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Brought to life by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elaine was way ahead of her time

Get out!

An ode to ‘Seinfeld’’s Elaine Benes, queen of the modern TV feminists

By Brigit Katz on May 1, 2015

On Wednesday, Hulu announced that it had acquired the rights to stream Seinfeld, making it easier than ever to access the glorious annals of what is inarguably the best comedy to ever air on television (OK, maybe this point is subject to argument, but I will hear none of it).

When we talk about Seinfeld’s enduring appeal, we usually focus on its “isms”: the absurd social scenarios depicted on the show that were summed up with hilarious monikers. Shiksappeal. Close talkers. Anti-dentities. All of it was gold, Jerry, gold. But when it comes to the depiction of Elaine, Seinfeld seems to have been particularly prescient. Elaine cropped up on the small screen some 25 years ago, but she seems remarkably in tune with the new wave of female characters on TV today.

It is a wonderful time for women in television, and a particularly wonderful time for women in television comedies. In recent years, we have been gifted with shows like The Mindy Project, GirlsInside Amy Schumer, and Broad City, which all boast booming female leads who are unapologetic about their sexuality, unashamed of their bodily functions, and unafraid to be funny. The tip-toeing humor of New Girl’s Jess orThe Big Bang Theory’s Penny—ever cutesy, ever tame—has started to feel terribly stale.

Some critics have attributed the boon in meaty roles for female comedians to the post-Bridesmaids realization that women can actually be hilarious in the same ways that men are hilarious (Eureka!). But long before Broad City’s Abi was sticking Post-it notes on her vibrator so she remembers to use it, Elaine Benes was waging bets against four dudes in a masturbation contest. The segment was couched in euphemisms (“master of your domain,” “queen of the castle”), but the point was clear: Seinfeld and Co. were betting money on who could go the longest without getting their freak on solo. And after the guys’ initial reluctance to letting Elaine participate in the contest, she dives right into the thick of it.

“It’s easier for a woman not to do it than a man,” Jerry says. “We have to do it. It’s part of our lifestyle. It’s like shaving.”

“Oh, that is such baloney,” Elaine replies. “I shave my legs.”

Seinfeld was never particularly timid about depicting Elaine as having desires that could rival those of her male buddies. When Jerry dates a virgin, Elaine acts as a foil, telling a very emphatic story about her diaphragm (the birth control, not the skeletal muscle). In a 1995 episode, Elaine finds out that sponges—her favorite form of birth control and basically an artifact these days—are going off the market, so she stock-piles them. Sixty of them, in fact, an indication of just how much fun she plans to be having in the future.

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That nonchalance about female sexuality is something we now take for granted with our TV leads. The women of Girls are deliberately chill about the fact that they have sex and like it. Their hookups are often casual, their nakedness so frequent that it is almost neutralized. Prior to the most recent season of The Mindy Project, the titular Mindy was burning through love interests without much ceremony. And as Elaine Blair points out in The New RepublicBroad City “poses no big questions about female desire or sexual conduct.”

But in the world of 1990s comedy television, it was less common to see expressions of female desire that were not channeled into some sort of long-term relationship. While Elaine’s TV contemporaries—say, for example, Rachel from Friends—were getting bogged down in humdrum will-they/won’t-they romance narratives, Elaine was cycling through partners almost as often and usually as dispassionately as her BFF Jerry. She dated a ditzy hot guy (the “mimbo”), who faded out of the show after an accident ruined his face. She dumped David Putty, only to get back together with him when she needed someone to move her bureau. And when faced with the choice of buying candy or rushing to the hospital to visit an ailing boyfriend, Elaine chose the candy.

None of this is to say that Seinfeld’s creators were trying to make some sort of incisive statement about the life of the modern woman. Seinfeld wasn’t interested in probing examinations of femininity because it wasn’t interested in probing examinations of anything. It was, of course, a show about nothing, a show that delighted in petty deconstructions of the social niceties that most of us just accept. All of Seinfeld’s characters were shaped by this giddy irreverence, and so Elaine was forward about sex, flippant about men, and (for a time) queen of her castle.