Jessica Chen & Sara Ju

Nursing has a long history attached to its professional title and has indisputably played a critical role in healthcare, caregiving, and essential services. Most recently, nurses received recognition for the efforts and sacrifices they made while working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the evident importance of nurses, the nursing profession faces constant stereotyping and marginalization. Nursing is still sometimes deemed a lower-status job performed strictly by women, as well as labeled as powerless and cute in media and popular culture. The relationship between nurses and the politics of cuteness has raised important questions regarding the societal implications of such labels on nurses. This article will explore the culture and history of nursing and integrate it into a discussion of the profession’s relation to the politics of cuteness.

Figure 1. Source: CIHI. "Distribution of Nurses in Canada from 2006 to 2016, Gender." (2017)

The designation of nursing as a women’s profession was significantly enforced with the rise of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. In the mid-19th century, Nightingale believed that nursing should be a profession that was essentially “an extension of the female role in society, which hindered women’s education and fostered male dominance,” as she was opposed to nurses requiring higher education and held “allegiance to patient care founded on traditional women’s virtues of endurance, obedience, and cleanliness.”[1] The history of gender labeling within the field of nursing led to female nurses experiencing oppression and the consequences of being connected to stereotypes proclaiming nurses as subordinate and incompetent. 

A 2017 study based in Canada showed an increase in the percentage of male nurses from 2006 to 2016 (see Figure 1).[2] However, the rate of males in nursing was still a low 7.8% as of 2016. Some argue that nursing being an emotionally laborious profession promotes the idea of nurses as “humble, gentle, subordinate… etc. and masculine traits such as proactive, dominant, are not suitable for the nursing career.”[3] In line with these conceived traits, one source states that “[n]ursing is not just task-based work, but also emotional work,” and nurses are “obliged to satisfy patients’ emotional needs.”[4] This incorporation of emotional labor into the practice of nursing not only reinforces nursing as a role for women based on social constructs, but essentially frames nurses as cute professional caregivers. 

Female domination in nursing does not necessarily indicate bias against males in the field and may instead reflect larger societal and cultural norms surrounding gender roles and expectations. Sianne Ngai writes that softness and femininity are aesthetics associated with cuteness; cute objects are usually “soft… and deeply associated with the infantile and feminine.”[5] Particularly in East Asia, occupations involving care work are traditionally considered a female domain, and men are often “regarded as the breadwinners of the family.”[6] Caring for another person requires traits such as softness, gentleness, and the ability to understand and accommodate, all of which are socially constructed as feminine. Another prevalent concept in both the nursing field and themes of cuteness is the notion of powerlessness and inferiority. As Ngai notes for a given cute object, any fuller personification would make it too equal to people and upset the power dynamic on which the cute aesthetic depends.[7] Nurses and their role to care for others play into this dynamic tied to cuteness, which may lead to the implication that nurses are cute and subordinate to their patients. 

Yet, the cuteness attached to nursing may be reclaimed as powerful when nurses face demanding situations. Sharon Tran discusses the connection between cuteness and vulnerability, and how power may be reimagined within this vulnerability, stating that “instead of an unrealistic ‘escape,’ kawaii invites us to take seriously conditions of extreme vulnerability and to reimagine power within those conditions.”[8] Particularly because they are in positions of caring for patients with extreme conditions, nurses are often exposed to moments of human vulnerability, which adds to their qualities of sensitivity and alertness and thus responsiveness to their patients. Nurses are also placed in a vulnerable spot when facing demanding situations. This may happen, for instance, when a “nurse takes on a new job, works with seriously ill patients, or is confronted with death.”[9] In this case, cute care acts as a form of soft power that nurses can reclaim. 

Figure 2. Nurse Joy from Pokémon (Source: Heroes Wiki)

It is important to emphasize that the prevalence of public misconceptions about nurses is largely attributable to the proliferation of inaccurate portrayals of nurses in movies, television programs, and media. While nursing is known to many as a field requiring high competence, professionalism, and a strong commitment to patient care, certain stereotypes and media portrayals taint nurses’ professional images. One example is the “naughty nurse” stereotype, which perpetuates the sexualization of female nurses. The stereotype depicts female nurses as cute and seductive and emphasizes their physical appearance rather than professional competence. This harmful depiction is spread throughout popular media, such as the medical television shows Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med. In both programs, the nurses are mostly women. Notably, “most portrayals of nurses on Grey's Anatomy involve the nurses having sexual relations with the surgeon main characters.”[10] This is a recurring theme in other American shows such as Chicago Med and has also been a common theme in Asian media, including Korean dramas. Put together, much of popular media contributes to the above “naughty nurse” stereotype.[11] 

