mom, sister, and best friend all rolled into one.  I've been half in-love with Falco ever since I saw a tiny little film called Judy Berlin waaaaay back in 1999. And a few years ago I saw her in a live appearance, and at the end, she said, in that trademarked nasal deadpan of hers with a patented half-eyeroll, "Well, at least I know I never got to where I am because of my looks," and I wanted to take her home and bake her muffins and rent some DVDs and have her explain to me how to seduce the Stanley Tuccis of this world.  You know, as one does.

But in any event, I love Nurse Jackie for reasons other than Edie Falco's acerbic, witty portrayal of the title character (who, judging from that one personal appearance, bears no small resemblance to Ms. Falco herself).  I love it because of Merritt Weaver's assistant nurse Zoe, whose hair is never held back by less than three hopelessly out of fashion clips and who wears panda earrings without apology.  I love it because of Anna Deaveare Smith's borderline autistic hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus, whose social awkwardness is the bane of assertive women everywhere. I love it because Eve Best's aura of British condescension as Dr. O'Hara never quite trips over a cliff into full-blown nastiness.  I love it because Haaz Sleiman's Mo-mo (short for Mohammed) is a New York gay is unapologetic without being a caricature, and because theshow never feels the need to draw a giant arrow over his head with a falshing "gay! and threateningly-named!" above it.  I love that at the end of Monday's episode Jackie does a jazz hands routine that will break your heart.  I love that it's about drug addiction and parenthood and mental illness and adultery and family and ballroom dancing and that at no point, in any of it, is there the least bit of a hint of Very Special Episode about any of these topics.

Why is any of that particularly feminist?  Well, let's put it this way.  When women are walking through their lives, while, frankly, in short, anyone other than economically privileged, able-bodied, white men are walking through their lives, all of the compromises we make are not worthy of particular, Very Special episode note.  They just are the way we live.  We do things like take drugs to get us through the day because days are hard and long.  We do things like cheat on our husbands without feeling any particular animosity towards them. 

Oh, I know nurses don't like it.  I know she cheats on her husband and she abuses Percocet and breaks rules all the time.  I just think, if anything, Nurse Jackie's utter disregard for feminine perfection is the very reason it's feminist.

Don't get me wrong - Nurse Jackie isn't a gritty realism show.  It isn't The Wire (which I don't like as much as I hear I'm supposed to, but story for another time).  But what it is is a diverting, entertaining television show that assumes, at a baseline, that a woman is a person, that she lives life in a space of compromise and contradiction, that the "right thing" isn't always obvious to her because the "right thing" is for people who live in a world where good and bad are obvious.  All of the female characters on the show spend considerable time satisfying the Bechdel test - women, speaking to women, about subjects other than men. 

And that Nurse Jackie does all of this without the faintest whiff of self-congratulation, that it imagines a world filled with real, living women without any sense that these women are exceptional - well, that's what makes it rare, and it's the reason any feminist worth her salt ought to be watching it. 

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22 Comments Have Been Posted


I love this show. I love everything about it. I love the peripheral characters. I love Jackie. It's all great. And I only half feel like I've half watched that, Weeds or True Blood until I read Jacob's recaps. He's great with the deconstruction.

nurse jackie

I don't have showtime so I have to watch the show late from the kindness of friends who record it for me. BUT I am an RN and I LOVE this show for all the reasons described in this article. She reminds me of the nurse who showed me the ropes as a nursing student long ago and I will always love her for showing me real life with honesty and heart despite the flaws of ourselves and our patients. I haven't loved a nurse on television like this since China Beach...

Yes please...

I would love to watch this show... Small problem - I don't have Showtime. I guess I could find it online like 99% of the internet users, but watching stuff on my laptop is sort of meh to me. But ever since I saw the ads for it, all over New York, I've wanted to watch. I love me some Edie Falco.

Watch it on your laptop, I

Watch it on your laptop, I don't think you'll be sorry. Until I got my desktop computer, I did all my tv watching on my 13 inch laptop. Just imagine it's a big tv, far away. it's about the same size in that context...

