As a young woman, I remember rushing into the living room to watch reruns of Seinfeld on TV after family dinner. Seinfeld was, and still is, a widely popular sitcom that first aired in 1989 and ran for nine seasons until 1998. With its knack of turning the minutiae of everyday life dilemmas into philosophical conundrums, and its roots in stand-up comedy, Seinfeld ensures its position as a popular cultural icon of the 1990s (Skovmand 97). Generally mischaracterized as being a show about nothing, “…we’ve learned from some of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century, being about ‘nothing’ can, indeed, be at the heart of everything” (Auster 189). As such, the show shines when contemporary events and concerns peak through in moments between the main cast (Auster 190). Since Hulu licensed the rights to all nine seasons of Seinfeld in 2015, there has been a resurgence of interest in the show, not only from longtime fans but the next generation. With viewing platforms shifting from network television to online streaming, millennials are able to access and process media quicker than ever. In light of the revival of loyal viewings, I feel it is appropriate to revisit and asses the success of the character of Elaine Benes through a third-wave feminist lens.
Seinfeld is the impetus that brought Elaine Benes to life as a feminist model among the observational humor found in the rituals of urban life. The character of Elaine Benes, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, captured my attention as I was growing up. As a feminist woman, I was predisposed to identify with Elaine. I understand the term “feminism” to mean: an inclusive advocacy for gender equality, affirming overlapping identities — including race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation — and how these features impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination. Feminism means checking and acknowledging my own white privilege. It’s the right to exist as an individual with an equal say and the ability to make choices that affect my life and the way I present myself to the world. The character of Elaine shaped my understanding of what it means to be a woman, and I firmly believe that we should all be feminists. Elaine was a lead character way ahead of her time, as she is depicted as an equal among an all-male cast on the situation comedy Seinfeld. She is a modern woman whose arc over nine seasons presents a version of complex feminism. As the lone female protagonist on Seinfeld, Elaine is set up to garner attention, which supplements the fact that she is such a strong and positive representation. The Elaine Benes character continues to influence my understanding of being a feminist as she: celebrates her sexual agency, holds her own among her male costars, and navigates her world as a feminist.
As a champion of sex-positivity, Elaine is a woman on television who celebrates female sexuality. She is commonly applauded as one of the first women on television to be this open with her sexuality. She has plenty of sex – enough to rival that of the men on the show –and she is upfront about discussing her dates and sexual encounters with her friends. Remarkably, she is not labelled a slut or shamed for her actions within the framework of the show. Her sex-positive outlook works to destigmatize the taboo surrounding conversations on female sexuality – on television and in real life. Seinfeld’s Elaine is open to discussing her sexuality as is evident in episodes such as “The Contest” and “The Sponge.” In “The Contest,” Elaine, George, Jerry, and Kramer enter into a contest to determine who can go for the longest period of time without masturbating. The plotline acknowledges female sexual pleasure and the fact that women have sexual appetites, too, as Elaine insists that she should be included in the competition among the group of friends. She tells them that masturbation in not simply part of the “male lifestyle” but is something quite common among men and women. Her character presents a positive image of women to viewers that increases awareness with regard to both male and female pleasure – the latter of which is hardly talked about on television.
Additionally, in “The Sponge,” Elaine’s preferred method of contraception has been discontinued and she ventures on a 25-block search to stockpile her own supply. After locating and purchasing an entire case, she then realizes that her usage needs to be restricted (i.e. she must limit the amount of sex she has). This results in Elaine deciding whether or not her boyfriend is “sponge-worthy,” eventually dumping him at the end of the episode in favor of conserving her sponges. She routinely prioritizes her own happiness – and pleasure – above that of any male counterpart. Elaine continually proves that not only do women have sexual needs, but they can exercise and express them as they themselves see fit and without shame. This is representative of a feminist mindset wherein men and women are equals, and the pleasure of either party should be respected, acknowledged, and pursued within the confines of consensual sexual relations.
In the episode “The Mango,” Jerry is disappointed to learn that during his brief relationship with Elaine, all of Elaine’s orgasms were just an artifice. Jerry wants to have a second chance at pleasing Elaine, who unapologetically grants him this opportunity. In a clear sign of progression, a woman can criticize a man’s inability to satiate her desires when not restricted to a long-term relationship. Similarly, in the episode “The Rye,” Elaine dumps a musician who would rather save his oral adroitness for his instrument than his woman. This attitude plays into Elaine’s character as a whole on the show every time she unabashedly speaks her mind.
Elaine is just as crass, narcissistic, and insensitive as the male cast members. Her character goes beyond being an added dose of estrogen; Elaine transcends gender norms and is seen as an equal. She is Jerry Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend – creating a tension-filled relationship between Jerry and Elaine that draws the viewer in – but she is not an object of affection for the men of the show. Instead, Elaine is presented as a buddy and is clearly not interested in romance with any of the men in her friend group. The result is an unapologetic, single, professional woman living in New York City who embraces her sex drive and independence.
Elaine created a space for funny women in television because she is a flawed, loud-mouthed, crass, and witty character. Throughout the run of Seinfeld, Elaine coins her own phrases, is commonly more successful than her male counterparts in the workforce (if not within a stable job, she is proactive at exhausting her options), and she is driven to fulfill her own passions. With that being said, Elaine is still flawed in a way that resonates as more human than most TV characters. She is not what people may refer to as a “textbook feminist” nor does she have many close friendships outside that of the core group anchoring the show. In fact, as Kramer tells her in “The Pool Guy”: “You’re a man’s woman – You hate other women and they hate you.” Moments such as this are commonly misjudged, however, to portray Elaine as merely “one of the boys” or perhaps anti-feminist; instead, these moments highlight just how real and feminist her character truly is. For instance, Louis-Dreyfus’s own qualities strengthen Elaine’s, as the actor’s wit is just as biting as her male co-stars (Armstrong). She errs on the side of brashness for the sake of having the last word whenever men give her grief over a given subject she disagrees with them on – sometimes, she even leaves the room and thus ends the conversation. Comments such as Kramer’s in “The Pool Guy” do her more service than harm because Elaine is a woman who doesn’t put up with anything she need not, which is entirely self-empowering and feminist.