The sexualization of nurses is further visible in popular cute characters such as Nurse Joy from Pokémon (see Figure 2). Nurse Joy is illustrated as a young, attractive nurse often wearing a short dress.[12] This feminine portrayal of a nurse reinforces the “angel of mercy” stereotype, as Nurse Joy emphasizes the cute and innocent stereotypes of the nursing profession.[13] The sexualization of nurses relates to the politics of cuteness in that it reinforces the stereotype that women are expected to conform to traditional feminine behaviors of gentleness and sweetness: “The angel of mercy stereotype harbors the belief that nurses are ‘spiritually pure’ and ‘gentle.’”[14] In particular, the “angel of mercy” is a stereotype in contrast to the “naughty nurse” stereotype through its depiction of nurses as cute and innocent. While this may not initially appear as a negative characterization, an emphasis on the cuteness of nurses can be harmful since it undermines their difficult work and perpetuates discrimination against nurses who do not meet expectations set by these stereotypes. In addition to her cute personality, Nurse Joy only appears occasionally in the series and plays a subordinate role, further reinforcing the perception that nurses are powerless and incompetent and the idea that nursing is a role for women.

In addition to popular media portrayals, the reinforcement of the sexualization of nurses is enacted in Halloween costumes.[15] The issue of Halloween nurse costumes relates to a recent controversy concerning a popular female K-pop group, BLACKPINK, and the nurse outfit worn by group member Jennie in a 2020 music video titled “Ice Cream” (see Figure 3). Both Nurse Joy and Jennie’s portrayals involve the use of sexualized nurse outfits to portray a cute image. In the video, Jennie wears a short white nurse costume with a pink heart stitched onto her nursing cap. Similarly, Halloween nurse costumes are often designed to be cute and sexy, effectively reducing the nursing profession to a sexualized costume. As a result, costumes like Jennie’s promote a false, harmful depiction of nurses in media and in the real world.

Figure 3. Jennie's Nurse Outfit in the BLACKPINK Music Video "Ice Cream" (2020).

There are many societal implications and consequences with the constant reinforcement of such stereotypes, including the normalization of the objectification and sexualization of women in the workplace. Korean American author R.O. Kwon describes her experience of being undermined due to her “adorable appearance”: “I am at work. I am talking about my profession, not about my hair or skin or any perceived cuteness.”[16] Societal expectations and stereotypes are forms of oppression toward women, as they undermine the importance and intensity of their labor. This can be understood in parallel to nursing, as society typically “disregards the amount of education and clinical hours required” to obtain a nursing degree.[17] In addition, reinforced by sexism in the medical industry, the “perception of [nursing] being a traditionally female job” has led to its label as “common sense” work.[18] Nursing is perceived as an easy job that does not require much real effort or “work.”

Nursing has been subject to the politics of cuteness, which highlights the phenomenon of the frequent perception of nurses as soft, subordinate, caring, and adorable. This connection between nurses and themes of cuteness raises questions regarding the societal implications of labeling nurses as powerless and cute, along with the problematic perception that nursing is a profession solely for women. To combat the negative effects of the association between nurses and cuteness, it is crucial to continue to address existing misconceptions while deconstructing gender norms and promoting greater diversity and inclusion in the nursing field and beyond. 

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Gayle Morris, “Florence Nightingale: Uncovering Her Impacts on Nursing and Colonialism,” NurseJournal, March 23, 2023,

[2] Frédéric Michas, “Canadian workforce in nursing by gender 2006-2016,” Statista, May 2, 2022,

[3] Aimei Mao et al., “‘I am called girl, but that doesn’t matter’–perspectives of male nurses regarding gender-related advantages and disadvantages in professional development,” BMC Nursing 20, no. 24 (2021): 2.

[4] Jonggab Kim, “Emotional Labor in the Care Field and Empathy-enhancing Education by Reading Literature: A Brief Review,” Iran J Public Health 47, no. 8 (August 2018): 1084.

[5] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry vol. 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 814.

[6] Aimei Mao et al., “‘I am called girl,’” 2.

[7] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 814.

[8] Sharon Tran, “Kawaii Asian Girls Save the Day! Animating a Minor Politics of Care,” MELUS 43, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 31.

[9] Peggy L. Chinn, “Nurse Vulnerability,” ANS: Advances in Nursing Science Blog, April 27, 2020,

[10] D. Patricia Gray and Debera J. Thomas, “Critical Reflections on Culture in Nursing,” Journal of Cultural Diversity 13, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 5.

[11] Gray and Thomas, “Critical Reflections,” 3.

[12] “Nurse Joy,” Fandom, accessed April 22, 2023,

[13] Gray and Thomas, “Critical Reflections,” 3

[14] Gray and Thomas, “Critical Reflections,” 3.

[15] Gray and Thomas, “Critical Reflections,” 3

[16] R. O. Kwon, “Stop Calling Asian Women Adorable,” The New York Times, March 23, 2019,

[17] Gray and Thomas, “Critical Reflections, 3.

[18] Karen Ousey and Martin Johnson, “Being a real nurse – concepts of caring and culture in the clinical areas,” Nurse Education in Practice 7 (May 2007): 151.