Aeleah Soine
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When women were nurses
Gender, nostalgia, and the making of historical heroines
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In the decade from 2008–2018, television networks and streaming services were noticeably captivated by the stories of real and fictitious nurses set in historical hospitals – some iconic, some forgotten, and others only imagined or fleeting in their existence. Although these historical medical dramas featured large ensemble casts of hospital staff and patients, their leading characters and protagonists were all women who worked as nurses in the eras concentrated between the 1860s and the 1920s. These hospital-based series have contributed to the public historical consciousness and literacy by disseminating both a multi-dimensional experience of space, time, and people in the past, but also by facilitating an emotional connection to the human condition of those who lived, worked, and struggled in familiar ways through unfamiliar circumstances. Despite the ‘Netflix effect’ that aimed at illuminating lesser-known regional or national locations and events, television series from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Spain, and Australia still offered familiar depictions of historical nurses across time and place. The tensions between tradition and progress, religion and science, nurses and doctors, women and men serve to drive dramatic television storylines, but often, they also serve the audience’s nostalgic desire to imagine a shared past as it might have been. By engaging with theoretical and empirical studies of gender, nostalgia, and the historical representation of nurses, this chapter illuminates how creators and audiences have collaboratively reimagined the past as a transnational social commentary for the present.

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