How are female doctors represented in current Australian drama television?
Essay submitted as assessment for CMS1012: Introduction to Media Studies
Medical dramas are a long-enjoyed staple on Western television screens – audiences eager for their benevolent, heroic doctor to swiftly administer his medical expertise to save patients’ lives. The male profiling in the preceding sentence was not at all incidental – considering from the 1950s all the way through to the 1980s, 95% of all TV doctors were male – and yes, the nurses were 99% female (Kalisch & Kalisch 1984). Our male doctor is stereotyped as ethically minded albeit somewhat arrogant, a competent risk taker, possessing excellent bedside manner, well dressed, intelligent and handsome (Strauman & Goodier 2010; Chory-Assad & Tamborini 2001; DeFleur 1964). An impressive depiction no-doubt, but what can be said for our stereotypical female doctor? Considering it was only in the mid-2000s that representation of female doctors on US medical dramas surpassed real life statistics (40.5% of doctors on TV versus real life levels of 28% (Jain & Slater 2013)) – there is relatively little data available to us. (Unfortunately, similar data has not yet been produced for Australia). The stereotypical female doctor is thus, still in its infancy. Therefore, this essay will strive to facilitate discussion on how female doctors are generally represented in current television medical dramas by comparatively analysing two character constructions in texts circulated this year: Joan in Love Child (2014-) and Nina in Offspring (2010-). Accordingly, it then examines whether the stereotypes’ constructions share similarities across their genre in addition to historical representations, and the implications of such.
First, we must establish what a stereotype is, how they’re constructed in a text, and subsequently, how they are then deconstructed. A stereotype is a mental schema that acts as a representational shortcut, allowing us to quickly retrieve information about something. Stereotypes are always culturally formed from deliberately constructed representations. Important to the media industry, these representations allow producers or filmmakers to “communicate with the audience efficiently by drawing on cultural assumptions and expectations” (Stadler & McWilliam, 2009 p. 17). This rings particularly true for television as it “produces existing social relations by facilitating the mobilization of meaning” (Hodgetts & Chamberlain 2003, p. 115). Fascinatingly, the public has literally been proven to change their perceptions of real-life doctors based on what they see on television (Hodgetts & Chamberlain 2003; Strauman & Goodier 2010; Quick 2009); Dr. Gregory House anyone? Historically, out of all occupations portrayed on television, medical occupations were the third most prevalent (DeFleur 1964), and the more people saw, the more they correlated their perceptions of real-life doctors with those on the prime-time (Pfau, Mullen & Garrow 1995). Thus, the stereotypical female doctor on television undoubtedly contributes to the publics’ stereotype of one in real life. In order to deconstruct the formation of a stereotype’s representation, we can conduct a textual analysis; this requires us to ask a specific question we want to answer; in this case: ‘how are female doctors represented on current Australian drama television?’ From our observations, and armed with knowledge on the genre in which the text operates, we can further analyse our texts’ representations of our stereotype, their relationship to other constructions – both current and historical, as well as consider the culture the representations have been produced in.
We begin with the first episode of Season 4 of Love Child set in 1972. The resident doctor, Dr. Joan Miller, is on maternity leave from the fictional Kings Cross Hospital in Sydney and expecting her first child in the immediate future. She is white, thin and glamorous with full make-up and styled-hair. In civilian dress, Joan’s first dialogue with her new superior, a male doctor, sees him presuming that she must obviously be a patient. Joan is seeking his permission to return to work after having her baby declaring, “I see no reason why I can’t be a working mother” (2017, Ep 1). Her desire to work is then criticized by dialogue between characters throughout the episode no fewer than a further three times – twice by the matron of Stanton House who calls Joan “bull-headed”, and once by a former resident of Matron House and patient of Joan who had previously been established as having inferior status to Joan. There are many occasions throughout the episode when we see Joan practicing as a doctor. Firstly, there is an incident when her superior is unable to effectively communicate with an Italian non-English speaking patient. It is Joan, through her nurturing touch, who is able to calm the patient. She then remains with her as a kind of guardian whilst she meets with the matron of Stanton House. Secondly, she openly questions her superior’s decision to book in a patient’s c-section, vouching for the patient’s wish of a vaginal birth instead. He confirms to Joan that he won’t even take it under advisement, sternly reminding her that she no longer works there (referring to her maternity leave). In the end, Joan was proved incorrect, to which the superior doctor friendly teases her. Throughout the episode, the audience is voyeuristically granted access to Joan’s private life including her husband’s extra-martial affair being brought to the surface, and her anxieties of becoming a parent on her own after her husband fled from authorities in the preceding season. Finally, when Joan goes into labour, we see her considerably vulnerable – depending on her inferior nurse and former patient for support. Despite this, she retains her doctor’s authority as she performs her own in-labour check-up ultrasound. Due to complications, she ends up needing her superior’s assistance – yet he credits her as being in the “drivers seat” and achieving her own successful labour.
