Elaine Benes set a fine example for women in the 90s – she was funny, confident, professional (well, once she stopped picking out socks for Mr. Pitt), proud to be single without feeling the need to get married and have children (and mocked her friends that did), and made no excuse about wanting (or having!) a fulfilling sex life (let’s not forget her stocking up on all the sponges in New York City, or rolling her eyes at the older woman in her office who feared that her many partners made her “germy”). I recently Netflixed the entire Seinfeld series (because what good is any writer without having studied that fine comedic art), and while I enjoyed the model that Elaine portrayed for modern women, there were a few blips on my feminist radar that caught my attention. Gender stereotypes on America’s most-beloved show, you ask? Get out!
The first instance was on the matter of “faking.” Elaine prided herself at being so good that no man could tell she didn’t orgasm, which ultimately left Jerry and George feeling inadequate about their own ability to satisfy a woman. But in faking, Elaine is only doing herself a disservice, and a disservice to women everywhere; not only is she left unsatisfied, but the man she’s with thinks that his tactics worked, and may be dumbfounded when a more outspoken woman tells him the truth, wondering what’s wrong with this woman, since all the others before had no problem. A similar idea is the subject of a Sex and the City episode (of course) where Miranda gets into the habit of faking. Upon learning the truth, her partner eagerly tries to learn what works; so too does Jerry beg Elaine for “just half an hour” to get it right. See ladies, if you ask, you shall receive. No need to put on a show.
Another blatant stereotype comes in the episode where Jerry buys his father a Cadillac. Elaine is surprised to learn that Jerry is doing so well financially, and suddenly there are invitations to dinner, to drive him to the airport…it’s too obvious it’s sickening. Elaine is making money of her own, and doing well for herself (more so than George and Kramer, for sure). Plus, the two had already dated, had hooked up since then a couple of times, and know that a romantic relationship in any capacity just doesn’t work between them. While this fawning-over-a-man’s-money action is stereotypical, it also seems downright unrealistic for her situation. But I guess comedy has its price.
Finally, there is the stretch of time where Elaine puts herself in charge of the Peterman company. Though she fails mostly because of personal flaws – inadequate sense of the industry (remember the “Urban Sombrero”?), charging expensive personal items to the corporate account (though if this recession has taught us anything, we know this isn’t gender-proof) – I still can’t help but think there is a (unintended) subtext about women CEOs. “See?” the plotline almost seems to say, “A woman can’t be in charge of a major company.” I do give Elaine credit for taking the lead in the first place, but as we are learning, it’s not THAT she is a woman leader, but that she must have the proper credentials (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin). There are plenty of qualified women around; now it is our job to help them get to where they can make the most impact. Even ten years after Seinfeld went off the air, qualified female candidates still experience the inevitable glass ceiling: a 2008 study revealed that only 15.7% of corporate officers are women. I mean, what’s the deal with that??