For one reason (Netflix) or another (Netflix), I found myself re-watching Seinfeld over the last couple of weeks, revisiting a show that I first encountered as a kid. I’m now roughly the age of Seinfeld’s leads, and it’s been a humbling experience to slowly relate to and giggle at the characters that I once dismissed as middle-aged dweebs.
Which is how, in a roundabout way, I’ve found myself thinking about Elaine Benes.
Is Seinfeld’s best character hot? Obviously Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine Benes for nine seasons, is a certifiably gorgeous woman, but that’s not the question. Is Elaine herself canonically hot? If she is, why is she hanging out with these dorks? Is she a hot woman doing dorky things? Or is she a dorky woman who happens to be extremely hot? Are hotness and dorkiness mutually exclusive properties?
After an episode (season seven’s “The Secret Code,” more commonly known as the “Bosco” episode) in which she pursues a man who can’t seem to remember her, I realized that how attractive one finds Elaine is crucial to the text.
If Elaine is an average-looking woman, the kind who shouldn’t make George Costanza (Jason Alexander) pull the remains of his hair out just to be in the same room as her, then her forgettability is one thing. No one likes to be forgotten. But if she is, as she appears to be, stunning, then her pursuit of Fred, an aggressively below-average man, is much funnier. Elaine isn’t a woman clawing her way up to win the affection of a man, she’s a beautiful woman sinking to subterranean depths.
Sitcoms, especially those from the ’80s and ’90s, are a strange animal. There’s a baseline level of attractiveness that people, especially women, need to get on television, and sitcoms usually depict what are supposed to be “regular” people. Also, when I first watched Seinfeld, I was 8, and gay — Elaine’s attractiveness eluded me.
Elaine’s canonical hotness might seem clear to modern, adult eyes, but there are reasons to question it.
Here’s some evidence that Elaine wasn’t created specifically as a capital-B beautiful woman, but an appealing everygal. Before Elaine became Elaine, there was Claire (Lee Garlington), a down-to-earth waitress who filled in as “woman” in the pilot. When the role was reconceived, comedian Rosie O’Donnell was among those considered, and the character is rumored to be based on Seinfeld writer Carol Leifer (who later had her own one-season sitcom, Alright Already). Leifer, O’Donnell, and Garlington are all attractive — they got to be on TV, and those are the rules of TV — but they are not women who were cast as bombshells. It seems that when Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David considered a female character for their foursome, they didn’t want her hotness to be paramount. Perhaps this is why Seinfeld’s men regularly acted like Elaine was, at best, average-looking.
Seinfeld operates on the conceit that this friend group is equally hyper-observant and blazingly neurotic. In each episode, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Kramer (Michael Richards), and Elaine home in on the small things in their lives (marble rye, a bank code), have what is essentially a group gossip session about it, and for Seinfeld’s three men, one of the topics is often beautiful women: Bette Midler’s understudy, the naked woman across the street, Marla the virgin, the nurse giving sponge baths in the same hospital room as George’s mother, the cop who gives Jerry a Melrose Place polygraph test, the woman with the big hands. Yet these men, who are terminally obsessed with both wooing beautiful women and analyzing how they’re perceived by beautiful women, don’t react to Elaine in the same way.
Some of this is explained away by Seinfeld lore. Jerry dated Elaine and both were mature enough to continue a platonic friendship (except for a brief “friends with benefits” dalliance in season two’s “The Deal”). George and Kramer, out of deference for Jerry, would respect that.
In re-watching the show, I understood that it also makes for a tighter story. Once you address the elephant in the room — the pachyderm being Elaine’s beauty — then it changes the dynamic of the friend group and the show. Had it gone in that direction, with Jerry and friends being attracted to Elaine, Seinfeld would be more like Friends or maybe a prototype of The Big Bang Theory. The show’s chemistry would’ve been irreparably altered.
“I can tell you this, which is that I know that the writers made it clear that they were not doing that,” said Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a Seinfeld expert and author of Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. The “that” in question would be a “will they or won’t they” type of tension between Jerry, or any of the men, and Elaine. Seinfeld’s writers didn’t want their show to hinge on their leads getting romantically involved.
“The network was always harassing them to recreate a Sam and Diane on Cheers thing with Elaine and Jerry. And then finally just said, ‘No. We’re not doing that, because we’re not a normal sitcom,’” Armstrong added.
So looking directly at Elaine’s hotness would be, for the show, like looking directly at the sun — but there are moments when the men briefly realize that they’re in the presence of greatness.