While she may not be the most supportive of her female friends, it is realistic that a woman may find herself feeling competitive with others, especially when it comes to defending her own lifestyle choices. In Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing, Sarah Worth declares that Elaine Benes’s apparent feminism is not quite so feminist after all. She argues that Elaine is “one of the boys” by Carol Gilligan’s standards. Gilligan’s ethics of care promotes the division of male and female schools of the idea – that men and women have different ethical standards – where women abide by the ethics of care, which argues that they are innately wired to have more caring and attentive qualities than men centralizing around the fact that women are meant to be mothers (Worth 41). By the standards advanced by Gilligan and Worth, if a woman does not abide by these ethics of care, it is impossible for her to be a “good woman” – it is impossible for her to be a feminist. This is a limited analysis as Worth’s exploration of the ethics of care with regard to Elaine follows archaic notions of what it means to be feminist. Worth judges Elaine not by the content of her character but by her adherence to Gilligan’s ethics of care. This reading of the Elaine character is problematic because the Gilligan code for feminism suggests that women are required to be nurturers or fulfill traditional gender roles to some degree to qualify as “good women.” While some may perceive Elaine to have character flaws, this is what makes her a believable feminist. Elaine continually emerges as a three-dimensional character and does not take the backseat to her fellow co-stars.
Elaine’s character is feminist, which is not only seen through her overt ownership of her sexuality or how she holds her own among an all-male cast but also by how she navigates her environment. Elaine is the most successful of her male counterparts in the workforce, and she is the only character on the show who maintains fairly stable, high-level employment. She is a successful, driven, and brassy woman. Elaine’s influence on the modern generation is palpable because she created space for more complex women to come on television in later decades. Elaine does not simply exist in the background of Seinfeld to add estrogen to the cast – she is a forerunner in entertainment and comedy. What makes Elaine’s character a feminist role model is that she is a three-dimensional, true-to-life woman.
As seen from episode to episode, Elaine battles with some very commonplace issues regarding her work, social life, love interests and daily mishaps. Viewers follow her as she tackles what life throws her way head on and with dry sarcasm. While she may be flawed and imperfect, Elaine does not shy away from standing her ground, stating her opinion, and going after what she wants, which is a the mark of a feminist character. We catch a closer glimpse of her disposition in “The Soul Mate” when Elaine is conversing with a group of old female friends who have all settled down and had children, and Elaine simply tells them that she has no idea “what the big deal is” about having children. In the context of Elaine, it is important to note the very difference between a selfish man and a selfish woman. A selfish man is to be expected, while a selfish woman is a radical departure from everything women were traditionally taught to be: caregivers, nurturers, mothers, and doting wives. Elaine expresses her wants in life and doesn’t let society dictate or mandate what is right for her own life. Elaine is an opinionated, unstoppable feminist force, and her imperfections are what make her relatable and influential as a feminist model.
To say that Elaine Benes is “one of the boys” is a degradation of nine seasons of character development. The misconception that Elaine is in any way anti-woman, due to her seemingly lacking maintenance of friendships with other women, is not only anti-feminist, but it is an incorrect observation. Seeing Elaine as two-dimensional, marriage-seeking, boyfriend-having, and potential child-bearer, is archaic, and to function under a definition of what a woman and a feminist “should be” is to reduce women to an unfair, two-dimensional archetype (Armstrong).
Elaine is a totally independent character; for the duration of the series, she neither got married nor had children. Her character was interesting and relatable without falling back on either of these tropes. This representation of a self-reliant and individual woman taught me from a young age that getting married and having kids is not a requirement of being a woman. Her selfish nature taught me how to appreciate my individuality and to not be afraid to go after what I wanted in life – whether it be a job, a pastry, or sexual satisfaction. Holding the men in her romantic life to exacting standards and dumping them when they fall short is boldly confident and subverts the idea that a woman needs a man – or significant other – in her life to achieve happiness. She knows her own strength and her worth; truly, Elaine’s characteristics while imperfect, are something to respect. I admire her ability to be an unwavering, casual, and inclusive feminist, all of which makes Elaine Benes an iconic, feminist model because of her sex-positivity, unapologetic nature, and feminist mindset. Viewers then and now are hooked. Elaine has solidified her position as a feminist icon and continues to pave the way for many women to come.
Meghan Barber is a senior at Wake Forest University from Philadelphia. She is a Mathematical Statistics major and Philosophy and Religion double minor.
Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. “Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes, a Woman Among Nebbishy Men, Is a Feminist Heroine.” Dame Magazine. July 02, 2014. Web.
Auster, Albert. “Seinfeld: The Transcendence of the Quotidian.” The Sitcom Reader: America Re-viewed, Still Skewed. Ed. Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder. Second ed. Albany: State U of New York, 2016. 189-97.
Skovmand, Michael. “The Culture of Post-Narcisism…” Television and Criticism Ed. Solange Davin and Rhona Jackson. Intellect Books, The University of Chicago Press, 2008. 89-100.
Seinfeld. NBC. New York City, New York. July 5 1989. Television.
Worth, Sarah E. “Elaine Benes: Feminist Icon or Just One of The Boys?.” Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing. Ed. William Irwin. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2003. 40-56.