Seeking Justice for Nurse Mildred Ratched
When one thinks of the most reviled villains in all of pop culture, many will turn to the watchful and tyrannical eye of Nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, Dale Wasserman’s 1963 play, and Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She has become synonymous with the horrors of institutional corruption and the subject of ire amongst audiences everywhere. Her shadow as a villain looms so large that she recently got her own dark and gritty Netflix origin story.
Nurse Ratched is ranked number five on the list of AFI’s Top 50 Onscreen Villains. Number FIVE. Above her are two living embodiments of evil (Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West), a mentally deranged serial killer (Norman Bates from Psycho), and a fellow mental health professional, Dr. Hannibal Lector. There are many iconic villains below her, two of which (Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List and Dr. Szell from Marathon Man) are literal Nazis. Yet Nurse Ratched looms above them all. How is it that Nurse Ratched manages to leave such a strong impression as a reviled villain?
It could be because she is presented as an uptight stickler who never wants to cede control of the mental ward she has worked so hard to subdue to the story’s “protagonist” Randle P. McMurphy. However, upon revisiting the novel and the film, one can recognize that Ratched is one of the most complex characters in cinema and literature history. Her own attributes and faults have been unjustly interpreted as outright evil and as such have resulted in the perpetuation of an image of the heinous bitch with a stick up her ass that pop culture has made her out to be. The world has labeled her this irredeemable monster, but they fail to really understand what the text is saying about the one we know as “Big Nurse.”
Nurse Ratched’s introduction serves as the formation of how the audience perceives her. In Kesey’s novel, Chief Bromden, the narrator, describes Ratched as almost robotic. He observes her “smooth, calculated, and precision-made” face and how even her gestures are “precise” and “automatic” (Kesey 11). Her name of course is the most obvious indication of her metaphorical nature as a cog in a grander machine, or Combine, as Bromden describes it.
Bromden goes on to observe Ratched as someone trying to hide her femininity but is betrayed by her own body. Specifically, Bromden and the other patients LOVE to mention her breasts. They are a constant reminder to them that Ratched could be seen as a sexual object, waiting to be conquered. Bromden posits that Ratched would rather not have them, stating “you can see how bitter she is about it” (Kesey 11). He’s probably right, but not in the way he thinks. Those breasts have probably caused Ratched nothing but trouble. Being looked on as inferior, as nothing more than an object for men’s pleasure.
The constant reminder of Nurse Ratched’s breasts gives the male patients an excuse to see her as someone to be seen as inferior holding power over them. Lazslo K. Gefin notes in their essay “The Breasts of Big Nurse: Satire Versus Narrative in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” that Ratched’s attempts to hide her breasts are her way of rebelling against society’s expectations of women with endowed features to be accepted only if they are submissive and sexualized. “The woman, therefore, who refuses to follow this twisted semiotics will be regarded as ‘unnatural,’” and resigned to being a target of resentment. Ratched is a woman who refuses to conform to gender norms and as a result, it baffles the men’s outdated and reductive preconceptions on what a woman is.
Randle P. McMurphy is touted as a hero standing up against the injustices of the system by the patients and audiences alike. However, he is not the rambunctious saint that Jack Nicholson helped immortalize and perpetuate in the 1975 film. Rather, McMurphy is a no-good huckster and the first person who really sees beyond this bravura façade is Nurse Ratched. From the moment he enters the ward, she sees his potential to totally disrupt all that she’s built up. He is an invasive species dropped into a carefully curated ecosystem.
McMurphy waltzes into the ward ready for an easy gig. He is a man who immediately plays all the angles to make his stay something that can benefit him. His gambling and rambunctious behavior causes Ratched to place stricter rules on the ward to protect the patients from him. He robs the men of their money, taking absolute advantage of them. McMurphy’s disruptive nature and Ratched’s restrictive rules are not polar opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. They are both vying for a sense of control, exploiting the other patients as pawns in their game.
