Friday, August 2, 2013

Femmespiration Friday: Elaine Benes

Hey internets, it's Fuchsia, here with another guest femmespiration. You might not know it from my last post, but I grew up without cable. Actually, for the majority of my formative years, I didn't even have access to basic TV channels. I missed out on tons of stuff - I have only passing knowledge of "Saved by the Bell" and "Boy Meets World" and FORGET all of those Nickelodeon shows and popular music videos of the '90s. I can't even think of one to name because I literally have no frame of reference here. "Thriller"? Was that in the '90s? I think I saw it on an "Alvin and the Chipmunks" pop music parody videotape once. I don't know. OK I just looked it up and it's from 1982, I am really hopeless. I'm leaving this all in as indication of how clueless I am about this kind of thing.

Anyway, before the Blizzard of '96, after which a delicious, candy-filled milkshake at the local ice cream stand was named, and during which my family's massive television antenna met its cold death on our back patio, my mom enjoyed watching "Seinfeld". I'd seen a few snippets of episodes here and there and managed to convince one boy in my second grade class that it was a show I watched and found funny, earning me my one (temporary) elementary school friendship. I knew some of the jokes - "yada yada yada"; "festivus"; and, most importantly, "not that there's anything wrong with that".

In post-adolescence, I started watching "Seinfeld" casually at friends' houses and quickly adopted its brand of neurotic, at once self-loathing and -aggrandizing humor as part of my secular jewish cultural identity. Even with my schedule of casual rerun-catching, I started referencing the episode when Kramer adopts a highway nearly daily when driving through the fair town of Northampton, MA. But after becoming familiar with the canon through more serious DVD watching and DVR-ing (yes, I have cable now), I realized something. Elaine is SERIOUSLY femmespirational.

Elaine's sex-positive-but-not-sexually-objectified single woman-in-charge is a rare breed in mainstream television. She avoids, for the most part, being pigeonholed as a result of romantic relationships; she is also relatively stably employed, although her job doesn't define her.

The honesty about the sexual life of women shown in Elaine's character is one of my favorite things about her. Take, for example, one of the defining episodes of the series' run - "The Contest". I think we've all seen it, but as a refresher - George's mother walks in on him masturbating while perusing a "Glamour" magazine, faints, and ends up in the hospital. This leads to the main four characters making a bet about how long they can stay "master of [their] domains". Elaine's buy-in is higher because, as Jerry says, "it's apples and's easier for a woman not to do it than a man." Needless to say, when JFK Jr. shows up in her aerobics class...

"The queen is dead!"
Never have I been so excited to see a woman lose to a man on a TV show.

Elaine's commitment to her preferred forms of birth control remains admirable. In one episode, she discovers that the contraceptive sponge she uses is going off the market and puts her potential partner through an interview process to rate whether or not he is "sponge-worthy"- sub "sponge" for the physicial intimacy it signifies and I'm sure we all wish we had gone through this with at least one previous partner, right? She later rejects him after fulfilling her needs because he isn't worth more than one sponge. Earlier in the series, she candidly discusses keeping her diaphragm with her, because "you never know when you’re gonna need it, right?" Her relaxed, but not hypersexual, attitude towards relationships puts her on the same playing field as the other three leads.

Somewhat darker is Elaine's story arc in "The Stand-In", when her date, a friend of Jerry's, "takes it out" in a non-consensual situation.

About a million years ago, I took a class in Smith's film department on comedy, and one in the German department about films made during and about the Holocaust. In both, the oft-quoted passage from Charlie Chaplin's autobiography on using humor as "an attitude of defiance" came up. It can be difficult for comedy to toe the line between garden variety rape-culture-informed joking around and using the medium as a Chaplin-inspired coping mechanism for sexual assault. The episode is a perfect example of the latter - Elaine's blase attitude towards the assault and her reaction towards it shine a harsh light on her history as the butt of misogynistic micro-aggressions. During her conversation with Jerry about the experience, the contrast between her state of detached annoyance and his shock further drives that point home.

Most importantly, throughout the episode the writers portray Elaine as THE empathetic character and put the ridicule on her assailant. It isn't a perfect episode (although both ultimately support Elaine, Jerry and Kramer go through apologist trains of thought), but all in all is surprisingly progressive in its airing and treatment of what would be, in real life, a traumatic experience. This is especially true due to the show's documented avoidance of the ubiquitous 1990's "very special episode" format; Larry David was quoted in an article about the show entitled "Much Ado about Nothing" April 1993 Entertainment Weekly as stating its philosophy was "No hugging. No learning." (NB - I found this using "Search Inside" in this book, which I think I need now)

Since this is a femmespiration, though, I know that I should move on and get to the fashion. Even with the '90s revival in full swing, Elaine rocks some looks that are questionable at best. Her hair stays rather large throughout the majority of the series' run, which I totally support as a huge FUCK YOU to body-policing but maybe not as a contemporary look. All that said, some of her ridiculous outfits are direct predecessors to current trends; I'm not the only one to notice this. Take this ensemble, featured in seminal episode "The Bubble Boy":
"Nothing is finer than being in your diner!"

 Appropriation aside (in my head this is a Pendleton jacket and therefore slightly less problematic), I love this pattern-on-chambray layering. I think I saw a similar outfit on Tumblr recently, or maybe it was a Madewell editorial or something.

Elaine's dress in "The Hamptons" is something I wouldn't turn down at Savers. 

I might alter the length, but it's still great.

Did you know that, according to the aforementioned Times article, Elaine's iconic fringed suede jacket actually belonged to Julia Louis-Dreyfus?

Hey, Meg? Melina? Could I pull this off? Because I really want to.

Oh, hold on a second. Elaine, can you confirm that you are wearing a studded baby pink button down TWENTY YEARS before the punked-out pastel look came into fashion?  

Yes, you are. So sorry to have doubted you.

Elaine isn't all blazers and granny dresses, though. When she wants to, she cleans up pretty well. In "The Shoes", she runs literal interference with an NBC exec who has quashed Jerry and George's sitcom dreams due to George's problematic inability to look away from the exec's daughter's breasts.

Their show is reinstated and Elaine uses her newfound influence to coerce Jerry and George to write her into their show.

Although I'm leaving out many of my and Melina's favorite Elaine moments, I think it's about time to wrap this up. Maybe a part two is in the future.

Until then: Elaine, even though you're not a lesbian, you're still a worthy femmespiration.

most screenshots & gifs from & aka my alternating homepages; jacket photo from here, "the shoes" screencap from here

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