It’s no secret that medical TV shows and movies are a far cry from reality. The media tend to concentrate on the romantic trysts and personal drama, while occasionally showing glimpses of patient care. Many movies and TV shows often present stereotypes of nurses as well, and sometimes don’t give them roles at all. House and Grey’s Anatomy, two major and long-running medical dramas, have no leading nurse characters.
However, some movies and TV shows have created absolutely unforgettable nurse characters that we still remember years later. Whether they’re main characters or important supporting roles, we’ve rounded up nine memorable nurses from pop culture below.
1Ann Perkins, Parks and Recreation
Ann Perkins (played by Rashida Jones) spent a lot of her screen time at the Pawnee Department of Parks and Recreation assisting protagonist Leslie Knope with her overachieving hijinks. However, Ann’s real job was being a nurse and helping the people of Pawnee, including some of the show’s main characters. Her caring, no-nonsense demeanor made her the perfect foil and best friend for Leslie Knope, not to mention a great nurse.
2Major Margaret “Hot Lips’’ Houlihan, M*A*S*H
Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (played by Loretta Swit in the TV series) originally made an appearance in the novel and then the movie version of M*A*S*H, but her character is best known from Swit’s portrayal in the TV adaptation. The story follows a fictional surgical unit during the Korean War, and Houlihan is the head nurse of the division. Although sex appeal was an important part of Houlihan’s character (as the nickname “Hot Lips” indicates), she was also a very accomplished surgical nurse and the highest-ranking female officer in the unit.
3Carol Hathaway, E.R.
Nurse Carol Hathaway (played by Julianna Margulies) was a mainstay of the first six seasons of long-running medical drama E.R. While her character experienced many personal, romantic and professional setbacks—it’s a drama, after all!—she’s a practical and compassionate nurse and the on-again, off-again love interest of George Clooney, a.k.a. Dr. Doug Ross. At one point in the series, Hathaway contemplates going to medical school to become a doctor but decides against it after realizing what an impact she has as a nurse.
4Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Louise Fletcher won an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched, head administrative nurse at the Salem State Hospital. Nurse Ratched rules the mental hospital with an iron fist, withholding medications, privileges and basic necessities from patients unless they absolutely comply with her demands. She’s the epitome of the battle-axe nurse stereotype, complete with the severe white nurse’s uniform. She’s an unforgettable character, but it’s for all the wrong reasons. You wouldn’t want her at your hospital bedside, that’s for sure.
5Carla Espinosa, Scrubs
While TV show Scrubs is best known for launching the career of actor Zac Braff, the show featured many other memorable characters, including Carla Espinosa (played by Judy Reyes), head nurse of the fictional Sacred Heart teaching hospital. While opinionated and stubborn, Carla is also extremely caring and often stands up for the hospital’s interns. Reyes based her portrayal on her sister, who is a real-life licensed nurse, which is probably why Carla’s character feels so realistic.
6Greg “Gaylord” Focker, Meet the Parents
Media and pop culture often perpetuate the stereotype of the feminized nurse, which is why fictional nurses in movies and TV are overwhelmingly female. However, while he may not have a lot of competition, Greg “Gaylord” Focker (played by Ben Stiller) is possibly the most well-known male nurse character in pop culture. His choice of profession is at the heart of many of the comedy’s cringe-and-laugh-inducing moments, as his soon-to-be fiancée’s father constantly criticizes him for being a male nurse. Indeed, the film outright addresses many of the negative stereotypes about male nurses, even as Greg rises above them.
7Jackie Peyton, Nurse Jackie
An emergency room department nurse at All Saints’ Hospital in New York City, Jackie Peyton (played by Edie Falco) balances the grind of an urban hospital with her own poor life decisions and weakness for certain prescription drugs. While TV critics liked the dark comedy show for the most part, the New York State Nurses Association decidedly did not: The association said that the Nurse Jackie character had “no qualms about repeatedly violating the nursing Code of Ethics” and asked that a disclaimer be added to the end credits. (It was not.)
See Also: Which Nurse Jackie Character Are You?
8Christina Hawthorne, HawthoRNe
HawthoRNe was one of the few TV medical dramas that focused on a nurse as its main character, rather putting a doctor in the spotlight and sidelining nurses as supporting characters. Christina Hawthorne (played by Jada Pinkett Smith) is the chief nursing officer at Richmond Trinity Hospital and always front-and-center in her no-nonsense white lab coat. Throughout the show’s three seasons, Hawthorne consistently advocates for her patients and staff, even when it puts her at risk professionally.
9Betty Sizemore, Nurse Betty
Despite the name, this movie isn’t about a nurse, but rather a woman who believes she is one. Renée Zellweger plays a diner waitress from Kansas who enters a fugue state after witnessing her husband’s murder. She thinks she’s living out her favorite soap opera, A Reason to Love, and that she’s truly a nurse named Betty. She runs off to Los Angeles to pursue her surgeon boyfriend (actually an actor on the television show) and dark comedic antics ensue. Zellweger nabbed a Golden Globe for her portrayal.
Some of these nurses are memorable for good reasons, some for bad and some for a mixture. But there’s no denying that they’re compelling characters, even years (and sometimes decades) after the show or movie premiered. Hopefully, more and more medical dramas will portray nurses as important (and positive!) characters as they continue to gain in popularity, but these nine fictional nurses are a great starting point.
Deborah Swanson is a former Hospital Administrator who now works with allheart.comcelebrating caregivers. She keeps busy interviewing medical professionals, writing for blogs, and gardening.