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