Love it

I've been watching Nurse Jackie from the first episode. For the first few, I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but now I love it. Aside from the great characters/acting/writing, I'm loving the plotline about childhood anxiety they're doing with Jackie's eldest daughter. They've really nailed a story that never gets air time.

I am watching -- and loving!

Everyone on this show is an effing star. Falco rules, Merritt Wever is a genius of subtle physical comedy, and Anna Deveare Smith makes me want a whole Mrs. Akalitus spinoff, possibly one where she gets to reunite with that abandoned baby. Plus, Steve Buscemi has directed many of the episodes, and plays the crazy guy who thinks he's god. What is not to love?

Really, the only problem I have is with Peter Facinelli, who plays Dr. Cooper. His character isn't sympathetic (though I did appreciate the revelation that he has two mommies), and Facinelli just seems to be channeling Tom Cruise. And one of that guy is more than enough.

Check out The Onion's AV Club

I LOVE this show! And they do recap and discuss it every week on The AV Club.

Why "Nurse Jackie" Is A Mess

I hope that in this medium, I will not be as prone to censorship, as in the author's Facebook forum, in which my comments were deleted, and my ability to access the article, removed, by the author. I have noticed that often persons who see themselves as proponents of an ideology, are unfortunately intolerant of dissenting views, leading to stereotypes of "angry feminists", and such. I have a great faith in the power of open debate, and discussion, to enlighten, and educate. It is more than a little sad that Ms. Dean, as a journalist, would be so frightened, or intolerant, of contradiction, that she would refuse to engage in that process. So in the interest of preserving, and upholding the "marketplace of ideas", here's my two cents:

What started out as a promising show, exploring the dark side of hospital work, quickly descended into a "patient of the week", wacky, workplace ensemble, exercise. From the crusty hospital administrator, with the heart of gold, to the naive, and plucky newbie, these characters are recycled from many older, and better shows. The creators acknowledge as much rather directly, in this weeks closing credits, by incorporating the "Mary Tyler Moore" theme.

And here's the part that some may consider "anti-feminist": Edie Falco's love life in this show, is completely unrealistic. Are we to really believe that this rather homely (in the eye of the beholder, I'll grant you, but even Ms. Falco concedes as much in the quote above) haggard, middle-aged nurse, is scoring young, good-looking guys, on a regular basis? The only relationship in the show that rings true, is her affair with a schlubby pharmacist, who's about what this character would be scoring in real life. From her hunky husband, to the youthful doctor who's courting her, this is a female fantasy, and while there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that (God knows, we've been getting the inverse from Woody Allen, for decades), in a show that tries to keep one foot in gritty realism, it doesn't add up.

It seems as if the creators don't know what show they want to make. Is it a workplace comedy? A "patient of the week" melodrama? A gritty exploration of the medical industry? A soap opera? It's all of these, and none of these, and as a result, it's disparate parts, contradict each other, and undermine the credibility of the whole.

Thank you for reading, debating, thinking, and even screaming, openly, freely, and without censorship.

Oh, Russell.

Ladies, and, well, let's face it, ladies, of Bitch, I'm sorry you had to see this comment, although it certainly fulfilled the truism that for every blog post there is an insane comment waiting in the wings for a prima ballerina turn. And oh, what a performance this was! The overall theme of Facebook censorship! The looming shadows of angry feminists!

Knowing Mr. Dobular in real life as I do, I know him to be slightly less of a jackass than this anti-feminist troll bingo card of a comment would imply. That said:

1. My facebook page not being a public blog, and my having no personal interest generally in the question of whether Ms. Falco is or is not "attractive enough" to be a romantic interest to the men of the show, I deleted a comment of Mr. Dobular's on my personal facebook page regarding said question. (Note that his phrasing on my facebook page was far less sensitive than it is here, if the above can even be called "sensitive.") I feel no need to further answer for this in any forum, other than again, to apologize to the readers here for subjecting them to such a genuinely childish argument. Indeed, this strikes me as an excellent argument for having no facebook page at all.

