In a season eight episode of Seinfeld entitled "The Bizarro Jerry", Elaine starts hanging around a wholesome gang of men instead of the trio of trash she usually knocks about with. Jerry, George and Kramer are left alone to argue between themselves – and without Elaine, the squad is not quite the same. They are lost, wandering, their banter halved.
This episode is a glimpse into the Seinfeld that could have been.
The pilot of Seinfeld – a sitcom about a fictionalised version of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends shouting at each other – aired in 1989. The original cast was made up of only Jerry, George and "Kessler", and when network bosses at NBC told creators Seinfeld and Larry David that they wouldn't commission the show without adding a woman to the ensemble, the pair brought in Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jerry’s ex-girlfriend.
There was pushback from NBC, which – true to TV comedy form – wanted her to be a potential love interest for Jerry. David and Seinfeld refused, and thus the judgmental, serial-dating, absolutely-appalling-at-dancing Elaine Marie Benes was born, proving to be an absolutely vital part of the show until its final episode, 20 years ago today.
Famously, Seinfeld is very good. It created a template that shows we love today copy from and pay homage to. Without it, we wouldn’t have Friends, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Arrested Development. Many of the tropes, jokes and formats that we associate with the modern sitcom, we owe to Seinfeld. But an overlooked part of what makes Seinfeld so special is Elaine.
Before her, women on television were not permitted to be so imperfect. They were the voice of reason, the nagging wife, the love interest. It's difficult to really comprehend how radical a character she was now that we have so many messy, imperfect, selfish women to look up to – Fleabag, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Dee and Arrested Development’s Lindsay, to name just three. But in 1989, there was nobody like Elaine.
For some reason, TV writers have always struggled to properly represent women. What do they do? What do they enjoy? They want monogamy, right? And to eventually have a baby at the end of a nine-year sitcom run? Or perhaps they’re "one of the boys", knocking back beer and hating other women?
Seinfeld didn’t fall into any of these traps. Elaine doesn’t exist as a desirable, moral arbiter of the men around her, as female characters often function. She is just as horrible, filthy and selfish as the men. She has dialogue and storylines that could just have easily been Jerry's. She fucks over other people to get stuff done. She yells, she pushes, she scams. Bringing three seasons of experience and dissatisfaction on Saturday Night Live with her, Julia Louis-Dreyfus helped shape who Elaine was – a revolutionary anti-hero with a "big wall of hair" and a "face like a frying pan", as George describes her in a season four episode.
We are introduced to Elaine as Jerry’s ex in "The Stake Out". He feels weird flirting with other women in front of her, but by the end of the episode they agree that they have to be upfront with one another about their conquests if they are to truly be friends. From there, there is very little relationship-based awkwardness between the pair, eschewing the will-they-won't-they-oh-now-one-is-sad-what-the-fuck dance that drags the comedy of other sitcoms down.
In fact, in season two episode "The Deal", Elaine and Jerry decide to fuck no-strings, because they haven’t done it in a while and they each know what the other one wants. They develop rules and boundaries that they cross – not because she’s a woman seeking monogamy, but because they both want to emerge from it with the friendship still intact.
Like Jerry, Elaine has a different partner every episode. Her only consistent lover is Puddy, a man she describes as "dripping with animal sexuality", who she repeatedly goes back to despite not particularly liking. She thinks he’s dumb but can’t stop fucking him, and every single time she runs into him they end up in bed, only to break up again. Because man or woman, in Seinfeld – as in life – none of us have much self control when it comes to fucking people we absolutely should not be fucking.
Elaine’s perceived promiscuity (also known as a healthy, active sex life) comes to a head in season seven's "The Sponge", when her favourite contraceptive sponge is discontinued. When she can’t find any more, she puts her potential lover through a series of tests to see whether he is "sponge-worthy". In one of the most controversial (and best) Seinfeld episodes, "The Contest", the characters enter into a competition to see which one can go without wanking the longest. When Elaine declares she wants in, the men tell her that she can’t participate because "it's easier for a woman, we have to do it". They make her pay higher odds to get involved, and she becomes the second to lose the contest after speaking to a man at the gym. Such candid (if veiled) discussions of masturbation between TV characters were unheard of at the time, and for a woman to be talking about it 20 years before Broad City's Ilana Wexler wanked into a mirror was revolutionary.
It would have been easy for Elaine to fall into a stereotype Sex and the City went on to establish almost a decade later with Samantha: a strong, independent and sex-positive woman, but whose characteristics are often permitted (and undermined) by the insistence that they’re masculine ones (in the very first episode of SatC, Samantha dismisses relationships in favour of going out and having sex, "like a man").
Conversely, Elaine is not "one of the guys" – she’s a vocal feminist who dumps a man because he's anti-choice. She speaks her mind on every topic from fur to hating a film to how ugly a baby is, no matter how detrimental it is to her own image. When she’s told to have grace, she loudly proclaims that she "doesn’t even say grace". When she and Jerry are talking about women faking orgasms, she refuses to lie to save his feelings (again), and instead tells him: "You didn’t know?" "What about the breathing, the panting, the moaning, the screaming?" he asks, incredulous, masculinity in tatters. "Fake, fake, fake, fake," she answers, barely concealing a laugh.
Before Elaine, there were no women on TV as outspoken, as tactless, as real as her. Where she maybe should hide how she feels, she never does.
Elaine is not perfect. She dumps men for being disabled, for being poor, for just not being quite enough. She is tactless and insulting, selfish and cruel; blustering through life with the same carelessness as any of the men in Seinfeld. But that, at least in a sitcom sense, is why she is so perfect: never before, and rarely after, has a woman been allowed to be so hectic onscreen, so lacking in stereotypical femininity. She is permitted to experience every crevice of the spectrum of gross, selfish human emotions in the same way as the men.
In a lesser comedy, "The Contest" would have had Elaine be grossed out and judgmental. But in Seinfeld, Elaine has free rein over her domain; she is Queen of the Castle. Some of that is down to strong writing, but a lot of it is because of the control Julia Louis-Dreyfus took to create a character who not only broke boundaries in 1989, but – 20 years after the show's finale – continues to provide sitcom staff writing female characters a high benchmark to hit.