In turning now to Offspring, set in the present time, attractive Nina (Dr. Proudman) is an obstetrician at the Melbourne St Francis Hospital. She is temporarily acting as Head of Obstetrics – a position we come to learn she may be unequipped to hold. The episode begins with a parody dream before the scene changes to reveal her waking from a snooze, complete with a sticky-note stuck to her forehead. Her competence as a doctor is further brought into question as the audience witnesses her juggling her role as a doctor alongside being a single mum and dating. Again, we are given a voyeuristic view into our female doctor’s personal life including a most embarrassing incident involving her sex life. In her professional role, Nina wears full modest clothing and occasionally her cliché white coat, has other staff provide opinions on her personal dating life, and her confidence fumbles during an important hospital meeting. We see Nina’s nurturing side as she spends her personal time providing emotional support to a staff member outside of the hospital setting. In addition, she takes her time to explain a procedure to a patient before providing significant emotional support to a nervous staff member before a procedure. Despite this, Nina asserts her agency by vocally suggesting another staff member didn’t have her best interest at heart regarding being Head of Obstetrics, and then using her medical authority to stand down the aforementioned nervous staff member during a procedure.
In drawing comparisons between our two texts, both characters are given ample opportunities to exert their agency, or medical authority; however, there are notable differences. Joan struggles legitimising her undisputed authority, such as when she must assert her right to return to work with a former patient – whereas Nina’s authority is considerably more established such as with her role as Acting Head. This is further exemplified by her standing down order. Yet, even with Nina having achieved authoritativeness, her vulnerability is still exhibited, including when she falls asleep on the job and through exposure of her sex life. Joan is made more vulnerable still, especially in regards to her husband’s affair and through giving birth. In terms of their costume choices, Joan’s attire could be considered immodest compared to Nina’s – perhaps a reflection of the time in which the plots are set – or perhaps this was a purposeful representation of a female doctor as visual eye-candy? (Joan wears the cliché white coat in former seasons when she is not on maternity leave). Both stereotype representations involved other characters questioning their career achievements. As mentioned, with Joan, it was regarding returning from maternity leave and her medical expertise surrounding her interjection to the c-section, and with Nina, having to address a staff’s intentions towards her position as Acting Head. Both characters expressed a nurturing side above and beyond their duties as a doctor – Joan with the Italian girl, and Nina with her fellow staff. And both texts revealed to the audience a backhand view into their personal lives, and their human fragility.
Traditionally, the stereotypical doctor has resided on the sets of medical dramas that follow a format focusing on the doctor-patient relationship, like ER (1994-2009) (Strauman & Goodier 2008). However, there has been a gradual shift in medical dramas that permits deeper exploration of the doctors’ personal lives – perhaps catalyzed in Australia with the extremely successful All Saints (1998-2009) and certainly exemplified by Joan and Nina. In the comprehensive timeline of medical dramas, the vulnerability and questionable medical expertise of female doctors has been a common trope. For example, Dr. Lisa Cuddy in the fictional US medical-drama, House (2004-2012), is powerful as Dr. Gregory House’s superior, yet her medical expertise and authority is ridiculed and her superiority undermined by her flirtation with House. Similarly, House’s Dr. Allison Cameron is sensitive, the bleeding-heart if you will – which does not go untargeted by the male doctor characters, with Dr. House critiquing her intelligence as “being rooted in insecurity” (Jensen 2005, p. 39). Both Joan and Nina are attractive in their physical appearance, similar to all constructed doctor representations on television, at least as our memory serves us. Both of our particular representations also offer a voyeuristic view into their lives – not unexpected, as Jain and Slater (2013, p. 717) assert, “the presence of women physicians on television dramas is disproportionately focused on their sexuality and romantic relationships as opposed to their professional role”.
The texts’ wider culture also plays a significant role in the chosen representation of our stereotype. For example, Love Child begins in 1969 with Stanton House at the fictional Kings Cross Hospital in Sydney – the latest season resuming in 1972. This period coincided with a surging wave of feminism, and thus, it is to be expected that we see Joan as struggling to legitimize her authority. However, the show’s production company is Playmaker Media Pty Ltd (Screen Australia 2016) – the same company behind another show challenging gender norms: House Husbands (2012-). House Husbands follows the lives of Australian dads in modern times, including a stay-at-home dad. This is significant as it reflects a shift in modern Australian culture; audiences are enthusiastic about seeing themselves represented on the screen. With a female screenwriter, the producers pay homage to the era’s struggle of female doctors in the plotlines whilst giving the audience contextual information surrounding their “maverick” Joan’s plight – engaging their empathy, and illustrating the cultural revolution of the times (Playmaker Media 2015, p. 1; Bizzaca 2017). This is in contrast to past representations of the female doctor, where they were merely a pretty sidekick or a shallow-in-depth cardboard stock character to the authoritative male doctor (Stadler & McWilliam 2009). In saying this, whilst Nina is practically the star of Offspring, she is still made vulnerable by the producers; a common occurrence such as with All Saint’s Dr. Charlotte Beaumont who is sexy and strong, albeit insecure, who suffers unplanned pregnancies and a miscarriage (The Age 2007). Rare exceptions attempting to break the mold include the “steely” Dr. Miranda Bailey of Grey’s Anatomy (2005-) (IMDb n.d.). In its salvation, Offspring joins the few titles which pass the Bechdel test – perhaps reflected by the fact it was written by, and directed by females (Bizzaca 2016).
We can perhaps similarly attribute the past representations of female doctors to the make-up of society; for example, in Australia, females couldn’t even apply to study medicine until 1887 (State Library Victoria n.d.), and even a century later in 1986, only 25% of doctors were female (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 2013). By 1999, TV doctors were 21.8% female (2001), and by the mid-2000s this increased to 40.5% on US medical dramas (Quick 2009). Comparatively, in 2011, 43% of practicing Australia doctors were female (ABS 2013). Coupled with the fact that in 2016/2017, 67% of TV dramas funded by Screen Australia had a creative team with at least 50% females (Screen Australia 2017), it seems that Australian TV drama is finally catching on. For example, ABC’s Glitch (2015-) has one only one doctor and surgeon – female, Nine Network’s Doctor Doctor’s (2016-) head doctor, Penny – also female. Although it must be noted here, Penny and the previously discussed Dr. Cuddy, act as mere antagonists to the shows’ real stars – both arrogant male protagonist doctors. So is our female doctor stereotype only ever constructed as the bossy antagonist, or the vulnerable, nurturing doctor? Is there a stereotypical female doctor who is instead the confident and assertive arrogant protagonist? Remy Hadley, or ‘Thirteen’ from House had the assertive confidence, but was stifled as Dr. House’s subordinate. Dr. Maura Dorothea Isles of Rizzoli and Isles (2010-2016) came close, but alas, her character fell short, being weakened by her social awkwardness, inferior emotional intelligence and inability to lie – else she breaks out in hives; remarkably similar to the fictional male Dr. Dexter Morgan from Dexter (2006-2013) – although he clearly expertly lied and was not insecure.
In summary, it is clear from our textual analysis of the female doctor stereotype on Australian television dramas, that the female doctor is being afforded more airtime and deeper character development. She is no longer the male doctor’s sidekick or stagnant stock character and is increasingly given more agency and ability to exert her medical expertise. However, she still resembles the typical female character in that she is nurturing, compassionate, and her personal life is exposed to public scrutiny and comment. Thus, female doctors on Australian television are able to be authoritative, albeit softened to fit their traditional nurturing female role.
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