As we plunged deeper and deeper into lockdown this year, all of us took to seeking out familiar, comfortable things that brought us joy. For me, this meant binge-watching sitcoms that I’ve already watched many times over. Seinfeld was my first choice; of the stellar cast, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has remained a constant favourite. In creating Elaine Benes, the writers and the actor hit that wonderful magic spot in making her femaleness both incidental and critical to the setup – it impacts her life, but it isn’t the source of everything that happens to her.
Sitcoms have long used what I’d call the “Robin/Lily binary” for female characters – they’re either nurturing, quirky, non-threatening women, or rebellious, outspoken women who aspire to maleness in the most superficial way. And all too often, women, in reel life and real life, either come to be defined by the roles they play in the lives of others or become vehicles for a message. In the ’90s, shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S and Sex and the City had no realistic concept of a woman without a man, even as they spoke to female audiences. Later sitcoms, including those centred around a female lead, such as 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, felt it necessary to give their leads a relationship arc: the meet-cute, the oddball pairing, the challenges of a relationship, the final season’s picture-perfect happily-ever-after. Even today, it may be too radical to suggest a mainstream sitcom with a female lead and no relationship angle.
Elaine, on the other hand, lives an independent, self-sufficient life, one in which she has all the career and personal issues that someone in their 30s might. There’s no explicit discussion of feminism, because it isn’t required – this is already a feminist life. Smart, assertive, and never one to back down from a fight, she can just as often be paranoid, neurotic, and difficult (as a doctor notes on her chart, which she then spends an entire episode trying to erase). She works in publishing, then becomes a personal assistant, then finds her way back to publishing (even if it is J Peterman’s catalogue), becomes CEO for a hot minute and gets demoted right back. Some of her best moments come when she is made the CEO of J Peterman and she calls Jerry, cigar in mouth, feet on desk, to gloat. As he tries to cut her off and talk about himself, she interrupts him right back with a “Hey, hey! Me, talkin’…?” a line that more women need to use in workplaces, homes, and restaurants even today. Whether she’s discussing business plans with her ex-boss (“Pop the top, toss the stump!”), single-handedly driving the Soup Nazi out of business (“NEXT!”) or vengefully hoarding toilet paper to deprive a woman in the next stall, this is a character that is afraid of nothing and obsessed with everything.
All through the nine-year run, Elaine dates a string of men casually – the communist, the possibly married guy (who, to her horror, just turns out to be poor), the doctor who calls her “breathtaking” but then calls an ugly baby “breathtaking”, the therapist who over-analyses her and whom she cannot wait to be rid of. As her women friends get married and move to the suburbs, they exhort her to “Just get married and have a baaayy-bee!” Unlike most other shows where the word “baby” triggers introspection and/or desperation; she just says, “Why? Because I can?” and laughs and moves on. In yet another episode, mistaken for a lesbian because she’s attending a lesbian wedding, she says, “I’m not a lesbian! I hate men, but I’m not a lesbian!” – an emotion most straight women in their 30s would echo.
She has sexual agency but she wears it lightly, exploiting it for laughs. Her most lasting relationship is an on-again-off-again purely physical one with Puddy, a mechanic-turned-car-salesman with the dullest possible personality but great skills in bed. She’s fiercely pro-choice but also extremely superficial, comically dismayed when a perfect-looking man turns out to be pro-life. Memorably, she insists that she be included in The Contest (a bet to see who goes longest without masturbating) and loses because she sees John F Kennedy Jr at her gym. On another occasion, having found out that her preferred brand of birth control (the sponge) has been discontinued, she finally manages to track down a whole box of them in a pharmacy and buys them all – only to hoard them and to interview her date on why she should consider him “sponge-worthy”.
There are many unwritten rules of sitcoms with a female lead, especially an attractive one. These are: be more mature than the men, no physical comedy ever, and never be angry without serious cause. Elaine Benes breaks all of those rules to create a woman who is as real as someone you could have gone to college with. She dances jerkily at an office party and loses the respect of her employees, throws George’s toupee out the window because she’s enraged by his double standards (he won’t date a bald woman even though he’s himself bald) and remains as resolutely immature as the men on the show (pretending to be a janitor in the building across the street, just so she can get a Chinese restaurant’s famous Supreme Flounder delivered to her).
In interviews, Julia Louis-Dreyfus remarked that all through the show’s nine years, she was constantly persuading creators Seinfeld and Larry David to give her more to do: to push the envelope, to give her more outlandish situations, and to moderate nothing just because she’s a woman. The character, then, is as much a triumph of the writing as of the actor herself. For a show to allow a female character to just be a whole person, on her own, may not feel like much in 2020, but it was quietly path-breaking in the ’90s when Elaine Benes entered our lives.