Elaine Benes: The Unapologetic Icon of the ‘90s | Seinfeld, Explained

Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes is one of the most iconic and hilarious characters of the 90s – played by the comedy legend, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She stood out for being the only woman of the friend group, but also because she was (at least at first) also less cynical than her friends. Her confidence and unapologetic attitude were refreshing and radical, and her character opened the door for so many of our faves that followed after.

So let’s turn back the clock and analyze what made Elaine so different, why she became such an iconic and beloved character, and how, even if she wasn’t always a great person, she still managed to be a new kind of role model.


Originally introduced as Jerry’s ex-girlfriend with a humanitarian but somewhat snobbish personality, Elaine occupies a strange position in this cynical crew of professional slackers. For starters, she isn’t a New York native like Jerry, George, and Kramer. Elaine grew up in Maryland – and according to Jerry, had a fairly cushy upbringing.

How about our little Elaine, huh? Attended the finest finishing schools on the Eastern Seaboard. Equestrian competitions, debutante balls. Look at her now: interviewing mohels.”

Elaine is emblematic of a certain kind of city transplant. She’s an educated, privileged white woman with liberal values, not afraid to stand up for what’s right even when her pleas fall on deaf ears.

Tuna?” “Oh, the dolphin thing?” “They’re dying in the nets.”

Over time, we begin to see the cracks in Elaine’s external moral righteousness, revealing her to be just as narcissistic and judgmental as the rest of her friend group. Elaine’s character arc is on brand for co-creators’ Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s sardonic sense of humor. The secret sauce in David and Seinfeld’s comedic prowess is that everyone is fair game. Especially those in society who care more about appearing ethical to further their own agendas.

So why do we love Elaine despite all her character flaws? She speaks her mind, regardless of the consequences, and isn’t afraid to challenge societal or gender norms even if it makes her somewhat of a pariah. She is an agent of chaos, and behaves in a way that was considered radical for women on television in the 1990s. In other words, Elaine Benes was a character ahead of her time. She’s ambitious, honest, confident in her sexuality, and utterly self-serving.

Putting Herself First No Matter What

When Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld pitched the series to NBC, the network said it was “too male-centric” and would only greenlight Seinfeld on the condition they add a female cast member – which explains why Elaine appears in the second episode and not the pilot. Typical of male writers, Elaine’s journey begins in close proximity to Jerry as his ex-girlfriend-now-friend, and there’s a feeling of tension between them as they navigate a new platonic terrain. As the show goes on, Elaine and Jerry grow more comfortable talking about their dating lives, and through Jerry, Elaine becomes friends with George and Kramer.

As the only woman in a predominately male friend group, Elaine falls into the potential trappings of the pick-me-girl archetype, which has become a meme-worthy term for women who prioritize male validation by framing themselves superior to other women

Elaine, the mollusk travels from Alaska to Chile just for a shot at another mollusk. You think you’re any better?” “Yes, I think I am better than the mollusk.”

And while it is suspect that Elaine doesn’t have any close girlfriends on the show, she doesn’t really fit into the pick-me-girl trope either. Especially given the fact she bullies Jerry, George, and Kramer relentlessly, and often puts them in their place when they deserve it. That being said, Elaine is also far from a “girl’s girl” and is more concerned about advancing her own career and personal agenda than lifting up other women.

“You know what? I don’t have one female friend left.” “Well, no, of course you don’t. You’re a man’s woman. You hate other women and they hate you.”

Which is what makes her such an enigma and arguably a trailblazer in the sitcom landscape, which allowed for more morally-flawed female characters that were also beloved for their relatability. Elaine’s character defies the categories that women are often put in comedy, such as the “bimbo” or “nag” stereotypes, which allowed her to move on an equal playing field with the men on the show. Rivaling Jerry, Elaine has a rotating rolodex of men she dates, who she typically breaks up with at the end of each episode over petty grievances. And while her love life is central to her storylines, Elaine ultimately always chooses herself, which is rare for a female character in a TV genre that often relegated women to ‘desperate for love’ stereotypes.


Seinfeld constantly pokes at society’s assumptions about people—especially differences concerning men and women. These binary assumptions often come up in conversation between Elaine and the gang, where Elaine dispels them of their ignorant notions

With me?” “Well…” “You faked with me?” “Yeah.”

In one episode, the group makes a bet with each other on who can stay abstinent the longest. The guys, of course, assume Elaine won’t participate in the game because they believe women aren’t as sexual as men. Ironically, Elaine is the first to lose the bet when she catches the eye of John Kennedy Jr at a yoga class, and nearly goes mad with desire.

The show at times plays with the classic sitcom dynamic of the woman being desired by her male friend group – especially with Jerry and Elaine’s will-they-won’t-they situation early on – but to the show’s credit, Jerry and Elaine don’t end up together. It’s clear that Elaine, despite having a history with Jerry, has no intention of being with him or any of the other men in her friend group. As a character, she was given her own agency to go out and date and sleep with guys in a way that at the time was usually reserved for male characters.

You don’t think she’d yada yada sex?” “I’ve yada yada-ed sex.” “But you yada yada-ed over the best part.” “No, I mentioned the bisque.”

Elaine didn’t need to be in love—let alone in like—with the men she dated. Sometimes, her desire to be with a man was just as shallow as Jerry or George’s motives. And it’s worth noting her on-and-off relationship with David Puddy, who she didn’t even like that much, was purely physical.

