The Inadvertent Feminism of Elaine Benes
Yes, many of us consider Elaine to be a feminist icon, but I don’t think that was the goal.
Elaine Benes is the main female character on Seinfeld, the show from the 90’s about nothing. I was a literal infant at the time Seinfeld premiered, and so I am not entirely sure how women felt about her character at the time, but currently she is considered by many (mostly white) women to be a feminist icon.
She’s daring, sex-positive, and loves herself fiercely in a world that tells her she shouldn’t. She also has a fantastic fashion sense and a wicked sense of humor. She is beloved by many of us, myself included.
However, I do not think that was a purposeful decision on the part of Larry David, the co-creator and head writer of Seinfeld. She’s not meant to be accurate feminist representation, nor do I think Larry even wrote her character to explicitly be a feminist. Elaine’s simply a woman and to Larry women care about things like saving the dolphins and reading to the elderly sometimes.
Even if Elaine were written to be vaguely feminist, I don’t think it would have been a true attempt at representation. Elaine’s stances on social justice issues are funny jokes to laugh at. It’s “see this silly woman doing silly woman things,” not “watch this woman rebel against the patriarchy in sarcastic and admirable ways.”
In actuality, I think Larry was trying to write Elaine’s character to be unlikable, and so he wrote her living how he assumed unlikable women live. The show is about unlikable, selfish people, so this actually makes more sense. Why would the men be written to be disliked, but the woman to be beloved?
So Larry tried to make her unlikable. In Larry’s mind the unlikable woman is promiscuous, loud, vain, angry, bleeding-hearted, assertive, picky, confident, and perpetually unmarried without children. And that’s why she has a lot of sex, stands up to men, and is confident about herself. Not because of feminism.
You can tell she’s not purposeful feminist representation by the way her feminism is written when there is an actual social issue in the episode. For instance, take the one where Elaine is outraged that Monk’s cafe is discriminating against women with small breasts. Gender discrimination is an easy, stereotypical social issue to get behind, I can see why Larry chose it. Why is Elaine outraged though? Not because women are being pitted against each other or because some women were purposely being left out of the workforce, but because “big breasted women already get all the men, why should they get all the waitress jobs too??”
There’s nothing feminist about that argument. It doesn’t even make sense. And though big boobies are funny, I don’t think that’s even the punchline that Larry wrote there. I think the punchline is that Elaine is an insufferable woman who gets all worked up over silly ethical issues. Hijinks ensue.
I remember once reading that the writers only included Elaine’s character in the show after being forced to by NBC. Which makes me think the Seinfeld storyline where Jerry and George don’t know how to write women characters is a true statement about the actual show. Larry David has no idea how to write female characters and so he just goes with sexist assumptions and stereotypes. He’s not a feminist and he didn’t write Elaine to be a feminist either.
“Ashley, how could you say such things about LD?”
Well, if you look at his history, it seems pretty obvious to me that he isn’t a feminist, or if he claims to be he doesn’t understand what that means. For instance, Google “Friends writers lawsuit” and you’ll read about how in 2002 he helped Hollywood gang up on a Black woman writer named Amaani Lyle. Lyle sued Warner Brothers for racial and sexual harassment and discrimination, and for being fired as retaliation for pressing the issue of diversity on Friends. When she did all hell broke loose.
To those in the television business, Lyle’s case was not merely frivolous, but it was an outrage. It was a threat to the entire industry, and to all Americans. Warner Bros. fought Lyle’s appeal, and soon the case was put before the California Supreme Court. Then, Hollywood rose up en masse to support the writers and denounce Lyle. The WGA filed an amicus brief on the defense’s behalf, signed by a laundry list of industry leaders, including: Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, Larry David, Laura Kightlinger, Joel Cohen, Bill Odenkirk, and many more. — Kelsey Miller, Bustle
“But that was 20 years ago! You can’t still hold that against him.”
Sure, people change, but then also consider that just this last April, Larry came out in support of Woody Allen and his new book. And he didn’t just show support for Woody, he decided to victim blame as well.
Yeah, it’s pretty great, it’s a fantastic book, so funny… You feel like you’re in the room with him… and it’s hard to walk away after reading that book thinking that this guy did anything wrong.
So no, I do not think purposeful feminism has anything to do with Elaine’s character. I don’t think Larry would know how to write a character like that even if he wanted to.
But just because he didn’t attempt to turn her into actual feminist representation doesn’t mean he didn’t succeed. Yes, her character could probably be described as White Feminist (she seems to only care about a social issue for an episode at most), but ultimately I do consider her to be feminist representation.