2. Mr. Dobular is clearly new to fora like this one, and most of you are not, but I will say this: in general, feminist websites engage, Russell, in the bizarre practice of analysing things from a feminist standpoint. And from a feminist standpoint, your claim to being "non-ideological" is one-hundred-percent pure horseshit. There are two beliefs clearly underpinning your commentary above, namely (1) that everyone - and in particular people on a feminist website - should care what your impression, particularly, is of the show; and (2) that the Hollywood notion that only people of like "attractiveness" level (of which you have appointed yourself arbiter) may fuck each other is, in fact a truism. These underpinning beliefs, which you seem to accept as articles of faith, are too an ideology. I guess what I am saying is: at least we are honestly about where we are coming from.

All of this is not to mention the laughability of your argument that it is feminists who are "too angry" when you came over here acting as if your First Amendment rights had been violated because I was uninterested in hosting your remarks on Ms. Falco's attractiveness on my personal facebook page. Perhaps you perceive feminists as angry when they find your views silly or just plain ignore you, but mostly, I think, it's just a matter of not wanting to waste their time on someone who is more interested on educating <i>them</i> about feminism than he is about hearing women's perspectives.

3. This seems as good a time as any to say this: comments in these threads, in future, questioning the validity of feminist analysis of popular culture in a forum like a Bitch blog strikes me as so eminently absurd that I am uninterested in admitting it to the discussion here. If one is so inclined to explore this question, there are plenty of other places in which to do so. I see no reason to bore and frustrate everyone in the comments here with 101-type arguments when rich resources exist elsewhere.

Well said, Michelle

And I would add: For the love of Pete, Russell, learn how to use a comma. It won't make your arguments any less specious, but it might make them easier to read.

My admiration of this show

My admiration of this show is not entirely unqualified, but I take issue with several of your points:

The show focuses occasionally on individual patients in a given episode, but in no way does it do so as a formulaic structuring for the series, and the shifting weight of its focus from week to week on the hospital or on Jackie's home life belies your assessment of it as a typical procedural. The morphing nature of the series seems in fact to be dramatizing the disintegration of Jackie's hold over herself and her various lives. Moreover, by invoking the MTM theme, the show appears to be acknowledging the ways in which it is taking older narratival and character tropes and tweaking them; the main conceit of a nurse who is decidedly not all comfort and deference speaks directly to that. In what way could playing the MTM theme not be completely and deliciously ironic rather than slavishly derivative or an admission thereof?

You ham-fistedly assert that Falco is "homely" both "in the eye of the beholder," in an insincere parenthetical, and yet nonetheless unfuckable "in the real world," a place you seem to trust is both a singular and concrete entity and one that - fortuitously! - supports your views. This is not something that "some may consider 'anti-feminist,'" it *is* anti-feminist, because once again a woman's value to a man is being determined by her "fuckability," a construction of young/thin/conventionally pretty that you seem perfectly confident in swallowing whole without accounting for either how and why it has become the dominant model or that individual tastes are, you know, individual. And I'm deeply confused by your understanding of "on a regular basis," when one of the men she's involved with is her husband and the other is her boyfriend of roughly a year. Furthermore, Cooper's behavior toward Jackie could hardly be called "courting." Given the various power dynamics at play in their relationship - he is a doctor (and male, and wealthy, and young, and conventionally attractive), but she is vastly more competent and confident and he craves her approval and needs her support - to reduce it to a purely sexual question is to ignore the intelligence of the show and of it viewers, and to expose your own preconceptions about male-female relations. (Do you really view his "Tourette's"-type tit grab as a pick-up of some sort?) I am not going to comment on whether she (or rather Falco) "deserves" or could "score" a man who looks like her husband (and whose age has not been indicated) because the question is as insulting as it is absurd and irrelevant. We haven't seen any flashbacks of their courtship, though apparently they knew each other or got together in high school (long before she became so "haggard" - honestly, have you seen many 46-year-old women?), but we have seen that despite years of marriage they still have an easy, bantering rapport that seems to be based in mutual respect, affection, and, yes, sexual chemistry. Relationships like that between two people who do not meet your subjective though thoroughly conventional standards of attractiveness in equal measure do exist in reality, and it is to the show's credit that they represent that (without comment, no less) along with showing a competent and mature woman as sexual (and not a freak because of it).