In the 90s, feminism expanded even further into the realm of sexual politics, advocating for women to reclaim their sexuality as a form of empowerment that existed outside the institution of marriage. However, it was still pretty taboo for women to talk about birth control on TV, which made Elaine’s openness about her sex life – and her sponge – on Seinfeld so radical for its time.

I was talking to this guy and I just happened to throw my purse on the sofa, and my diaphragm goes flying out!”

Elaine wasn’t embarrassed about being sexual, even finding the humor in things that should be embarrassing. She helped de-stigmatize important conversations about sex – like, for example, chiding George for not knowing what birth control his fiancé uses. She also doesn’t pander to society’s expectations about women needing to be modest with their sexuality.

“Yeah, 25 sponges is fine.” “25? You’re set with 25?” “Just give me the whole case and I’ll be on my way!”


In addition to her friendship with the guys and the ups and downs of her love life, the biggest focus of Elaine’s story was her work life as an editor in the publishing industry. Aside from Jerry, Elaine has the most stable career in her friend group and even enjoys her job, which supports her independent lifestyle and became fertile ground for side stories that spun comedy gold out of everyday grievances at a 9 to 5 corporate job. From egocentric bosses to mandatory birthday celebrations, some of Elaine’s funniest moments are when she struggles to uphold social niceties in a corporate atmosphere.

“You know, there are 200 people who work in this office. Everyday is somebody’s special day.”

In Season 5, Elaine finally gets the promotion she’s sought after for years at Pendant, but in typical Seinfeldian fashion, fate has other plans. Her addiction to Jujyfruit candy stops her from giving a sniveling Mr. Lippman his handkerchief, which leads to a disastrous end to a merger deal that was supposed to save the company. From that point on, Elaine embarks on a downward career trajectory working for eccentric egomaniacs like Mr. Lipp, and the adventurous catalog CEO, J. Peterson.

And while her chaotic work life is often exaggerated for comedic effect, what Elaine experiences as a woman trying to save her career is painfully relatable.

Grace isn’t something you can pick up at the supermarket.” “All right, look, I don’t have grace. I don’t want grace. I don’t even say grace, okay?”

She has to finesse her way into a job, only to suffer under the tyranny of a rich man who has too much time on his hands. Her season with Mr. Lipp is emblematic of women who burn out trying to impress their male bosses, only to get screwed over in the end. When she lands a job at J. Peterman Catalog, her work life gets even more absurd as she becomes entangled in Peterman’s extravagant schemes and bizarre adventures. While Peterman is a kinder boss than Mr. Lipp, he’s also a terrible boss, putting Elaine in situations that are above her pay grade.

But then something miraculous happens—Elaine gets her big break. All those years of drudgery and shoulder rubbing have finally paid off. But even when the opportunity arises, Elaine second guesses herself. Again, Seinfeld veers into social commentary (while being characteristically unserious.) Elaine’s reaction is common for women who get promoted to a senior rank. 75% of female executives experience imposter syndrome in the workplace. As Luciana Paulise puts it, “Despite having education, certifications and training, it is hard for [women] to feel comfortable with who they are and see their worth.”

Ironically, it’s Kramer, the unemployed grifter of the group, who reminds Elaine what she’s capable of. And Elaine takes to power like a duck to water. Of course, the power goes to her head and Elaine’s inflated ego is warped into the butt of a joke… When she discovers that Kramer’s career advice was inspired by a kid’s karate class, Elaine is quickly humbled and realizes that her first big splash as the new boss was a big flop.

Elaine is a perfect representation of a satirical early girlboss fumbling her way professionally, and rolling with whatever punches karma has in store for her and the gang—while never losing her confidence. Elaine’s career trajectory takes another turn when she leaves J. Peterman and briefly pursues her entrepreneurial aspirations. She partners with Kramer to start a business selling muffin tops, capitalizing on the popular part of the muffin while discarding the bottoms.

“It’s where the muffin breaks free of the pan and sort of does its own thing.”

Despite initial success, their venture ultimately fails due to health code violations and the impracticality of their business model. Following the failure of the muffin top business flop, Elaine returns to editing at Pendant Publishing – but that doesn’t mean she’s free from misadventure.


If there’s one thing Elaine Benes teaches us, it’s that sometimes, enough is enough. Elaine doesn’t mince her words, especially around men – even if it gets her labeled as “difficult.” Elaine is difficult, and that’s why she’s such an iconic character. She doesn’t cater to society’s expectations about what women want or “should” be, and she sticks to her values, even if it costs her a relationship.

Elaine is untethered from many of the gender roles that often pigeonholed women into one-dimensional roles in 90s film and TV, and instead showcased a much more realistic and relatable version of womanhood. Even her comedic outbursts are still very much rooted in her experience as a woman in a friend group of vain and ridiculous men. The “Elaine Shove” was apparently improvised by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who drew from her own experience as a woman having to be aggressive in the male-dominated comedy scene. The “shove” elicited so many laughs from the audience that it became a signature trademark of the series, showing the guys flying off-screen whenever Elaine expressed her excitement or anger physically.


We wouldn’t have shows like Sex and The City or Girls without characters like Elaine Benes who normalized women being weird, difficult, unapologetic, and having healthy, casual sex lives. Let alone sitcoms featuring self-obsessed, zany protagonists like Abby and Ilana from Broad City. Elaine was a trailblazer for women in TV comedies in particular, allowing them to move in ways that were historically so often only afforded to men. And while she may not be the most ethical character, Elaine reminds us how liberating it can feel to speak one’s mind, even if you’re the only one laughing in the room.