As a true Grey's Anatomy fan, I felt it was necessary to prepare myself for last night's episode, which promised the return of Meredith's (Ellen Pompeo) first patient, Katie Bryce, by watching the show's pilot when Bryce first appears. Sitting down to watch the very first episode of Grey's — after I recovered from the initial shock of seeing everyone age backward one decade (seriously, all the interns look way too young to be doing anything more serious than playing Hasbro's Operation) — what became very clear is that, from its first episode, Grey's has been a show about very powerful, intelligent women who aren't going to cower or apologize, even as they work among some of the most egotistical guys on the planet.
This has been a feminist show from day one, even though we were too young to realize it back in 2005.
From the first episode, show creator and living legend Shonda Rhimes set up a cast of vastly different, strong female characters, while somehow avoiding the questionable "strong female character" archetype, as embodied by Katniss Everdeen and other women who literally kick ass to prove their strength. Izzy (Katherine Heigl), a model, is mocked by Christina (Sandra Oh) for her profession, and Izzy's kindness is initially shown as a sign of weakness. But setting up the idea that because she's beautiful she can't also be smart makes it even more powerful when she proves them wrong.
Another example of the show subverting stereotypes of female friendships (at least as they're often portrayed on TV) is when Christina and Meredith have a blow-up in the earliest hours of their acquaintance. But rather than hold a grudge or hug and cry it out, they calmly call a truce, forgive each other, and get back to their personal and professional relationship with minimal drama. They get angry, they fight, but they don't want to continue to be petty with each other — they have work to do.
Still, the feminist heart of the show is and always will be Meredith Grey. By season 12, she's been a little hardened by life (or, specifically, by the kind of life a lead character on a Rhimes drama must have), and through age, experience, and talent, she's now in a position of power. She's chief of general surgery, co-owner of the hospital, and answers to almost no one (with the exception, after all these years, of Bailey, played by Chandra Wilson). But even as an intern, who by design gets pushed around professionally by her superiors, she's always been able to stick up for herself. She lets her fellow intern Alex (Justin Chambers) know that it's not okay to demean her, and goes on to show that she's a far more competent medical professional than he expected. She lets McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) know that she isn't interested in sleeping her way to the top, and that she wants to put her career above any potential tryst. She experiences moments of panic and indecision as a brand-new doctor, but is always ready to jump back in.
In season 12, women are running the show at Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital. The chiefs of surgery, orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, cardiothoracic surgery, and pediatric surgery are all women, and honestly, it sometimes seems that, these days, the male doctors spend more time bickering than saving lives. But Meredith didn't grow into a strong feminist character — she's been one all along.