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Nurse Ratched and the Politics of Care Essay

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Updated: Jun 6th, 2022

It is no wonder that the way in which nurses are portrayed in movies and TV shows shapes the public’s perceptions of this profession. Such a representation, however, usually leaves a lot to be desired. Released in 1975, the classic movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest featured the head nurse Ratched who tormented her patients both physically and spiritually with abnormal fanaticism. The essay will analyze the main antagonist of the selected movie in terms of her emotional intelligence and discuss her suitability for the nursing role.

A former army nurse, Ratched seems to show several signs of high emotional intelligence. Firstly, she has remarkable self-regulation, which allows her to fully control her emotions and behavior in the pursuit of long-term goals. Specifically, the woman is firm and constant in following and making others follow her mechanized regime. She has full control over her feelings and is always calm and menacing when in the spotlight. When McMurphy flouts her rules, challenging her authority, she remains cool and tries various tools to force him into obedience. Secondly, even though little is known about her true motivation, one has every reason to believe there is one. The ethereal passion with which she maintains dehumanizing measures in her ward and keeps all the male patients in a low psychological state is the exact feature of Ratched’s purposeful frame of mind.

The social skills of the nurse, however, have an ambiguous nature since she is capable of communicating both verbally and non-verbally with others, yet the resulting interaction has nothing to do with normal human relations. In other words, surprisingly, the presence of social skills in Mildred Ratched speaks not of her ability to build good relationships with people but of the moral degeneracy that she embodies. It is rather difficult to assess Ratched’s self-awareness since she manages to understand other people and, at the same time, has no clear perception of her own self. The nurse cannot reflect on her feelings, emotions, and strengths as long as that would interrupt the usual order of things.

Empathy has nothing to do with the image of human suffering which Ratched enjoys so much to witness. Despite the fact of being a nurse, she has neither compassion nor sympathy for her mentally ill patients. Instead of helping them, Mildred Ratched has her own purpose, which she fulfills with an enviable enthusiasm. This purpose is making the Acutes live docile, quiet, but managed lives and maintaining the correct order of things. The woman had no compassion for Billy, who committed suicide after she had threatened to tell his mother about his misbehavior. Thus, as a nurse, Ratched masterfully utilizes her professional and institutional power to abuse patients.

A nurse leader is prepared for the advanced role that includes leadership and clinical practice. Being responsible for the provision of vision and skills, this person needs to use his or her change agent’s characteristics to support every individual’s growth. As a healthcare leader, I am aimed at bringing positive change in any area related to health, be it the qualification of nursing care or direct facilitation of safe and reliable care.

Nurse Ratched is a remarkable case as her fanatical addition to the routine and a twisted sense of the right order of things coupled with the absolute lack of empathy and self-reflection make an exact portrayal of what a nurse must not be. A psychiatric nurse has to be emphatic, communicative, and flexible, though Mildred Ratched seems to have each of these qualities atrophied, not to mention some signs of mental illness that she shows. To support her growth, I would encourage her to work closely with psychologists and psychiatrists and provide evidence-based nursing care to patients (Pomeroy & Garcia, 2018). Also, Ratched could be motivated to practice excellent communication skills and reflect upon the stress that patients with mental illnesses experience. However, I believe that for this particular case, the best thing a nurse leader could do is discourage Ratched from holding the position of administrative nurse and actually any position that involves taking care of patients.

Complexity theory could be employed to understand the organization in which the nurse is portrayed better. According to this theory, the medical institution at which Ratched works should be viewed as a complex system (Chandler, Rycroft-Malone, Hawkes, & Noyes, 2015). This means that the establishment has been created as a result of a multitude of interactions between constantly changing systems. In particular, one of the key elements of the organization is the nurse who is moved by social forces which she cannot even comprehend. Like other members of the staff, she is the product of the post-war age and the puppet of the social mind. For example, her resilience and innate need for order may be explained by her experience of working as an army nurse. As to her dehumanization and mechanization, they could be the attributes of modern society. Not all of the patients are mentally ill, but they all have been rejected by the System that was the embodiment of either the government or their relatives. The medical institution, in turn, is portrayed as the arena for the permanent class conflict between caregivers and patients.


Chandler, J., Rycroft-Malone, J., Hawkes, C., & Noyes, J. (2015). Application of simplified complexity theory concepts for healthcare social systems to explain the implementation of evidence into practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(2), 461-480.

Pomeroy, E. C., & Garcia, R. B. (2018). Direct practice skills for evidence-based social work: A strengths-based text and workbook. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

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