'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest': Nurse Ratched Wasn't Even Evil

Updated on March 28, 2019
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a 1975 comedy drama based on the novel by Ken Kesey of the same name. It stars Jack Nicholson, backed by what is basically an all-star cast, including Christopher Lloyd, Danny Devito, and Brad Dourif of "Chucky" fame.

As many times as I have seen this wonderfully dramatic and entertaining film, it never really occurred to me that Nurse Ratched (Lousie Fletcher) actually wasn't a "passive-aggressive bully." She was just trying to maintain order. The film sets her up to appear to be a villain, but this is mostly because we are forced to look at the film through the eyes of the leading male character.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a complete degenerate. He is a misogynistic, predatory, racist. There's no gentle way to put it.

People have incorrect notions of what racism is. Such people are probably frowning at my "accusation." But calling a Native American man "Chief" and howling in a stereotypical fashion in his face is . . . pretty racist.

"Chief' has an actual f****** name. It's Bromden. And just because he doesn't mind the racism doesn't make it any less racist.

It's kinda amazing that I never noticed this stuff before, but then, I was still operating under society's programming. Once you wake up, you can't unsee how awful a lot of people really are. You stop giving people the benefit of the doubt and you just recognize what scum they are.

Randle is scum.

The fact that he had sex with a teenage girl and played it off as him being unable to resist because he is male (ugh) is evidence in and of itself. We are given that bit of information at the very start of the film because the writers are letting us know up front what kind of man Randle is.

Not two scenes later, we see he's got playing cards with naked women on them. That's basically pocket porn. And porn is all about sex trafficking, exploiting women, dehumanizing women, and rendering us to sex objects that exist for the pleasure of men. Randle's cards -- and the fact that he fondles them constantly -- show us exactly how he views women: as sex objects.

Predators who go after teenage girls and not adult women are doing it because teenage girls are vulnerable. Teenagers are inexperienced, naive, have underdeveloped bodies and brains, and so they make easy prey.

It is never an accident when a man winds up sleeping with a woman half his age. The scumbag made this decision because he wants a woman he can control.

Randle hates Nurse Ratched because he can't control her. He can't boss her around. He can't manipulate her. He can't tell her what to do. He can't wink at her and sexually seduce her.

Nurse Ratched is calm, polite, and completely in control. This is her ward, her domain. And from the second Randle arrives, trying to take control of her ward, she assertively lets him know this.

Assertive women are always interpreted as aggressive. It's because women are socialized to be submissive, passive, and appease men. We are socialized to smile and nod and give them what they want. If they catcall us? Most of us smile it off and keep walking. We are not taught to assert ourselves.

Nurse Ratched, however, is in a position that allows her to assert herself. She has male security at her beck and call. The patients respect her. The other nurses respect her. She is completely in control and doesn't have to bow to the whims of Randle, who -- as a male -- is so used to being in a position of power over women, is so used to manipulating women and getting his way.

He can not manipulate Nurse Ratched, and that's why he hates her.

Randle keeps crying about listening to the World Series on the radio because he's a self-centered asshole. He doesn't care that he raped a teenage girl and should be punished for it, let alone not allowed to listen to the radio. He thinks he deserves to sit around the ward in comfort and leisure. He's spent all his life getting away with doing terrible things, and his sense of entitlement hangs around him like a foul cloud. He believes he has every right to listen to the World Series, and to hell with the other patients who might not want to listen to it.

Nurse Ratched could have straight-up just said no, but her female socialization showed when she instead tried to reason with a bully. Instead of putting her foot down immediately, she allowed for the patients to take a vote. Randle was outvoted and didn't get to listen to the World Series because the other patients didn't vote for it.

Randle sullenly blames Nurse Ratched for having the patients live in fear of her. If she were a male, their respect for her authority would not be interpreted as "fear." But because she is a woman, she is viewed as someone who has no right to power, someone who has no right to respect or authority and is an evil, wicked witch for exercising it.

Eventually, Randle's whining influences the other patients and they start turning on Nurse Ratched. Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) is the first one.

During a group therapy session, Nurse Ratched tries to coax Billy (Brad Dourif) into talking about his problems. That's the whole point of group therapy sessions. Maybe if Billy had ever talked about what was bothering him, he could have worked through it.

Instead, Cheswick interrupts to chide Nurse Ratched for doing her f****** job, then brazenly inquires about the World Series. Nurse Ratched glares momentarily at Randle, knowing that she is losing control of the ward because of his selfish and childish behavior.

When Randle loses yet another vote to watch the World Series on the lobby television, he throws a violent tantrum that leaves him red in the face.

This -- plus the mention of Billy's first suicide attempt -- is a bit of foreshadowing.

In defiance, Randle decides to imagine the World Series is playing on the television anyway and gets the other patients riled up to the point that they are leaping and throwing furniture.

Nurse Ratched wearily watches from the nurses' station, knowing she is losing control of the ward.

The foreshadowing continues in the very next scene.

Randle has a private session with three doctors who call him out, telling him they don't see any signs of mental illness in him. He is clearly faking to avoid jail time.