(Finally, and I can't believe I have to point this out to a fellow adult posting on the internet, an individual can restrict whatever content or commentary from their individual Facebook page they like - it is not a public space and to term her moderation of it "censorship" is absurd and hyperbolic, as is your extrapolating to a concern troll-ish comment on that old sawhorse, the "angry feminist" stereotype. Most importantly, however, taking your grievances about this petty and entirely personal disagreement here, to the genuinely public space of the Bitch boards, undermines any legitimacy or intellectual honesty your post may have had. It is irritating at best and an insult to the readers of Bitch at worst.)

Eddie Falco is homely?

I'd let her eat crackers in my bed.

Thank you...

... for that deliciously eloquent retort to a completely inane and useless set of criticisms.

I completely agree with you, and I truly appreciate a well-worded argument such as yours. Bravo!

Response To All of the Above

Well, let me just slip into my prima ballerina skirt, and write my oh so crazy response. First off, let me say that Ms. Dean is one of the wittiest, most intelligent, people that I know. I also do not believe that she is pro-censorship in any way. I do believe, however, that she and most of the other respondents above are very pro-echo chamber. Yes, I realize that FB etiquette on such matters varies from person to person, but I do feel that if you're going to make a statement in a semi-public forum you should be tolerant of any comment that does not cross the line into personal attacks, threats, etc. Otherwise, keep it to yourself or, as Ms. Dean herself suggests, you should probably withdraw from that forum.

On the deeper question of "angry feminists" and the requirement to examine all issues raised on this website from a "feminist" viewpoint, perhaps feminists should agree amongst themselves about what constitutes a feminist belief system before imposing this sort of a requirement. I do not believe that all persons who would consider themselves feminists are angry people, or are angry about women's issues. I was simply pointing out that when you shut down debate with these sorts of shrill, self-righteous, and very personal responses (in the above I've been described as a ballerina, a troll, etc.), it doesn't really help the cause. I personally believe that all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, should have equal opportunities, equal pay, equal rights, and so on. Does that qualify me as "feminist" or is there some other litmus test that I need to pass in order to have an opinion worthy of this esteemed forum?

On the question of Jackie's love life not reflecting reality, I think I'm critiquing it more from the point of view of artistry, than feminism. And this is where I feel strict adherence to any ideology can lead us away from what is, and into the territory of what we would like the world to be, thereby blinding ourselves to simple facts. For biological reasons men tend to prefer women in their prime breeding years. This holds true across cultures, and time periods. There are innumerable studies demonstrating this: As a result, while there are the exceptions that prove the rule, I'm sure that from simple observation any reasonable person can ascertain for themselves that Jackie's love life is more than a little contrived. I had this conversation with a friend of mine who does research at SHO, and she confirmed that the majority of the audience for "Nurse Jackie" are women in the 35-54 age range. Again, I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with creating the kind of fantasy for women that men have been indulging in for decades, but let's call it for what it is and not pretend that this is reality as experienced by most women Ms.Falco's age.

"For biological reasons men

"For biological reasons men tend to prefer women in their prime breeding years."

For a multitude of reasons, women tend to prefer men who are not sloppy, selfish cads who degrade them. And yet we are still portrayed that way on the teevee and in the movies!

Because men deserve to see their fantasies on screen (and in magazines, and in advertising, and in porn...), but when it comes to women, belief just cannot be suspended!

Some of you men are obviously threatened to see hot man/average woman pairings. It's obvious, if Hollywood is any indication. Boo hoo. This show isn't on National Geographic, so your "biological reasons" can shut it.


If you're not "angry about women's issues," you're not paying attention.

