With celebrations aplenty reigning down following Seinfeld landing on Netflix, the show’s cult fanbase is going gaga over it. For the millennials and Gen-Z who are not familiar with Seinfeld, it’s time to stop living under the rock my friends. Based in Manhattan, the series focuses on a group of neurotic and oddball friends, mainly on the observant and eccentric titular comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
The various disjointed events make ‘worlds collide’; much like a comedy of manners and the various petty conflicts and drudgery of urban life serve as a backdrop for the events surrounding the lives of these city dwellers. This group of friends include Jerry Seinfeld, George Constanza, Cosmo Kramer and Elaine Benes. While Benes, the quintessential girl pal in the group could have been just another everyman-type character, present only to add to the gags, she is quite the opposite and curates a path for herself as well as for the upcoming female characters in shows who subverted gender norms.
After Seinfeld was threatened to be dropped by NBC due to lack of gender diversity, creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David included the character of Elaine Benes to add variety to the friend group. Benes, who was coincidentally Seinfeld’s ex-partner-turned-best friend on the show, was played by the iconic Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Dreyfus managed to accentuate the quirkiness of the character with her impromptu and endearing on-screen presence.
What made Elaine stand out from the rest of the contemporary female leads on other shows was her lack of perfection and poise. She was ditzy, klutzy, loud and very not ladylike. Smart and beautiful with her toothy smile and frizzy dark hair, Elaine’s problematic comments and somewhat controversial outspokenness and unapologetic and unabashed attitude add relatability to the character. In a cesspool of female leads, she stands out from the rest.
Benes has been often compared to the Friends character Monica Geller, played by Courtney Cox. Monica is strong, loud, brazen and controlling. She is both physically and emotionally more capable than the male leads on the show. Elaine, too, is a perfect blend of self-confidence and insecurities. She is a delight to look at, and her character development is wonderful to witness. However, while Monica is fixated on marriage and having kids in what she considers the epitome of happiness, Elaine, on the other hand, is quite a revolution. She was one of the very first characters on a sitcom to have voiced her opinion on the topic of abortion.
During the height of Seinfeld’s fame, it was quite taboo to hear female leads voicing concerns about body rights instead of merely batting their eyelids seductively and being pretty. Elaine stands out yet again with her dumping her “anti-choice boyfriend” and abstaining from indulging in businesses and forums that aided “fanatical anti-abortion groups”. Although she deals with this delicate and poignant matter with light-hearted humour and jabs, it is quite a revolutionary stand.
Elaine was clear about her stance on children. While she rolled through comedic scenes with regularity, in reality, she was quite a mature and advanced woman who was very sure about her needs and desires. While she was not as opposed to having children, neither was she outwardly fretting about her situation. Despite peer pressure, Elaine emphasised her happiness at being childless; she was a woman who loved children but would not necessarily like to have one. She challenged and subverted tropes and ideas that plague women in society. She did not care about what others thought and would not want to be defined by labels of a wife or a mother.
Elaine dated whomever she wished to and had sex quite freely. Free-spirited, Elaine even spoke candidly about contraception on the biggest stage. She was not only liberating herself sexually but also encouraging other women viewers to shed off the cloak of embarrassment and indulge in sexual pleasures according to their whims, keeping in mind the use of contraception.
However, Elaine is not perfect, which makes her even more adorable. She has problematic views on homosexuality when she wants to change a gay man and often indulges in racist remarks while dealing with the Korean women at the saloon. She is one who judges people based on their looks, but can we blame her? A piece of art or literature or cinema mirrors the generation they are created in. The 1980s and 1990s were not eras of political correctness. What seemed funny and hilarious then is particularly offensive now, and the cycle goes on. However, despite these callous remarks and ignorant comments, Elaine continues to be one of the favourites of the show.
In a male-dominated environment, Elaine is not the stock female friend. Instead, she has a lot to contribute and often challenges the male friends in terms of intellect and amusement. With more than a few iconic moments on-screen, the character of Elaine becomes a part of us. She mirrors the hopelessness and frustration of a successful working woman in a fast-paced urban setting when she talks about how she has nearly given up on her childhood dreams. While she does not live her dream job, she knows how the show must go on for her to sustain herself. Benes is a social ambivert. While she has a number of rib-tickling funny moments on the show, she craves peace and some alone time for herself.
I cannot help but nod my head in agreement with this statement. While this is Elaine simply describing her sexuality in a subtle and witty manner to rile up a fellow conservative passenger on the subway, can we agree on how some of us are just tired of being played by the men in this patriarchal society? Elaine is not your demure, sweet-natured pretty character. She dances obnoxiously, but that becomes an iconic part of the show, much like Alexis Rose’s performance of ‘A Little Bit Alexis’ in Schitt’s Creek. She kicks in the air and dances with envious confidence that was a defining point of Dreyfus’ career. Elaine’s lack of grace and poise makes her this wonderful; she plays with the assigned tropes and subverts them while continuing to be this hot, badass mess.
Nearly 40 years after Seinfeld, Elaine Benes continues to inspire character developments. With a goofy and klutzy character arc, Elaine is consciously not trying to be an inspiration. She is, instead, a part of the women viewers. She views the world as her male friends do, is loud and crass, and reverses the quintessential role of a female character in a TV show. Her penchant for equality among men and women in all spheres of life is one of her defining characteristics.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ spectacular portrayal of Elaine Benes made her the clumsy and lovable icon that she is. Rightfully considered one of the greatest TV characters of all time with her flaws and intense relatability, Elaine Benes, who caused a considerable shift in the paradigmatic representation of female characters in TV shows, will continue to reign our hearts forever.
“I don’t have grace. I don’t want grace. I don’t even say grace, okay?”