Nurse Jackie: Imperfection done right

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I’ve been checking out a number of new shows lately, and of those that are both new to me and new in general, I think Nurse Jackie is easily my favourite (I’ve watched through episode 5, so I may be missing any radical changes in the most recent ones). Without going into too much description, the title character is an ER nurse who sincerely cares about helping people, who has a loving husband and two little girls to go home to, as well as an addiction to narcotics and an essentially affectionless affair with the hospital pharmacist that allows her access to as much prescription medication as she likes. She lives a double life, taking off her wedding ring as she walks into work and putting a loving smile on when she arrives back at home, deflecting her husband’s attempts to visit her at work.

What I like most about this character – and this show – is that Jackie is so completely and obviously imperfect and yet so sympathetic. While there are other characters on television who fit this model, and who are used to portray something about the potential for darkness, betrayal and duplicity in the most apparently upstanding of citizens (Dexter comes immediately to mind), I’m hard-pressed to think of another example of another female character of this kind. The roles that she plays in life – a mother and a nurse – are stereotypical nurturing roles, and in some ways, she’s very much a nurturer. It’s just that a kind, loving nurturer is not all she is. She also has a mean, judgmental streak that emerges as she makes unilateral decisions about who deserves medical care or kindness. The situations she deals with are usually fairly clear, but it’s also apparent that she goes beyond the pale, acting as something of a vigilante. It’s far from easy for her to be a nurturer all the time. As I said, what I like about this character is that not only is she allowed to be imperfect, it is, in very relatable ways, the driving force behind her personality. You can see how she takes the weight of the world on her shoulders and that one of the things that causes her the most pain is that she just can’t seem to support it all. The anxiety in her face when the lines between her two separated lives begin to blur are such human moments, to me, because what I see is her wishing that she could be perfect for the sake of the people around her.

From a gender perspective, there’s two reasons I like this character – one is that, as I mentioned above, I think there are already some great male characters of this same type. The second is that I think Jackie’s particular struggles for perfection and attempts to balance the need to be nurturing, to be a good wife and mother, a good employee and an all-around good person, and the intense pressure she places on herself to maintain this impossible balance speak to the ways in which women specifically experience these kinds of anxieties. The show doesn’t require her to be perfect or punished (as is often the case with female television characters who fall into either the virgin/whore category), and it doesn’t limit her to either wholly accepting or rejecting essentialized character traits. She can be nurturing and vicious and affectionate and sexually exciting and manipulative and kind, all at once. The fact that Jackie’s husband, Kevin, takes on a lot of parenting and household duties without it seeming to be a threat to his masculinity – and without it appearing as a source of conflict within the marriage – is also a great example of writing outside the traditional gender boundary box.

For me, one of the things that has come out of writing for this site is a deep appreciation for well-written, extremely flawed female characters and a recognition of just how rare they are. So far, Nurse Jackie is a wonderful example of exactly that.

Comments

  1. Grace says

    My sentiments exactly! I can’t wait for the sales of Season 1 DVD. I have seen the finale and am enthusiastically awaiting the start of Season 2.

  2. says

    I have yet to see Nurse Jackie, but I have heard great things. And although I’m not sure how you feel about NJ’s counterpart on Mondays, Weeds, I think Nancy Botwin is a great portrayal of an imperfect person who is still sympathetic and an empowering female. Actually, Showtime tends to be better than most channels of reflecting realistic, flawed characters.

  3. says

    Kevin, you’re right that Nancy could be another good example of the same kind of vibe. I watched the first couple of seasons of Weeds, but have lost track of it more recently. I think the thing with Jackie that is different, though, is that there is really very little angle on her that makes her look like a victim, where Nancy sometimes does, a little. It still works for Nancy’s character, and she’s still definitely powerful, but I feel like that element lacking from NJ makes the agency in her character that much more apparent. But that’s kind of off the top of my head from what I remember of Weeds.

  4. Erin says

    From a nurse’s perspective, I know many that had some issues with this show. But watching it, the storyline is such that a nurse shouldn’t be offended of the “nusrsing lifestyle” that is portrayed because it isn’t attempting to be stereotypical. I like the show and will continue to watch.

  5. Anne says

    I thought the show was an interesting contrast with House: both feature crabby, difficult, competent people driven by chronic pain and genuine caring for their patients. The biggest difference, I think, is class, rather than gender. House is white, wealthy, and male; lives without money concerns, and is surrounded by characters who are mostly white, thin, attractive, and similarly wealthy. Nurse Jackie, like most real nurses, is underpaid and underappreciated; her coworkers are mostly women, queer, and/or minorities. Money’s a problem, with all that implies (their kids spend time in the bar where her husband works, for example, because both parents are working and can’t afford child care). The class issue is to some extent addressed in the show; Jackie’s doctor friend wants to help with money, and Jackie and her husband are torn between needing the money and having their pride.

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