Thank you!

At the next meeting, I'll be sure to let everyone know that it really is time we settle on a singular feminist belief system; we appreciate the fresh and constructive suggestion, and hopefully it will wrap up the past 40 years of debate and discourse in a pretty bow that'll make the whole thing much more presentable - maybe then we'll be allowed to close the wage gap!

Oh, and I'll let all the ladies over 35 know that SCIENCE has explained the uniform and uniformly mediocre state of their sex lives. If one or two of them don't match that description - because, c'mon! How is that possible?! It's <i>science</i>! There certainly are no problematics raised by using evolutionary biology to explain and excuse human behavior! Your reading of an article on reviewing one book is indicative of solid rhetorical ground indeed! And what's this "socialization" thing people keep harping on? - then we'll take them out back, give them a stern talking to, and return their men to the fertile, nubile girls' table where they belong.

If you're feeling "attacked" here, it's because you're throwing up specious arguments and engaging disingenuously without making any apparent effort to <i>listen</i> and <i>learn</i>. Read this site; read the dozens of other feminist sites; read a history of feminism; listen when your feminist friends try to explain to you the myriad manifestations of patriarchy on a personal and structural level. (And, just as a preemptive note before you complain that no one is listening to <i>you</i>, that is because we do listen to you, whether we like it or not, every single day of our lives; because everything you're saying has been and is being said constantly throughout the culture; because we are raised in a society that praises, validates, and promotes these views to the exclusion of others. That evolutionary biology argument, for one, is something I have heard countless times in this past year alone. It's not news and it's not any more convincing than it was the first time a man tried to persuade me to buy yet another argument that just so happened to benefit him and men in general.)

LISTEN. We've been doing it for millennia, so it can't be that hard, right?

Echo, echo, echo . . .

Y'know, I don't really disagree with most of these comments. Of course the media is full of male fantasies in which some decrepit old lech, or rude, crude, crass, loser, "gets the girl". I think I said is much in both my postings. My arguments are more aesthetic, than ideological. Because the show swings wildly between gritty reality, and soap opera fantasy, I think it fails to execute either particularly well. I avoid the kinds of movies in which men have similarly unlikely love lives, but when exposed to them, I'm the first to say, "Yeah, that's believable".

I don't feel particularly attacked. Jeez, I'm on a website named "Bitch". What do you think I expected? Unlike a lot of the respondents, I prefer not to have these kinds of convos in an echo chamber where everybody agrees with me. It's interesting to me that so many are commenting on my refusal to listen, and learn, when actually that's my only motivation for starting and continuing this discussion. Are you assuming, as many fanatics do, that if I truly understood, I would agree? Is it possible that I understand your arguments but don't agree with them, or only agree with them in part? Is it possible for any of the posters to have this kind of discussion without resorting to condescention, and hostility?

On evo-psych, as with most new academic theories, it's proponants indeed took the whole idea too far,attempting to present it as a unifying theory for all human behavior. Freud took his ideas too far also, but that doesn't discredit all of his premises. I'm assuming that we're all on board with Darwin here, none of you seeming like the creationist types. Doesn't it make sense that natural selection would favor humans who prefer fertile mates? While aesthetics are relative, and malleable (weight, height, figure, etc.), this basic preference appears in all cultures throughout history. Do you honestly believe that this preference is entirely sociological? Do you deny the existence of these preferences? Can you name a culture that has ever held up middle-aged women as a romantic, and aesthetic ideal? If you can, I'd be fascinated to know about it. At the end of the day you can't poltically theorize your way out of reality, reality being rather neutral on the subject of gender politics.

And now, here's the kicker. I agree with almost everything ya'all have to say in regards to equal pay, media bias, the unfair and patriarchal nature of our society; I thought the Supreme Court decision that limited the right to file pay dsicrimination claims to 90 days, was probably the worst decision the court has made since Dred Scott. So why have you all assumed, with knee-jerk predictibility, that I must be somehow anti-feminist? Why would you point out to me that male media fantasies abound, when I've made that point twice? Why would you point out the ridiculousness of expecting uniformity amongst feminists, when my point was clearly that no such uniformity can possibly exist, making the attempt to tell someone they shouldn't be posting here for lack of feminist sentiment absurd? Do you disagree with my facts, or do you simply feel that it was rude of me to pop over here and start pointing them out?

