Feminist role models: Elaine Benes

I am standing in my friend’s kitchen while she speaks in hushed tones on the phone. She hangs up and smiles, revealing that the boy she likes has finally asked her out. “We’re going to the movies on Saturday!” she squeals. My response to this is not an excited hug or a polite smile. Instead, I throw my arms to my sides, take a large step behind me, and barrel towards her with gusto. I force my hands onto her chest with such momentum that it knocks her backwards into the wall. As I do this, I shout the immortal words “GET OUT!”

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Why? Well, if it was good enough for Elaine, it was good enough for me. Elaine Benes first stumbled into my life when I was at primary school. I recall being forced to watch endless re-runs of my grandparents’ favourite programs Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie – shows that suggested my notions of a female heroine should be geared towards the mythical. As an ordinary brunette growing up in the suburbs, attributes of being both traditionally gorgeous and possessing magical skills were sorely lacking in my repertoire, and I resigned myself to expecting I’d never view anyone remotely relatable on screen.

Enter Elaine. She was not the typical 90s girl, the likes of which adorned my Dolly magazines with glowing skin and pearly teeth. She wasn’t a ‘good’ girl who was doomed to unhappiness unless rescued by a brave and daring suitor, like the damsels who filled my bedtime fairytales. Unapologetically brash, bold and cynical, Elaine wasn’t for the faint-hearted – she was real. She was just a single woman, with an opinion, trying to get by in the world.

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I loved her.

Elaine’s self-confidence was a huge part of her appeal. Despite lacking the quintessential all-American look, Elaine had self-belief. She believed she could convert a gay man onto the heterosexual team and that she looked good enough in a leotard post-gym workout to attract JFK Junior. She had an endless list of admirers yet she dressed androgynously, mainly lived alone, and held down a number of professional roles (excluding the Mr Pitt fiasco). It was her charm, her charisma – her ‘shiksa appeal’ – that enabled her to have a date for any occasion; a Mets player here, an NBC executive there. Of course none of these relationships withstood the test of time, mainly because Elaine’s own superficiality wouldn’t allow them to – a shallowness Elaine both admitted to and in which she revelled.

This made Elaine even more relatable, because she owned her shit. For all her flaws, she was never fake (even if she did admit to faking it). And while it’s true that Elaine’s character may have been created almost by accident (instructed to add a female voice to the show, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David came up with Elaine, basing her on the merged personalities of women they had dated, as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus herself), the presence of a character who proudly rebelled against gender roles and constructs of femininity made her a character that inadvertently gave me permission to be the kind of woman she was. Elaine taught women that it was okay to have a friend with benefits, to masturbate, and to use birth control, remarking of the diaphragm that spilled from her handbag, ‘You never know when you’re gonna need it!’ Better yet, Elaine did all of this without the urge to navel-gaze. Unlike the girls of Sex and The City who lamented over ticking biological clocks, whether they were sluts and who spent oodles of money on outrageous fashion, Elaine was proudly unmaternal long before Miranda faked her sonogram and was yada yada-ing sex before Samantha slept with half of Manhattan. She also was fervently pro-choice to the point of breaking up with the seemingly perfect mate because of their differing beliefs. So more than just being a funny, authentic female character on prime time television – which for a long time was an accomplishment in itself – in many respects, Elaine was a trailblazer.

Where else would a girl like me, in her teens, living in the far-eastern suburbs of Brisbane find such a role model? A woman who never sought to conform to any expectations society thrust upon her, and whose own satisfaction was rarely linked to the attainment of material possessions (except, maybe, some shoes from Botticelli’s)?

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I reasoned that if Elaine could have a positive view of herself, perhaps I could as well. I could be a proud feminist who was just as funny as the boys. I could be strong enough to take on the soup Nazis of the world. And better yet, I didn’t even need to pretend to have grace as I bumbled through life.

So thank you, Miss Benes. You were a broad with balls, who stood her ground and who didn’t give a damn about anyone’s opinion. Thanks for helping us all to live our lives authentically, and to realise that it’s okay to dance as if no one is watching.

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Usually.

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Images: Seinfeld, Woman in Thrisis

Sare Tucker profileSarah Tucker is a Brisbane-raised, Melbourne-based writer, blogger and lawyer whose writing explores themes of family, friendship and mental health. She is a proud mum to two little men and a cattle dog with even more psychological issues than she has. For more of her writing, visit allmydirtylaundry.com.

 

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