"Elaine’s feminine energy didn’t so much offset the boys’ club of Jerry, George and Kramer as, at times, completely blindside it."
At the end of Year 12, while everybody was busying themselves with putting a pig’s head in the basketball ring and covering trees with toilet paper, I handed out Proust Questionnaires to my friends and teachers. This was primarily because I couldn’t endure waiting out the 30 or so years I imagined it would take to become famous enough to be asked by Vanity Fair to do my own, and I wanted to tell everyone, right now, that My Favourite Character Of Fiction was Elaine Benes from Seinfeld.
The legendary “comedy about nothing” was nightly viewing in my household, and had been for many years. The show’s vernacular had long-since infected every aspect of our lives: a bad hair day was “you look like you’re in The Shower Head”, we gave each other Seinfeld-related ephemera (a book about philosophy and Seinfeld; the shooting script for The Showerhead) for Christmas presents; I was prone to asking for a “big salad” and then whining “Where’s my meal?”
For 17-year-old me, however, it was mostly about Elaine, and as this week’s 25th anniversary of Seinfeld rolls around, she remains one of the greatest comic creations of the TV age.
Elaine Benes, picture of the self-sustained, independent and complex woman.
Played with expert comic timing by the sublime Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elaine’s feminine energy didn’t so much offset the boys’ club of Jerry, George and Kramer as, at times, completely blindside it.
The episode The Pen, in which Jerry and Elaine travel to visit Jerry’s parents, becomes a masterclass in physical comedy when Elaine takes too many muscle relaxants after the sofa-bed puts her back out. We all remember “STELLAAAAA!!!” but the entire episode - notable also for being the only one that doesn’t feature George, and one of two that doesn’t feature Kramer - pits Louis-Dreyfus, often ranked listed last after her three male co-stars, against Seinfeld as the eponymous star’s true comic equal. It’s a half-hour of TV comedy that reaches Beckett-esque levels of exquisite existential hysteria to become something that transcends the form.
I could watch Seinfeld reruns for decades and still revel in the subtleties of Louis-Dreyfus’ performance: the way she winces just a tiny bit when Elaine’s inner monologue fires up; the sting in her voice when she unloads on someone with barely-concealed contempt; the way she slinks into Jerry’s apartment and flops down onto the couch.
It’s true, Elaine entered the zeitgeist for her altogether less subtle character traits - mostly the dancing - and for many, that’s how the character is remembered, as “that chick on Seinfeld who did the wacky dancing".
For all her ungainly dance moves and frumpy-chic ensembles, Elaine was (to me, at least) the ideal picture of adult womanhood. She was self-sufficient and lived alone, a trait she shared with other fictional female heroes of mine, Ghostbusters’ Dana Barrett and Tootsie’s Sandy Lester and Julie Nichols, and all of those New York ladies contributed to my commitment (despite what my accountant might have preferred) to living predominantly by myself for over ten years.
We talk a lot about the blokiness of the comedy scene, and how hostile TV comedy is to women both behind the camera and in front of it, which makes Elaine’s sustained presence on Seinfeld all the more remarkable (and is yet another reason to love its creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld). It’s tough to recall another show that found such a wellspring of comedy in a female character’s obsessive commitment to a particular form of contraception (“Is he spongeworthy?”) or her vocally pro-choice politics (the episode The Couch) without throwing her under the bus.
Elaine dated - and dumped - without shame, and saw her male friends’ personality failings and raised them another bucketload of outrageous neuroses. We live in an era when female characters have reached peak “likeability” - re-read Anne Helen Peterson’s The History Of Cool Girls if you disagree - and the only anxieties or complexities they reveal are the cute, wrinkling-her-nose sort. When women on screen are permitted to be less than perfect, it comes only in the context of their entire lives being bombsites: Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids or Kristen Bell in The Lifeguard, for example. That Elaine was allowed to exist between the two extremes and be neurotic and successful seems unfathomable today.
Elaine Benes spent almost a decade parading her id all over prime-time television, and as a neurotic professional woman who has dated as many disasters as I’ve had Big Salads, I will forever be grateful she came into my life and showed me the way.