Introduced in the second episode of the series as Jerry’s ex-girlfriend-turned-friend and played with deft comedic timing by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elaine was exactly what the show (quickly and mercifully) realized it needed. Ever see the pilot with no Elaine? It’s, um, not good.
In Louis-Dreyfus’ hands, however, Elaine was never hemmed in as the Token Female or the stock Brunette With Glasses (TV’s lazy shorthand for ‘smart’; see also: the brown M&M). Sure, Elaine was a girl who could hang — but she wasn’t The Cool Girl as defined in this essay by Anne Helen Peterson:
The Cool Girl has many variations: She can have tattoos, she can be into comics, she might be really into climbing or pickling vegetables. She’s always down to party, or do something spontaneous like drive all night to go to a secret concert. Her body, skin, face, and hair all look effortless and natural — the Cool Girl doesn’t even know what an elliptical machine would look like — and wears a uniform of jeans and tank tops, because trying hard isn’t Cool. The Cool Girl has a super-sexy ponytail. The Cool Girl never nags, or “just wants one” of your chili fries, because she orders a giant order for herself. She’s an ideal that matches the times — a mix of feminism and passivity, of confidence and femininity. She knows what she wants, and what she wants is to hang out with the guys.
Elaine Benes wasn’t merely One Of The Guys — she just happened to embody qualities our culture too often blue-labels as ‘masculine.’
Elaine Benes was the quintessential ’90s New York woman. She was smart, assertive, wickedly funny, sardonic, empowered. Deliciously selfish. Fearlessly opinionated (I also fucking hate The English Patient with the fire of a thousand suns and I don’t care that it is a classic).
She was loud, brash. Literally pushy (GET OUT!). One might even say she was permitted to be morally bankrupt (and still be likeable) in a way that was previously only acceptable for male characters.
And in her uniform of don’t-fuck-with-me shoulder pads and heavy boots paired with Laura Ashley florals in Mormon proportions, she was a magnetic sexual being.
It’s easy to forget in these post-Sex and the City times that the way Elaine’s sexuality was depicted on Seinfeld was a revelation in the 1990s. Here you had a woman participate in a masturbation contest with her male friends — AND LOSE. Elaine is made to put down $150 to the guys’ $100 — the line of thinking being that women don’t ‘need’ to pleasure themselves as often as dudes do — but is no longer queen of her castle after taking an aerobics class with John F. Kennedy Jr. Elaine quickly laid waste to the notion that women’s sexual appetites aren’t as voracious as men’s.
Of course, that’s not the only bit of sexist stigma Elaine shoved out the door.
Elaine was a single, happily childfree woman with a healthy sex life — one that she enjoyed and never apologized for. She had sexual agency. She easily and openly discussed her preferred method of contraceptive — nearly two decades later and “sponge-worthy” is still a part of the modern lexicon. Desire and pleasure were always part of her conversation.
She had views on abortion; Seinfeld is one of the few shows that has actually used the word. Elaine was neither Madonna nor whore; she was just a regular woman who liked having (and frankly discussing) sex.
As Jessica Gentile points out at Indiewire, unlike many of her modern sitcom contemporaries, Elaine’s storylines weren’t driven by a fraught, long-term relationships (Mindy Lahiri) or clumsy sexual inexperience (Liz Lemon). Today’s leading ladies aren’t as uninhibited and assertive as she was in the bedroom. In fact, there’s really no one like Elaine on network TV right now.
When looking for Elaine’s closest descendants, one must veer far from the purview of the networks and closer to the fringes of cable. There are the girls of Girls for sure — at least they tackle HPV outbreaks and pregnancy scares with grit and humor. (Though the free-spirited Jessa probably comes closer to unhinged than empowered.) There’s also Abbi and Ilana on Comedy Central’s Broad City, who are probably the most uncanny Elaine analogues out there. One could totally see a younger, modern-day Elaine sexting her Facebook friends while hanging out beside them on a Brooklyn stoop. And in a sketch-comedy capacity, Amy Schumer is doing loads of good dispelling sexist double standards. Plus there is, of course, Julia Louis-Dreyfus herself, an always welcome presence playing a feisty, if dissatisfied, second in command on Veep.
Until Elaine’s heiress apparent materializes in Prime Time, thank goodness for re-runs. She’ll never tote a smartphone, but Elaine lives on as not only one of the strongest female characters on TV, but also one of the most relatable.
While us female viewers are so often forced to identify with the token female character in TV and movies by default, it was always so easy to connect with Elaine. Because she was never just one of the guys. She was always one of us women.
Other entries in SIAC’s Appreciation series: