5 Reasons Elaine Benes of "Seinfeld" Set the Bar For Today's Coolest Female Characters

Elaine's ability to hold her own with Jerry and the gang without sacrificing her femininity is one of my favorite things about Seinfeld.
Publish date:
August 6, 2015
television, Strong Women Characters, Seinfeld

I, like many people I know, found the motivation to shell out for a Hulu subscription a few months ago when it was announced that the streaming service had acquired the rights to Seinfeld, and have subsequently spent many a lazy Sunday afternoon binge-watching the show instead of spending time outside or, you know, socializing.

Though I was too young for the show when it was on primetime, I grew up on the reruns, which aired every weeknight following two episodes of The Simpsons and one of Friends. Those two hours, during which I got to indulge in humor that was undoubtedly too sophisticated for my 10-year-old brain, were always a highlight of my day. I also knew that my father, who I saw every other weekend in typical kid-of-divorce fashion, was a fan of the show and I delighted in discussing the episodes with him and attempting to prove I understood the nuances of the adult humor (spoiler: I did not).

Rewatching the show as an adult almost 25 years after its premiere, I'm struck by the myriad ways it set the stage for the other staples of my late-night streaming diet, including It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development, Workaholics, Louie, Inside Amy Schumer, Girls, and Broad City. And the most impressive aspect for me is Elaine's character -- a strong, funny, independent woman without whom today's strong, funny, independent film and television characters might not exist. Let's dissect, shall we?

1. She maintains the coveted "one of the guys" status.

Elaine's ability to hold her own with Jerry and the gang without sacrificing her femininity is one of my favorite things about Seinfeld. She is portrayed as aggressive, often "accidentally" shoving her male pals to the ground, and George admits multiple times to being scared of her. But she's simultaneously seen as attractive and feminine, having briefly dated Jerry and enjoying no shortage of male companions and admirers. Of course, you and I know that being able to kick it with the guys and also get a boyfriend aren’t mutually exclusive, but in Hollywood, it’s rarely portrayed this way.

2. She's occasionally unlikeable.

Unlikeable characters have become increasingly standard in comedies today. It's as though at some point, every television and movie writer in America simultaneously realized it's way funnier to laugh at people than with them.

But "unlikeable" women -- think Charlize Theron in Young Adult, Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, and Amy Schumer's "hightened version of herself" both on television and in her new film Trainwreck -- are relatively new, and have proven harder for audiences to stomach than their Judd Apatow-spawned male equivalents.

Elaine, however, was allowed to be just as crass, narcissistic, and insensitive as the rest of Jerry's gang, and nobody seemed to mind. Why her present-day counterparts can’t be cut the same slack remains a mystery to me.

3. She refuses to conform to traditional gender norms.

Aside from Jerry, Elaine has the most successful career of anyone in the group, and is shown to be ambitious and shrewd in the workplace. She dates as many different men as Jerry does women, and openly rejects pressure from her female acquaintances to settle down and have a baby (to which they respond, in grating Fran Drescher fashion, "Elaine, ya gotta have a baby!"). "They act as if having a baby takes some kind of talent," she laments. And this is at least two years before Sex and the City aired.

But unlike the Sex and the City ladies, Elaine cops to no amount of self-consciousness about being a thirty-something unmarried woman. We hear no complaints about her "biological clock ticking," and she seems confident -- if occasionally overly so -- about her status as a desirable woman. Thirty-shmirty, amirite?

4. She's funny.

How many times have you heard that old adage that "women aren't funny"? It never gets less annoying, and it couldn't be farther from the truth. Elaine, like many women both real and fictional, is funny both to laugh at and laugh with. She suffers from the same misanthropy and bad luck that often lands her friends in hot water, but, like Jerry, she's often allowed to be purposely funny as well.

In "The Cartoon," she pens a cartoon for the New Yorker. Sure, it turns out to be a Ziggy joke that she accidentally plagiarized, but still! She's able to convince the editor to run it based on her quick wit and confidence. It's also her natural comedic timing and character quirks that allow her to deliver lines like "He took..." (pause to shine her glasses) "...it out," with such perfection. Perhaps this speaks less to Elaine as a character and more to Julia Louis Dreyfus as an actress, but either way, it's awesome to watch.

5. She's sexual.

Elaine talks openly about sex and sexuality in multiple episodes. From participating in "The Contest" to hoarding contraceptive sponges when they're discontinued (sidenote: can someone explain to me what exactly these are and why I've never heard of them?), she's portrayed as a woman in charge of her sex life without garnering the dreaded "slut" label. She even develops a screening process to determine potential partners’ "spongeworthiness," forcing a one suitor to promise to shave his sideburns, clean his bathroom, and utter the phrase, "If I can speak frankly, I'm actually quite good at it," in order to jump in the sack with her. If that's not badass, I don't know what is.

Of course, despite her undeniable coolness and perhaps accidental status on the part of the creators as a feminist icon of the '90s, Elaine isn't a perfect character.

Her downfall is that she appears to be incapable of having supportive relationships with other women. While this may be simply a function of the show's firm opposition to anything too wholesome or "huggy," it's kind of a bummer, as female friends are pretty awesome in my experience. The closest thing Elaine appears to have is the group of baby-toting acquaintances that she openly dislikes, and her childhood friend Sue Ellen Mischke (also known as the "braless wonder"), with whom she is embattled in a constant game of one-upmanship.

Luckily, in the almost three decades since Elaine made her debut, we've seen female characters who can roll with posses of both (and mixed!) genders.

But it’s worth noting that Elaine still has it better than her present day counterpart Dee Reynolds of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, another "one of the guys" character doomed to hang out with a group of bumbling males, who is constantly mocked and rarely even acknowledged as a formal part of the clique. Perhaps Sweet Dee needs to take a page from Elaine's book and start shoving people more.