On second thought...

Well, now that the entire thread has been revealed to me after posting up a silly storm about the dynamics of the actual show, I see I've missed the meat. I have to say, after reading the entire thread through, that I believe Russell has done a stand up job of explaining himself, and I certainly don't see him as anti-feminist in any way. Well said, explained, and kept off of a personal level, sir. Some of the others have good points as well, but I must say there was more knee-jerking, as Mr. Doublar says, than was necessary. I realise this was a long time ago, but at any rate, enjoyed reading through everything! Hope all of you have carried on discussing, and here's to a happy future of people agreeing in part and still managing to communicate!

I kind of agree...

I just wanted to come in somewhere between this comment, and the others on the page...

I don't have anything to say about the Facebook discussion or "what type of a show is this?" debate, but was simply curious if anyone else has been turned off from the show by watching Jackie exhibit such (human, I know) disregard for what she has in her life (family, job) and still positing her like she's some cool and snappy nurse. Wow, Jackie's tough! Really? I don't see it. She's as weak as people come, and I wish she'd admit that for once on the show. Instead, she's smug, and smug is ugly. Though I obviously take her as a real character, from my passionate response to it all!

I loved this show as the beginning, but watching more and more of this character has shown her to be increasingly mean, deceptive and incredibly selfish. I guess this is an interesting lead character to showcase, one with ever-decreasing redeeming qualities--and by all means, that's fine if that's what the show wants, but by the end of season two, I was cursing at the screen, and really pleased when her husband and O'Hara start discovering her actual lifestyle (and even happy that the seizure guy is after her for $12,000). I am now looking at the show as a place to look into our own self-hypocrisy, where we get pissed and bitchy with everyone around us for their failings without looking at how horrifically we are doing in aspects of our own life. But Jackie's getting really outrageously sanctimonious, and her "I never said I was perfect" shtick is so hollow it's hard to watch (and I forget she's not a real person!). Her holier-than-though treatment of everyone else around her, her willingness to let other people take the fall for her nearly every episode, and so on, is becoming unpleasant to watch.

Really like the rest of the characters, though, even if, as the above poster mentioned, they are archetypes. They are good actors, especially Zoey, who I think is just brilliant and about the most realistic character on the show or on TV. Love her. But I do have to agree that by the time Coop was trying to get with Jackie, I too was rolling my eyes at the lack of reality of her being attractive to anyone--not as much because of her physical appearance, but because she is unrepentantly unkind on a regular basis, and calls it her personality. Who would that really attract? Gave that a pass and kept watching, but eish.

Here's to hoping Jackie the character, as those she represents in life, starts giving a flying fig about the damage she's doing, to those of us that have started to see her as a real person! :)

I think she's a realistic character

FWIW, the deception, selfishness and hypocrisy read to me as quite realistic as she spirals deeper into addiction. We see it taking over her life. For me the constant self-justification she practices and her refusal to admit she has a problem (e.g. she thinks she's nothing like Sam, the nurse recovering from addiction in the second season) also seemed convincing in a portrayal of addiction. I don't think it's inconsistent to show her also being very cool and competent in certain situations.

Also I don't think Coop is "attracted" to Jackie, or that he ever tries to get with her - unless that's in season 3 episodes I haven't seen yet, or something I've forgotten? I know he groped her breasts, but that was part of his tourettes.

I have to make a confession,

I have to make a confession, that the adverts for this show are killing me. I have a serious needle phobia and every time I see that picture of her with that needle I come close to fainting.
I watched some episodes online for free . I must admit that it's pretty good and reminded me of Six Feet Under in tone. Anyhow, Edie is brilliant, but there is a couple of the boring supporting actors.

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