Randle would rather talk about his obsession with one-upping Nurse Ratched. He can't seem to accept her authority because she's a woman. If she asserts her authority, then she's a c-word.

Yes. I will not be repeating that word here.

The doctors insist that Nurse Ratched is one of the finest nurses they have, but Randle insists that she's awful. She is only awful, however, because she is a woman in authority who refuses to bend to his will.

When the doctors ask Randle how Nurse Ratched makes him feel, he says that he wants to kill and then laughs maniacally.

Yes, Randle is clearly the bad guy here. The fact that Nurse Ratched has been deemed the "villain" of the movie for so many years speaks to the pervasive misogyny of our culture.

When the patients are heading out on a trip, Randle hijacks the bus, taking them with him to pick up Candy (Marya Small), yet another woman who appears to be half his age. Randle is thirty-eight, while Candy looks like she's nineteen. On top of that, she's a street worker. She is a woman who sells her body as a result of the patriarchal society that put her in that situation, and Randle appears to be one of her biggest customers. It sickens me.

Randle then takes the patients on a fishing trip, and the scene that follows shows how emotionally immature Billy is. He is very childlike in the way he approaches Candy.

It's heavily implied that his mother doesn't want him being with women and he is terrified she will discover he has spoken to one. This hints at a codependent relationship, and in that light, it would make perfect sense why Billy hides out at the hospital: to be away from his mother.

The group is eventually caught, and after the fiasco, the doctors sit around and decide that Randle is not crazy. He's dangerous but not crazy.

Nurse Ratched -- unaware that he hates her and has called her a c-word -- states with sincerity that she wants to keep Randle on the ward and try to help him. She could have had him sent back to prison with one word but instead insisted on trying to help him.

I honestly don't believe she was faking or that she had ulterior motives.

Keeping Randle on the ward soon proves to be a mistake, as the next few scenes show how his influence has poisoned the other patients.

The patients feel freer and more confident while playing basketball and having fun, and even Bromden joins in and comes out of his shell. This is good. But, like small children, their newfound confidence is directed aggressively at Nurse Ratched, as if she were an evil substitute teacher.

During a group therapy session, Randle complains that he is essentially trapped in the institution for as long as the doctors please. In other words, he is committed and is not free to leave until sanctioned. He blames everyone else for his problems, stating that he wouldn't have given Nurse Ratched a hard time had he known he could be kept at the institution indefinitely.

Yeah. Treating other people with kindness and respect should be based on whether or not you can get away with treating them badly.

Randle is clearly laboring under the delusion that Nurse Ratched hates him and wants to keep him around to punish him. In reality, she just wants to help his sorry ass. He's the one who insists on making her an enemy.

Nurse Ratched loses control of the session when the patients start flexing their newly discovered muscles. Like small children disrupting a classroom, they mock and tease Harding (William Redfield), while picking apart everything Nurse Ratched says.

Cheswick throws a tantrum about cigarettes and has to be told like a child to sit back down. He blames Nurse Ratched that he doesn't have access to his cigarettes, when she actually locked them away to keep Randle from stealing them.

Randle has been running his own gambling operation in the tub room of the ward. He takes advantage of the patients' ineptitude, beating them at cards so that he can take all their cigarettes and money. This has resulted in Nurse Ratched trying to protect the patients and getting attacked by them instead.

Most of the patients are on the emotional level of children, so they don't understand what Nurse Ratched tried to do for them and see her as an evil oppressor of some sort. Thanks in no small part to Randle.

Cheswick won't stop screaming about his cigarettes, so Randle goes over to the nurses' station and breaks the window with his fist. This is symbolic, as the nurses' station window has been a source of irritation for him since he first arrived at the ward. The nurses' station represents a place he is not allowed to set foot. It is a "safe space" where the nurses feel in control, a vantage point from which they issue their power over the patients -- namely medicine.

In breaking the nurses' station window and stealing the cigarettes, Randle is attempting to assert power over Nurse Ratched and the other women who run the ward. It is apparent in the way he deliberately disregards Ratched's rules to do this.

The orderlies then move in to subdue Randle, who gets in a fistfight with them, while Cheswisk keeps screaming and Taber (Christopher Lloyd) is carried away with his foot on fire.

By the end of the scene, it is clear that Nurse Ratched has finally lost control of her once orderly and peaceful ward.

Randle, Bromden, and Cheswick are given electroshock therapy for their outbursts. Bromden actually jumped in to protect Randle and got himself mixed up in the fight, while Cheswick violently resisted being taken away.

It's pretty heartbreaking when Cheswick starts to cry and resists being taken into the room. Electroshock therapy really hurts from what I've read.

While Randle and Bromden are waiting for their turn, Bromden reveals that he can both hear and speak, he just pretends to be deaf and mute so he doesn't have to interact with people. Randle is delighted by this, and then it's his turn.

The movie clearly wants us to pity Randle, but I'm not entirely sure why the hell we should. Randle is a rapist who sees women as sex objects and c-words. He's a criminal. An electric shock is the least he deserves.