There are a number of indicators that Elaine indeed looks like Julia Louis-Dreyfus: All three men snap out of it in “The Tape” (season three, episode eight) when she records a sexy message on Jerry’s tape recorder, and in episodes like “The Shoes” (season four, episode 16) and “The Gum” (season seven, episode 10), other men are so distracted by Elaine’s attractiveness that they forget what they’re supposed to be doing. But perhaps the clearest confirmation that Elaine Benes is canonically beautiful is by the transitive property of the men she dates. A few principles of a working theory:
The Jerry theorem: Jerry only dates beautiful women. Throughout the span of the show, there have been a reported 73 different women that Jerry has dated, and they’ve been played by the likes of objectively beautiful actresses like Lauren Graham, Kristin Davis, Courteney Cox, Marlee Matlin, and Teri Hatcher, among others. Elaine dated Jerry. Ergo, Elaine is beautiful.
The law of Puddy: Elaine’s longest relationship on the show is with on-again, off-again boyfriend David Puddy (Patrick Warburton). Empirically, Puddy and Elaine are not a match. He is all id and she, like her friends, is all ego. But the pertinent thing to remember here is that Puddy, who also presents as a hunk, would never date a woman that wasn’t physically beautiful. Puddy dates Elaine, hence Elaine is beautiful.
The famous man thesis: In Seinfeld’s New York City, men are constantly dating women out of their league. That implication is that the women are often settling and the dating pool in this universe is advantageous toward men. The exceptions to this rule are celebrities like the late JFK Jr. (name-dropped in “The Contest”; season four, episode 11) and New York Mets all-star Keith Hernandez (season three, episode 17) who are implied to be the catch. They are so famous, especially in New York City, that they could date any woman they want. Both of them are interested in Elaine. Elaine is beautiful.
The beard proposition: In “The Beard” (season 16, episode 6) a gay man named Robert strategically enlists Elaine to help him. Robert asks Elaine to go see Swan Lake with him, to give the illusion that he’s straight to his conservative boss. In choosing Elaine, it’s suggested that she, at the least, is impressive to straight people. In the Seinfeld universe, presumably, a gay man would not choose any average-looking woman to impress a straight male boss. Elaine also has a one-night fling with Robert where she thinks she gets him to change “teams” but that’s short-lived. Elaine is beautiful, but not beautiful enough to alter men’s sexuality.
The clunker paradox: There have been times when Elaine has gone out on dates with men who may not be up to her standard, like the aforementioned Fred (“The Secret Code,” season seven, episode seven). She acknowledges it herself in that episode, admitting that she only went out with him because he had trouble remembering her. This isn’t an indication that Elaine is somehow physically unattractive but rather a sly commentary on the dire dating scene for New York City women in the ’90s. Elaine dates clunkers but is still beautiful.
Arguably the best Elaine-centered joke of the entire series is her aesthetically unpleasant dancing which debuts in “The Little Kicks,” the fourth episode of the eighth season. George accompanies Elaine to a company party in which Elaine gives a toast and, moved by the spirit and Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” she begins to dance.
Elaine’s dance perturbs her friends. The way she moves haunts them, terrorizes their sense of beauty. It’s like watching an ancient, forbidden horror, and after seeing it, no one’s life is ever the same. “It was like a full body dry heave set to music,” George tells Jerry, who consoles him by saying that he too has witnessed the assassination of rhythm by one Elaine Benes.
“No one knows how to tell her to stop or what to say. Everyone is just like oh no,” Armstrong, the Seinfeld expert, explained to me. The disturbing movements Elaine produces are at odds with how beautiful she is, and that’s the joke. “And it’s totally opposed to how it would play if it was like, ‘Hey that’s just dorky Elaine,’” Armstrong added.
Having Elaine play against type is what Armstrong cherishes about the character, and what makes the show singular. Allowing Elaine to be inelegant, messy, and crass was a radical thing.
“I think that it was just really unusual to see this all together — she was beautiful, and smart and successful, and was allowed to be funny, as funny as the guys,” Armstrong explained. “She was actually allowed to be as everything as the guys, like funny and gross. And, you know, even as awful! I would say they’re four pretty awful people and she was equal in that. And that was a revolutionary thing for us.”
The idea of allowing a beautiful female character to be crass and goofy and semi-rotten and having that be championed as a revolutionary act can seem silly if not bleak — rebellion built on what are essentially crumbs of representation.
As Armstrong pointed out, however, Elaine’s predecessors — like Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary — were rarely allowed to be funny and pretty at the same time. Elaine’s peers were often stuck being wives or love interests (see: Friends), and if they were allowed to be sexy, it often came with an apology — something to be laughed at for being tacky (Fran Fine) or uncouth (Peg Bundy). The sitcom trope where a beautiful woman is married to the most aggressively average of dudes exists for a reason.
“Seinfeld is a show with this beautiful, absolutely huge, unmissable woman who is given complete equality — a woman in the middle of this very like male comedy experiment. I have to give them credit for that,” Armstrong said.
Elaine being unapologetically sexy is crucial to the character’s legacy in mapping out what funny women are allowed to do, how they behave, and the problems they have. She’s crucial to Seinfeld’s enduring brilliance. And like the guys in that one episode, I cannot stop thinking about her.