Grey’s Anatomy’s bad-ass doctor, Alex Karev, makes for an interesting case study of masculinity. Alex represents a stereotypical man-as-rebel model of masculinity, but with some “feminine” touches, especially in the more recent seasons of the show. He’s tough in many ways. He’s athletic and physically well-built. He’s known to be rough around the edges, and this comes up in his often-misogynist treatment of women, and also in his notoriously poor bedside manner with his patients. Alex is constantly getting into trouble at work for talking back to his bosses, and is often assumed to have a poor attitude. He is also known to get into fist fights. In these ways, he brings to mind the fierce, uncontrollable, “man-gone-wild.”
It comes as a surprise when Alex develops a passion for pediatrics. At the start of the series, Alex is interested in going into plastics (following in the footsteps of the womanizing “Dr. McSteamy”). His interest in specializing in plastic surgery is meant to make us think of him as shallow – such surgeries have fewer connotations of nurturing associated with them than pediatric surgeries, as plastics are more about mastery of appearances than about, say, saving the innocent. In the earlier seasons he belittles other specialties he sees as girly, such as neonatal surgery. At least once he complains about being put on “babysitting” duty when he is put in charge of taking care of a young patient for the day. When he is first placed on a pediatric surgeon’s service, he fulfills his duty only reluctantly. However, he ends up falling in love with pediatrics, to the point where his co-resident, Meredith Grey, goes to him for advice on a child patient of hers in Episode 7-9 “Slow Night, So Long.”
Alex doesn’t go from Mr. Plastics to Mr. Peds without losing his existing rugged masculine traits though. Instead, his masculinity informs his nurturing side, and vice versa. Take Episode 6-8: “Invest in Love.” In this episode, a premature baby with a declining heart rate is estimated to have about an hour to live. The infant’s heart rate goes up when Alex holds her to his chest, and her odds of recovery shoot up even more when he takes off his shirt to provide more body heat. The television audience is meant to be moved by the sight of Alex cradling the baby to his muscular bare chest. His pose looks feminine – breastfeeding comes to mind as we see him hold the baby to him. His dedication to the child is feminine by social standards. It’s obviously meant to be a defining moment for Karev’s character, as we see his “soft” side. His humanity shines alongside his tough exterior though, and not through it. His bare chest of muscle and his fierce determination to save the patient retain our notion of him as the sexy “bad boy,” even as he adopts the feminized role of nurturer. This “femininity” in turn informs his masculinity, as it only serves to increase his masculine sex appeal, as we are meant to be endeared and attracted by his actions.
In Episode 7-9: “Slow Night, So Long,” Karev’s rebellious side co-exists with his nurturing side. He operates on a child in pain without permission from his superior, Dr. Stark, who has dismissed the child’s extreme stomach pains as a non-surgical issue. By performing the surgery, he shows his masculine defiance of authority, while also showing compassion for the suffering child. His rebellion against Dr. Stark progresses in Episode 7-11: “Disarm.” In “Disarm” Alex and Dr. Stark have conflicting opinions on the best way to proceed on a fifteen year-old patient with a blood clot in their leg – Dr. Stark wants to amputate the leg, while Alex knows the leg can be saved. Alex ends up literally body-blocking Stark until pediatric surgeon Arizona Robbins can scrub in to save the leg. So Alex uses a very “masculine” aggressive technique to accomplish a very compassionate goal.
The character of Alex Karev, then, is an example of how gender dichotomies like “rebel v.s. nurturer” and “masculine v.s. feminine” can be played with in ways that are not so black and white.