Even if it’s problematic we can still enjoy the moments where she shines as an empowered woman unbothered by all of the awful men around her.
She is very confident in herself.
- In the episode where George gets caught looking at an underage Denise Richard’s cleavage, Elaine insists on being the one to seduce Russell, the girl’s father, in order to convince him to allow them back into his graces.
- In the episode where the body odor infects the car and makes Elaine and Jerry stink, she gets rejected from a man and asks Jerry, “Am I not as attractive as I think I am?”
- The episode where she does the sexy voice on Jerry’s tape recorder. That’s it, no further explanation needed. She’s just sexy as hell in this episode and knows it.
She knows she is smart and doesn’t pretend not to be.
- In the episode where George needs to take an IQ test, he asks her to do it because she’s the smartest person he knows (not that an IQ test is a reliable indicator of intelligence, but let’s pretend it is).
She has incredible boundaries. No man tells Elaine what to do.
- In the episode where NYC has the Puerto Rican Day Parade, she demands that she be home in time for her Sunday night routine. She “needs to unwind” and doesn’t let anyone stop her. (Side note, this episode has many offensive scenes and makes gross statements about Puerto Ricans. In 1998 NBC apologized for the offensive nature of the episode.)
- In the episode where she goes with George to a baseball game and wears the Orioles cap to the opposing team’s side, she refuses to be bullied and doesn’t let the men violate her without very loud protest. “Get your hands off of me!”
- In the highly offensively titled episode where Yev Kassem screams at her for ordering his soup the wrong way, she gets her power back by stealing his recipes and letting him know that he messed with the wrong woman. “Next!”
She is vocal about her needs.
- In the episode where she and Jerry have a deal where they are friends with benefits, she realizes it’s not working for her and tells him she needs “this, that, and the other” instead.
- In the episode where she has to visit her verbally abusive father, she asks Jerry and George to go with her for support.
- In a cold open Jerry asks her if she wants to go to the cafe and talk. She replies, “I’ll go if I don’t have to talk.”
She holds the men she dates to extremely high standards.
- In the episode where she dates Keith Hernandez, she breaks up with him when she finds out he smokes.
- In one episode she breaks up with a guy because he didn’t include an exclamation mark when he took down a message from her friend who had a baby.
- In the episode where she dates the guy going bald in two years, she tells George how important it is to a woman for a man to have hair. “Sorry George, but it’s true.”
- In the episode where she dates the saxophone player, she eventually breaks up with him because he’s bad at oral sex and loses his self-esteem.
- In one episode she tells Jerry how she once broke up with a guy because his bathroom wasn’t clean enough.
- In the episode where her brand of birth control, the Sponge, goes off the market, before she’ll sleep with a new lover she makes them answer a questionnaire to determine if they’re “Sponge-worthy.”
She doesn’t compete with other women and has, or tries to have, female friends throughout the show.
- At the beginning of the show Elaine is friends with the actress who throws chocolate sauce on George, and she hosts a baby shower for her.
- She tries to become friends with Susan, George’s fiancee, in order to do things like go to museums and art shows, but Susan rejects her.
- She’s friends with the physical therapist Wendy and goes skiing with her, but then Wendy makes her walk home and she injures herself carrying skis.
- Elaine tries to make friends with Jerry’s girlfriend, the Virgin, but it backfires when she finds out about their masturbation contest.
- She’s friends with the woman out in the suburbs who keeps having babies and inviting her and Jerry to come visit. “You gotta see the bay-bee!”
She is assertive and brave.
- In the episode where Tim Watley re-gifts the Label Baby Junior she gave him, she asks him out to confront him about it.
- In the episode with the opera clown, when Joe Davola attacks her she sprays him in the face with Cherry Binaca and gets away.
- In the episode where they can’t find the car in the parking ramp, she yells at two men for ignoring her, “That’s right go, go home to your dumbbells. Work on your pecs. I’m really impressed!”
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jerry, George, and Kramer. I grew up on Seinfeld and as one of my comfort shows I’ve probably watched each episode dozens of times. I know it so well that I can quote large chunks of it from memory.
But my enjoyment of the show doesn’t make me oblivious to its deficiencies. My analysis of a beloved character, and critique of the men who wrote her, is a labor of love here.
Because even if she was inadvertently written as feminist, the bold way that she pushes through the world of men is exactly how I strive to be. In my eyes, the shear existence of those movements are enough to make Elaine Benes a feminist icon. The honorific is definitely deserved.