One night, Randle calls over Candy and her friend, Rose (Louisa Moritz), intent on busting out and escaping to Canada. The visit becomes a party, and the patients start dancing and drinking, to the dismay of Orderly Turke (Scatman Crothers).

Billy becomes fixated on Candy and asks if Randle is going to marry her. Randle pressures Billy into sleeping with Candy, even though he states clearly that he isn't ready.

Randle here exhibits the behavior of a typical predator. He has probably talked a lot of teenagers into thinking they were "ready" long before he encountered Billy -- namely female teenagers he could get into bed. He is well-practiced at this and succeeds in pressuring Billy into a one night stand.

In the morning when Nurse Ratched arrives, she chides Billy for sleeping with a drunk street woman. Why was it wrong that she criticized him? He should be chided. "Sex work" is paid assault and is one of many ways women are exploited.

The night before, Candy was asked by Randle to sleep with Billy. She had to be asked because she really wasn't into him and really didn't want to. She just thought he was kinda cute and pitied him.

Billy's first time was wasted on pity sex from a street woman who wasn't really into him. It's sad.

What's more, Billy admits that he felt pressured. He even names Randle as the one who pressured him, revealing that he didn't really feel ready and didn't really want to do it.

It isn't so much that Billy is "bullied" by Nurse Ratched into throwing blame. It's the fact that she always forces him to face reality, while Randle encourages him to indulge in fantasies. By sleeping with Candy, Billy indulged in the fantasy of consensual sex, instead of waiting for the right girl and the right time, as he wanted to do originally.

All the men in the room whose faces fell when Nurse Ratched chided Billy remind me of men (and some brainwashed women) who staunchly defend sex work and porn, claim it is "real work" no different than a regular nine to five job, and yet wouldn't be caught dead in the profession. Why? Because letting people rape you for money isn't work. It's just rape.

If you have to be paid because you don't want to have sex with someone, then there is no consent. And sex without consent is rape.

As Billy is dragged away screaming, Randle watches in shock, perhaps realizing for the first time that Billy has real mental health issues. It's unlikely he realizes he shouldn't have pushed Billy into having sex, though.

Nurse Ratched looks pointedly at Randle, as if to silently reiterate that Billy was in no mental capacity to be having sex.

And of course, once Billy commits suicide, Nurse Ratched is somehow to blame for Randle pressuring a mentally ill boy into banging a street woman, so she gets choked.

How the f*** was any of this her fault? Did she bring the women onto the ward? Did she pour the booze down Billy's throat? Did she peer pressure Billy into sleeping with Candy when he wasn't ready? Did she force him to commit suicide because he couldn't face his mother knowing what he did?

Randle McMurphy was the one who tipped the dominoes with each and every one of his choices. He wasn't fully responsible for Billy's own actions, but he was partially responsible. Especially considering the fact that Billy was so young.

People's brains don't even fully develop until age twenty-five. This fact is often used to prey upon the youth and their stupidity: you can join the service at sixteen and legally get drunk at twenty-one, before your brain has developed, before you have the discernment to make proper decisions.

Statutory rape is a thing because teenagers do not have the critical thinking skills to make adult decisions, and having sex is an adult decision. This is something Randle McMurphy can't seem to grasp, and it's also part of the reason why Billy is dead.

After viciously attacking Nurse Ratched, Randle is given a lobotomy, and who cares? He was a misogynistic rapist. A lobotomy was the perfect punishment for him. He was a wild, chaotic person who thrived on having control of everything, and now that he's a zombie, he is forced to fall into the order of things, while relinquishing complete control to his caregivers.

Nurse Ratched, meanwhile, has regained control of the ward and everything is at peace again.

"Chief" Bromden is the only one too disturbed by Randle's influence to settle back into the way of things. He smothers Randle with a pillow in pity before escaping out the window. And it makes perfect sense.

Bromden is really the only one who doesn't belong in the cuckoo's nest.


After someone (rather impolitely) disagreed with the premise of this article, I went and read the cliff notes for the book this film is based on. It would seem that Nurse Ratched was evil in the book, which -- again -- I never read. In the film, however, I don't perceive her as enjoying anything she's doing to Randle or the patients, so my article and the opinion I expressed in it -- an opinion I'm entitled to -- still stands.

Also, Randle is unarguably a scumbag both in the book and the film.

I may have projected some of my own viewpoints into my interpretation of the film. That is how people perceive the world -- through their own heartache and personal experiences. People interpret the things they do based on their own hurt. I have suffered my own hurt -- I am a survivor of male violence -- and it is the filter through which I viewed this film.

That being said, I can imagine why my article and my interpretation of the film would be triggering to people who were abused by women like Nurse Ratched. Like me, you are hurting from something in your past and this film (and my interpretation of it) triggers you. That does not give you the right, however, to take out your hurt and anger on me.

Those who can't disagree with an article without hurling vicious and condescending attacks at the author will have their comments deleted.

"Be kind always. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

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    © 2018 Ash


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