McMurphy is an absolute charmer, but Ratched is never one of the converted. She sees past his blowhard ways and manages to always have the upper hand. Following McMurphy’s outburst regarding the playing of the World Series, everyone, patients and doctors alike, think Ratched is going to suggest McMurphy getting sent to the Disturbed ward. Ratched goes against that, arguing that if he were to do that, “He would be a martyr,” and that the other patients “would never be given the opportunity to see that this man is not an — as you put it, Mr. Gideon — ‘extraordinary person’” (Kesey 136). Ratched knows exactly the influence McMurphy is gaining and seeks to put an end to that power grab the smart way, not the brutal way.
Ratched’s primary tactic in diminishing McMurphy’s hold on the patients is one of demystification. Ratched constantly reminds the patients and her colleagues that McMurphy is not “extraordinary,” but rather “He is simply a man and no more, and is subject to all the cowardice and all the timidity that any other man is subject to” (Kesey 136). In one meeting without McMurphy present, Ratched rationally explains to the other patients that he “isn’t one to run a risk without a reason,” and asks them to examine McMurphy’s selfish behavior so that “we didn’t have any delusions about the man’s motives” (Kesey 222–223). The patients take Ratched’s words to heart and distance themselves from McMurphy.
Lest we forget, McMurphy has a history of violence that casts a dark shadow over his behavior. His record shows several charges of “drunkenness, assault and battery, disturbing the peace, repeated gambling, and statutory rape” (Kesey 44). McMurphy may come off like a charming audience proxy, but in reality, he is more deeply disturbed than he would care to admit. His history of violence (including violence against women) demonstrates his status as a true threat to the patients of the ward and Ratched is merely trying to do her job to protect them from a hostile and toxic force. If she didn’t, the lunatics would truly run the asylum and Ratched cannot allow that to happen.
One of the main issues that led to the demonization of Nurse Ratched stems from the novel’s narrator. Bromden serves as the audience’s only source of information and the audiences seem to take his account at face value. People forget they’re being told a story from a recently escaped MENTAL PATIENT who idolized McMurphy. So it would make perfect sense that in his telling, McMurphy would come off better than Ratched. Bromden’s overall perspective is not one that can be trusted.
Though Bromden is pretending to be deaf and dumb, that is bred from an intense paranoia that stems from the trauma of his past. He remains deeply traumatized by his service in the war and from signing away the land of his people to the government. As a result, he sees the world as a massive machine, The Combine, that is out to destroy him and humanity. He literally refuses to take his pills because he believes he sees “a miniature electronic element… microscopic wires and grids and transistors, this one designed to dissolve on contact with air” (Kesey 35–36). Not exactly someone whose opinion one can fully take seriously.
Bromden is a narrator of many contradictions and serves a complex interpretation of events that forces the reader to really think about what actually occurred. Bromden notes that even though “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking about it,” that what he’s saying is “the truth, even if it didn’t happen” (Kesey 13). In this regard, Bromden is setting the audience up for a modern-day fable, with McMurphy has the tragic hero and Nurse Ratched the villain. McMurphy shook the patients out of their stupor and they loved him for it while their hatred and disdain for Ratched only grew. Bromden is presenting the story as a mythic battle of good versus evil, but as a result, Ratched and McMurphy’s traits are amplified so that they fit better in the archetypes of those stories instead of seeing them as the complex characters they actually are.
Nurse Ratched comes off as this force of obstinance in the face of freedom in the eyes of the patients, but any pushback she gives the patients is not out of malice, but simply her doing her job. Ratched is a woman who has worked her way into a position of power and wants to maintain it. How can we fault her for that? The fact she’s a woman adds to the disdain the men have for her. When she brushes off McMurphy’s attempts to overthrow her authority with a demurred smile, she is seen as a stuck-up bitch. She’s not being stuck-up, she’s being a professional.
The Lady Parts podcast hosted by Tina Wargo and Molly Holtzinger focuses on Ratched’s calm and professional demeanor in the face of men who don’t offer her the same courtesy. Wargo notes how Ratched is “level-headed” and “never gets emotional” when McMurphy or the other patients act up. She is constantly trying to get her patients to talk about their issues and to accept responsibility for their own thoughts and actions, which makes them resentful towards her. As Wargo goes on to explain, Ratched is simply trying to hold men accountable and is vilified for it.
