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Seinfeld (1990-1998)NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT.
by Elizabeth Cantwell
I am not a Carrie. I am not a Miranda or a Samantha or a Charlotte. I’m also not a Rachel or a Monica (although I’m sometimes a Chandler, just like I’m sometimes a Liz Lemon, although not nearly as often as my glasses would have you believe). I love watching Peggy and Joan and Betty and Megan, but I’m not any of them, either.
I’m an Elaine.
Of course, playing the who-am-I game is essentially an exercise in fantasy. The girls running around claiming to be Samanthas or Joans really want to be like those characters. Whether they actually are is another question entirely. And sure, some of the same fantasy is at play in my own psyche when I say “I’m an Elaine”; when I mentioned this to Chris the other night, he wasted no time in responding, “You WISH you were an Elaine.”
So, okay, guilty as charged. I wish I were an Elaine! But why? What is it about Elaine that I love, whenI love so shockingly few women on TV and in the movies? Which of her characteristics do I admire, covet, adore, envy?
The correct answer to this question should probably be “none of them.” Elaine is not someone to emulate. In fact, if you’re emulating anyone on Seinfeld, you’re doing it wrong. These are awful, selfish characters, as the infamous season finale shows us in no uncertain terms. They’re petty, mean, self-absorbed, lacking in empathy. Over the course of the sitcom, George shoves children and elderly people out of the way to escape from a burning building; Jerry steals a loaf of marble rye from an old woman; Kramer carelessly leaves a lit Cuban cigar by some newspapers in Susan’s family’s cabin, burning the cabin to the ground; and Elaine abducts a neighbor’s dog and drives it miles out of the city before leaving it on a random doorstep. And these are just token examples of the near-hatefulness that these characters incubate in their deepest, darkest selves.
Elaine: All right, all right, look, I don’t have grace, I don’t want grace, I don’t even say grace, okay? (“The Chaperone”)
But despite this bleak reality, I can’t help myself. I love almost everything about Elaine. I love that she’s obnoxious, that she can be crude at a moment’s notice, that she is the worst dancer on earth. (That last one is made all the more wonderful by the sheer unabashedness of her bodily malfunctions, the freedom with which she makes a mockery of the dance floor.) I love that she’s allowed to be weird, to be unattractive—for example, she’s told by a blind date that she has a huge head (“The Andrea Doria”), and a pigeon later confirms this by running into it.
I love that she eats on screen—a lot—and it’s so normal that she doesn’t even have to say a bunch of jokey punchlines about it. Liz Lemon is perhaps a good counterexample here—she’s also often portrayed eating, but whether it’s a donut or a pizza or a piece of cheese, the food is always the punchline to a joke. Because watching a cute woman eat a lot is just HILARIOUS to us, right? But Elaine, she just walks into Jerry’s kitchen and starts eating cereal—or ice cream, or muffins—while talking about the weather or about how she hates her roommate or about toupees. Not one word about the food. It’s almost as though she’s just eating because she’s hungry or even—gasp!—because she simply wants to. This is maybe the healthiest portrayal of a woman’s appetite I’ve ever seen on screen.
Speaking of appetites, Elaine is also granted the license to have a sexual appetite—a pretty ravenous one, at that—but, refreshingly, Seinfeld and Larry David don’t use that to define who she is. She has sex with a lot of guys, sure. And it’s played for laughs sometimes—who can forget “The Sponge,” in which Elaine’s preferred method of birth control is being taken off the market, and she has to decide whether a man is “sponge-worthy” or not? She even masturbates (“The Contest”)!
But though she operates as a sexual being, it’s not her primary function, as is common with so many female sitcom characters (there are probably about five minutes total of Sex And The City during which the main characters are not talking about 1) trying to get with a man, 2) how they’re dating someone but having problems, or 3) bemoaning the end of a relationship). Elaine’s a lover, but she’s also allowed to be a writer and a woman with an IQ of 145 and an Orioles fan and a French literature major and a friend. We’re not forced to see her through the lens of sex – but, refreshingly, she’s also not excluded from that lens.
Kramer: I got news for you: handicapped people, they don’t even want to park there! They wanna be treated just like anybody else! That’s why, those spaces are always empty.
George: He’s right! It’s the same thing with the feminists. You know, they want everything to be equal, everything! But when the check comes, where are they?
Elaine: What’s that supposed to mean?
Elaine rarely gets the one-liners. She’s more in the business of dry asides. And I like her that way. Upon re-watching some of my favorite episodes, Jerry Seinfeld’s delivery seems almost unbearably cheesy. (Seinfeld delivers his lines like Jimmy Fallon right before he’s about to crack in an SNL skit—the smug smile, the bemused I’m-making-a-joke attitude.) Kramer is hilarious, but his comedy is purely physical—and the whole racism thing still taints Michael Richards a little bit for me. Jason Alexander is still funny—sometimes brilliantly so—but his character is so over-the-top that he verges on grating. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, however, is the comedic cornerstone of the group. She’s pitch-perfect in her delivery. She flies under the radar. Her timing is impeccable in its subtlety.
Elaine transcends the ’90s heyday of the show and stands alone as a strange and beautiful and frustrating commentary about what it means to live in a world where it’s Every Man For Himself (as Roger Sterling so appropriately said to Peggy a few weeks ago on Mad Men). This might stem, in part, from the character’s unnatural conception. Elaine was, after all, written into the show subsequent to the original script because NBC was concerned about drawing in a female demographic. And Jerry and Larry, in turn, were concerned about not being able to write in a voice that was convincingly “female” enough. So what we get is a woman who’s stuck in this world just because it didn’t have a woman to begin with—this paradox of a thing, this pH strip of a person who appears out of nowhere to reflect back to these delusional men a little corner of their actual existences.
I’ve read some essays criticizing the character of Elaine from a “feminist” perspective for just being “one of the guys,” and thus not being an accurate reflection of female life. I think that’s unfair. Hanging out with a lot of men doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to be a man, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re not an authentic woman. It just makes you … a woman who gets along with guys. I grew up with far more male friends than female friends; at various points in my life, I was used to being the only woman in my social group. There’s nothing good or bad about that. I’m a woman who has made a career out of building walls, who gets anxious about hugging, who can become defensive at the worst times, who secretly enjoys wearing huge, bulky cardigans and blazers that would be a better fit on her dad.
Who, sometimes, lets the mask slip and is suddenly, brutally exposed.
Elaine: Let me tell you, I didn’t intentionally bare myself, but now, I wish I had. For it’s not me who has been exposed, but you! For I have seen the nipple on your soul!
Watching Seinfeld is an adventure in exposure, in seeing the nipple on your own soul. We know, as we see George eating from the trash, that these people should disgust us. But when the TV turns off, in that moment just between being swallowed by a fantasy and attempting not to be swallowed by your own life—in that moment when you’re alone with yourself—it’s clear that you’re too much like these characters to feel repulsed by them. You can empathize far too easily.
Sometimes we watch television to escape our lives. The best television refuses to let us. It turns the tables.
Watching Seinfeld, all I can do is take the first step: admit that I have problem. I, too, am a woman who sometimes drinks too much and tells secrets. I, too, am vindictive; even manipulative. I’m a horrible driver. I cry too much, just like Elaine cries when she hears the Bubble Boy’s story. I make fun of people behind their backs. I always want a big salad, and I can never spare a square.
My name is Elizabeth, and I’m an Elaine.
If you need Elizabeth Cantwell, you may be able to find her eating black and white cookies and yelling at The English Patient. You can also find her here.