Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Elaine Benes and Feminism: Yadda Yadda Yadda [Television Tuesday]

Today's post is a cross-post from Amanda of The Undomestic Goddess. Thanks Amanda!

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??


  1. Great posting and points. I still love watching Seinfeld. I adore Elaine and love Julia Louis-Dreyfus. You can put some blame on Carol Leifer for some of the "non-feminist" Elaine moves [I never agreed w/ the fake orgasm thing but female pleasure is a fairly taboo subject on most TV shows and sadly even in reality. Honestly, how many women have really used a vibrator?] as she did a lot of writing for the series.

    ps. it's yada yada yada.

  2. I googled Elaine Benes and Feminism because I, too, began to have a few qualms with the character. I disagree with your first point, but very much agree with your other two (the gold digging, although that was very seldom indicated, and failure at the CEO position, although she, George and Kramer failed at every professional venture.) The orgasm thing, I mean...sometimes "enough is enough" [her words] and you just wanna go to bed :P No need to turn it into a big discussion (which is what obsessive, male egoist Jerry did.)

    My discrepencies with Elaine's character were the infrequent but blatant hook ups, the female catty comments, and the lack of respect that came along with being considered "one of the boys."

    Yes. If it were Friends, That 70's Show, or Sex and the City or stupid movies like the Hangover, Jerry and Elaine would've been having sex the whole time and it almost would've been a given... I appreciate that the sex was not frequent..when it happened it was a show-stopper, and it didn't last long bc they came to the conclusion that the arrangement wasn't going to work.

    She didn't have many female friends. She was difficult to get along with ..and while each character had their own distinct faults, hers were female-based. ie cattiness. She often mentioned friends or acquaintances she had issues with and they were almost always obvious feminine frailties, like "Sue Ellen Mishki doesn't waer a bra!"etc.

    And finally, a concept that most feminists will probably disagree with me on-- the tradeoff decision a woman makes: does she want to be treated like a lady or like one of the guys? Can't have it both ways. She was accepted into the group and they never lost sight of the fact that she's a female, often consulting her for dating advice... but they were a little rough with her. I don't mind that she was expected to pay her her fair share financially or that they didn't watch their dialect or speech content around her(I wouldn't have it any other way,) but they just weren't very considerate or protective over her. For instance, Jerry divulging information about having sex with her right away, not walking her home at night, even getting into a minor slapping fight with her, trying to send her out first into the angry mob when they parked in the handicapped space, not respecting her dignity and privacy when it came to sexual matters, etc... I guess they did treat her exactly equal, but bc I still view women and men as being different, I objected to a few scenes, situations and implications.

    --Meredith O'Donnell


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