This is best exemplified in one of the group session scenes from the film when, Cheswick, one of the patients, starts complaining about not being allowed to have cigarettes at any given time. Ratched calmly explains the rules to Cheswick, specifically that they had to ration the cigarettes because McMurphy keeps winning them from Cheswick and the other patients, and tries to get him to focus back on group therapy. Ratched not only answers his question but breaks down why the rule is in place. Her perfectly rational answer is not enough as it results in Cheswick throwing a tantrum and McMurphy breaking into the nurse’s station to get Cheswick’s cigarettes.
Ratched has been working with all the other patients for years and understands their needs and impulses. The slightest disturbance or opposition could set them off and it’s her job to prevent outbursts to maintain order. So when she tells them they can’t have something or that the rules are put in place for their own wellbeing, they see it as her fault. Wargo and Holtzinger posit that the patients would blame her for their problems no matter what the circumstances were. They are unwilling to accept their own faults in order to improve themselves and opt instead to saddle the root of their issues on the shoulders of one woman who is trying to help them if only they’d let her.
Most mental health professionals have to maintain a slight sense of detachment from their patients in order to treat them properly. It’s not to say they should be robots, but they have to saddle a lot of emotional and mental energy to do their jobs. The fact Ratched constantly maintains a calm exterior in front of rowdy men is a testament to her qualifications as someone who can best deal with them. She’s not there to hold their hand and tell them what they want to hear to make them feel better. She’s there to provide them with what they need, whether they like it or not.
Despite her calm demeanor, mistakes happen, even with the greatest of professionals and Ratched is not without her flaws. There are many moments many consider being indicators of her villainy from the baseball game to hoarding cigarettes. However, only one action she takes throughout the entirety of the novel, play, or film could be labeled as truly villainous. That is her role in the suicide of Billy Bibbit.
Following a drunken night on the ward where McMurphy smuggled in alcohol and prostitutes, Ratched discovers the revelers passed out the next morning and Billy in bed with one of the prostitutes Candy. Not getting upset, Ratched simply asks Billy what happened and who is responsible. When Billy refuses, she threatens to tell Billy’s mother, which terrifies him and forces him to give up McMurphy as the perpetrator of the night.
However, in the novel, the play, and the film, that conversation Ratched has with Billy is not her trying to scare Billy, but rather another tactic to use against McMurphy. In The Lady Parts podcast, Wargo and Holtzinger note that Ratched asking Billy what happened is her trying to get McMurphy to own up to the fact that the entire night and coaxing Billy into losing his virginity was an act of peer pressure on McMurphy’s part. It’s not fair that they’re both using Billy as a pawn, but she is not trying to goad Billy into killing himself.
The suicide of Billy Bibbit is the major casualty in the war between Ratched and McMurphy and the blame lies on both sides. Billy has a history of suicide, specifically tied to his relationships with women, so Ratched probably should’ve known better than to push someone with a history of suicide towards that point. However, none of that would’ve happened if McMurphy hadn’t done anything to trigger those responses. The root of the problem is him and in the novel and the play, Ratched walks right up to McMurphy to hammer through the consequences of what he has done.
“That poor boy has killed himself. He is in there now, in the Doctor’s chair, with his throat cut. I hope you’re satisfied. Playing with human lives. Gambling with human lives as if you were God. Are you God, Mr. McMurphy? Somehow I don’t think you are God.” — Nurse Ratched (Wasserman 77)
Ratched may have inadvertently pushed Billy to a breaking point, but she recognizes where the true issue lies. She channels her anger directly where it needs to go: to the person responsible. She wants McMurphy to finally take responsibility for the danger that he poses. She needles into him because she’s infuriated with the man who has caused so much harm to the patients she has been sworn to protect. All she asks of McMurphy is to hold himself accountable for his actions and he can’t handle it and attacks her, with no one, not the patients or the staff, stopping him.
