Pop Pedestal: Gloria Akalitus

Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

Welcome back to Pop Pedestal, the series where we pay tribute to the pop culture figures we admire most. Up today: Gloria Akalitus of Nurse Jackie, All Saints' hospital administrator, head bitch in charge, and master of the steely staredown.

Akalitus sitting at a desk looking stern
Big attitude coming from someone wearing panda earrings.

The Pedestal Profile: In a series peopled with some seriously memorable female characters—besides the titular RN, played by Edie Falco, there's also Eve Best as the chic, unflappable Dr. Eleanor O'Hara, and Merritt Wever as the deadpan-with-a-bedpan nursing student Zoey—Gloria Akalitus stands out. Played by actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, "Akalitus," as Jackie and her team call the administrator, is a paragon of cut-the-crap authority. Wrangling a team that not only includes the ethically challenged, drug-addicted Jackie but also the preening, needy Dr. Fitch Cooper, as well as managing a hospital strapped for both funds and beds, you almost have to nod in commiseration when she says, "I like to hide my humanity. Or at least keep it to a minimum." (In this, she's the flip side of TV's other high-profile hosptial administrator, House's Lisa Cuddy, whose humanity is pretty much everywhere.)

And while Akalitus does her job by the book, for the most part, she's not above her own shenanigans when it comes to the business of keeping her hospital competitive: In one episode, she's determined to get the attention of a certain nutrition-focused First Lady by launching an all-out initiative against child obesity at All Saints, which becomes both more intense and more slapstick when she finds out that a rival hospital admistrator is doing the same thing. In another episode, she gets the news that All Saints' chapel has been deconsecrated and its statues of saints will languish in a Staten Island warehouse; outraged at losing the saints, she enlists her staff to steal them.

Admirable qualities: Akalitus would doubtless be the first to tell you that she doesn't suffer fools gladly. When Dr. Cooper (toothy Tom Cruise clone Peter Facinelli) comes to her office to complain that Jackie lacks respect for him, the camera cuts to Akalitus's notepad, where her notes consist only of the phrase "World's Biggest Asshole."

But, as befits a profession like hers, she demonstrates patience and fairness, whether it's with general hospital bureaucracy, with a nursing staff wherein someone is clearly abusing the Pill-O-Matix machine, or, again, with the ridiculous Dr. Cooper.

And while her bedside manner can't be described as warm, Akalitus's steely honesty is cut with a streak of sweetness—usually reserved for those who can't use it against her. (In one episode, she bonds adorably with a baby whose parents decide to use All Saints as a temporary safe haven while they hit Atlantic City for the weekend.)

It should also be said that Mrs. Akalitus has a remarkable talent for entertaining herself while stuck in an elevator.

Her influence: Of course there's a Tumblr dedicated to this woman—it's like her face was made with animated gifs in mind. Elsewhere, awesome characters collide in the Funny or Die spoof Nurse Jackee, which stars Jackee Harry as a cosmetics-addicted RN and Parks and Recreation's Retta as the hospital administrator.

That's not all: Art and life are never too far apart for Deavere Smith herself, who visited Yale Medical School more than a decade ago to gather interviews and research for a project about terminal illness and the limits of the American healthcare system. The result was "Let Me Down Easy," a one-woman show in which Deavere Smith portrays characters both famous (Lance Armstrong) and faceless (residents of New Orleans post-Katrina) in creating an indelible portrait of life (and death) by capitalism. When the show premiered, coincidentally as partisan healthcare-reform debates were heating up in 2009, Deveare Smith was invited by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to perform parts of it in Washington; PBS will be airing the show as part of its Great Performances series in the 2011-2012 season.

Think of her when: You have to step up and be the boss. Akalitus gets it done with no fuss and no tears—hers or anyone else's—and you can too.

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