Nurse Jackie as Feminist Id?

In this week’s second-season premiere of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, a feminist id was on full display. According to Mr. Penis Envy, Sigmund Freud, who published The Ego and the Id in 1923, the id acts according to the “pleasure principle,” seeking to avoid pain and experience pleasure with no thought to consequence.

While Jackie (Edie Falco), a hospital emergency-room nurse, does seem aware of consequences (she hides her drug addiction), she in large part functions according to id impulses. According to Freud, the id is ruled by libido, sexual and otherwise, cannot take “no” for an answer and is represented as infantile. It wants what it wants when it wants it. All of which is true of Jackie Peyton.

But, what makes Jackie’s id feminist? While it might seem contradictory to claim that the unthinking part of the self can have feminist tendencies, Jackie’s pleasure-seeking self can be read as a reaction to the confines of the patriarchal world. As a nurse (and a woman), she is supposed to be selfless and outward-directed, nurturing and caring. Who cares about her chronic pain and 24-hour work/life demands? Her feminist id responds “F you” to the nurturing/suffering paradigm, and she ingests drugs to numb the pain of daily life.

In this week’s episode, Jackie’s feminist id refuses to bend over backwards to ameliorate her rather annoying daughter, Grace, while the family is on a beach excursion. She rejects the “super-mom” role, instead rolling her eyes and voicing frustration. Then, when two young men partake in sexist “I’d tap that” banter, she shoves one of them down and storms off. Her husband warns them “Don’t fuck with her,” voicing the “don’t mess with me” aura Jackie exudes most of the time. That’s an aura that women are not supposed to have but, as the scene indicates, her husband can literally voice.

Jackie’s id also ignores her lover Eddie’s texts–why should she have to placate him just because he can’t get over his jealous response to discovering she is married? The show’s representation of him as seeking vengeance because “his woman” is “taken” can be read as a feminist critique of the ownership model of love. If he were angry at the betrayal, that would be one thing, but he is angry that she is not his alone–to which feminist-id Jackie says “F you, dude.”

Her shenanigans with Coop, the doctor who’s enamored with her, also have a feminist pleasure principle at their core. How fun is it that she takes down this ego-inflated ninny and yet he remains hopelessly infatuated? Our super-ego might feel her teasing kisses and sharp barbs are cruel, but our own ids cheer as Jackie skewers Coop’s self-important bravado.

Even the flourish that closes the episode, her delivery of cake for a family dinner, can be read as a feminist id response. Not only is she saying no to all the rules about what and how one should eat, she is again refusing to live up to wife/mother ideals. Perhaps this is a veiled response to husband Kevin’s recent declaration that she is such a great wife because she cooks him breakfast even when she is exhausted.

More generally, id-Jackie reveals that sexual desire is overly regulated and refuses to buy into “you can only love and have sex with one person at a time” paradigm. She proves that the “just say no” response is unrealistic, that our drugs–be they cake, sex or morphine–sometimes are the only things allowing us a tenuous grip on our capacity to be functional beings.

I agree with The Feminist Spectator, that this series is “smart and morally, emotionally and ethically complicated.” We may not be able to fully embrace Jackie’s id behavior, but we can certainly recognize what drives it. And, as Michelle Dean notes at Bitch, “All of the female characters on the show spend considerable time satisfying the Bechdel test–women, speaking to women, about subjects other than men.” These characters offer subtle and provocative critiques of the privilege/oppression matrix, revealing that, given the regulatory practices of society, it’s surprising we are not all popping pills like candy.

I hope that during the rest of this season, Jackie, a wonderful feminist id, will have her cake and eat it too.

Above: Edie Falco at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.

Comments

  1. Terrific post, Natalie! Edie Falco is brilliant in this role. Thanks for introducing readers to the “Bechdel test.” I agree that Nurse Jackie passes with flying colors (and think that everyone should read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant cartoon strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”). The scene from this week’s episode in which Coop, frustrated in his attempts to win Jackie over, files a complaint against Jackie for undermining his authority within the structural hierarchy is feminist comedy at its best.

  2. Thanks, Audrey! I agree that Falco is brilliant as Jackie. I loved that scene too – esp when it’s revealed Akalitis is writing “what an a-hole” over and over rather than taking notes on his complaint!

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