McMurphy’s assault on Ratched is viewed by audiences everywhere as a moment of triumphant comeuppance, the hero finally shutting down the oppressive woman that has been keeping them down. However, anyone who cheers on McMurphy is celebrating a cruel and vile act of violence on a woman. As Daniel J. Vitkus perfectly observes in his essay “Madness and Misogyny in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” McMurphy’s assault “is not merely an attempt to kill nurse Ratched — it is in fact a rape.” (Vitkus 82) One can see that the text provides a vivid and horrifying account.
Only at the last — after he’d smashed through that glass door, her face swinging around, with terror forever ruining any look she might ever try to use again, screaming when he grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anyone had ever imagined, warm and pink in the light — only as the last, after the officials realized that the three black boys weren’t going to do anything but stand and watch and they would have beat him off without their help doctors and nurses and supervisors prying those heavy red fingers out of the white flesh of her throat as if they were her neck bones, jerking him backward off of her with a loud heave of breath, only then did he show any sign that he might be anything other than a sane, willful, dogged man performing a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not. — Kesey 267
Here, Kesey puts the reader in a precise and complicated position. He implicates the reader “as a willing witness and accessory to the Nurse’s rape,” just like the other men in the ward (Vitkus 83). The patients in the ward see this as something that needed to be done and that McMurphy is merely a representative of all of them. As Chief notes “We couldn’t stop him because we were the ones making him do it” (Kesey 267) Vitkus urges the audience to not just be a bystander and question if “this violation of a woman’s body is a ‘natural’ fulfillment of McMurphy’s role as a hero?” (Vitkus 83) The fact these men think the only solution is to reduce her to just another woman is a horrifying sight to witness. Anyone who cheers on McMurphy in that scene as the victor fails to see that he already lost.
Ratched bested McMurphy long before his hands wrapped around her throat. She was a smart and strategic player against McMurphy’s childish outbursts. It was only when he could not outsmart her that McMurphy stooped down to an animalistic level. By grabbing her throat, McMurphy is trying to excise her source of power and show that she is nothing. But it only serves to prove Ratched right and McMurphy wrong. She proved that he is indeed disturbed, violent, and not fit for society. She beat him.
Nurse Ratched has become one of the most reviled villains in all of fiction, but that reputation stems from a base reading of the text. Those who see Ratched as this force of evil fail to really question the reliability of the narrator and the true likeability of its protagonist. Looking at the source material through a critical lens, one can see that Ratched is not some mustache-twirling crone bent on the destruction of all men, she is simply a complicated woman doing a complicated job.
Ratched’s status as a villain has become the topic of debate over the years. As the hosts of The Lady Parts argue, she is simply a woman trying to do her job and is resented for it by the men around her. While Kesey in no way probably intended for this to be feminist rhetoric when he wrote the novel, Ratched remains one of the most fascinating characters because of her inherent complexity. It speaks to the overall evolution of how a work of art shifts and how our own opinions can change into something much deeper and intriguing.
Part of the problem lies not just in a misinterpretation of the text, but also who interprets the text. In most presentations of Nurse Ratched, all have been written predominantly by men. The novel, the play, the screenplay, and even the new Netflix series (except Jennifer Salt who is credited for 2 out of 8 total episodes) were all spearheaded through the male gaze. The result is the perpetuation of a stereotype of a woman in power being uptight and cruel and not even considered a human being. Kesey never gave her a first name in the novel, it was only until Louise Fletcher stepped in on the film and gave her a name: Mildred. It is yet another demonstration of how men see her as a force instead of a person.
There’s a moment late in the film that really strikes to the heart of Ratched’s character and treatment throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Following her discovery of the drunken party in the ward, Ratched asks for her nurse’s cap that has been left on the floor. We cut into Ratched holding her once pristine cap now sullied. It is the ultimate symbol of a woman holding on to power knowing that it will always be tainted by disrespect from the men she is only trying to help. We have all treated Ratched this way, but our reactions to her character speak more to our own prejudices and preconceptions than they do to hers. Perhaps we should take a page out of her book and dig deep within, exploring our own emotions, uncover the truth, and at last, be free.