Monday, November 23, 2009

"A George divided against itself, cannot stand." -- A Seinfeld Review

Seinfeld is an interesting show to analyze in terms of masculinity because of the subtleties of masculine portrayals. None of the main characters—George, Kramer, Jerry, or Elaine—are hyper-masculine nor overtly playing with facets of masculinity. And yet, masculinity, in discreet and not-so-discreet ways, is everywhere in this show. For example, it is widely circulated that Jerry Seinfeld's favorite character of all time is Superman and there is a Superman figurine in every episode. All of the characters are white, live in New York, have jobs (for the most part), and generally lead very privileged lives. This is not the show to watch to gain insight on intersectionality, but there are still incredibly convoluted (and hilarious) plot lines.

George and Jerry’s characters on the show are almost polar opposites in their portrayals of masculinity. Jerry is the “normal” character everyone seeks for advice; he is described in one episode as “the nucleus” that holds together the four friends. George, however, lives at home, is unemployed through most of the show’s span, and is never truly happy in any relationship. The episode, “The Pool Guy,” begins with George and Jerry discussing who would win between them if they were to physically fight. In order to determine which is the “better man,” physical violence and a test of strength is required, not any kind of character evaluation. The episode continues with Elaine explaining that she has no female friends, to which Kramer responds, “That’s because you’re a man’s woman. You hate other women and they hate you.” Kramer later makes a comment to Jerry on George’s behavior regarding his wife by saying, “Nothin’ more pathetic than a grown man who’s afraid of a woman!” Kramer seems to personify the idea that men bond over their male privilege at the expense of women. Because Elaine has close male friends, she is in a plane above other women; she is not reduced to the “normal” woman’s role. Kramer thinks it is pathetic (if not downright ridiculous) for a man to be scared of a woman, implying that there is nothing to be scared of because women are, by nature, inferior beings.

The actual events of this episode center around George’s fiancée, Susan, and Elaine becoming friends, George’s resentment about the situation and Jerry’s awkward, spontaneous encounters with the “pool guy” of his health club. George claims his “worlds are colliding” because his circle of friends is his sanctuary from real life, mainly his fiancée and his job, and Susan is unwittingly intervening. George says, “If [Susan] is allowed to infiltrate this world, George Costanza as you know him, ceases to exist! You see, right now I have Relationship George, but there is also Independent George. That’s…Movie George, Coffee Shop George, Liar George, Bawdy George…” George cannot be any of these things—essentially, how he behaves with his friends “independently”—in front of or with Susan. If Susan becomes a part of the group, George will have to become an entirely different man, other than George Costanza, representing the concept of performativity.

Jerry keeps running into Ramon, the “pool guy” from his health club, who he doesn’t necessarily want to befriend. Ramon does not pick up on Jerry’s uncomfortable demeanor around him and makes an unannounced appearance at Jerry’s apartment. Jerry “breaks up” with Ramon by getting off of the subway suddenly and claiming that he has enough friends and doesn’t need anymore. Ramon is visibly upset and subsequently makes it increasingly uncomfortable for Jerry at the health club. In one particular scene, Ramon insists on cleaning the pool and badgering Jerry while Jerry swims by. Jerry then causes Ramon to fall in the pool, while Newman unknowingly jumps onto Ramon, knocking him unconscious. What follows is a discussion between Jerry and Newman while hovering over Ramon, trying to figure out who will give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. If this does not sound ridiculous enough, Jerry attempts to convince Newman by stating, “You know he could die,” to which Newman retorts, “Yeah, maybe.” Neither are willing to possibly save another human being by participating in an act that is overtly homoerotic and taboo. If they were to touch lips with another man, in any instance, this would be seen as a weakness and a source of endless jokes and ridicule, as well as a challenge to their manhood.

In another equally absurd, yet thought-provoking episode, “The Contest,” George is caught masturbating by his mother. George tells the group he’s never doing “that” again and when Jerry refuses to believe him, George proposes a contest to see who can go the longest without masturbation. Elaine is outright refused entrance at first “because [she’s] a woman.” Of course, women have no sexual desire and only experience sexuality in reference to men, so it wouldn’t be fair for Elaine to be judged by the same standards as the rest of the group. Jerry claims that men have to do it as it’s “part of [their] lifestyle,” as opposed to women who don’t have sexual feelings and feel no need to masturbate.

At the same time, Kramer discovers that a woman lives across the street from him and Jerry’s building that walks around nude in her apartment. All three male characters stop everything to witness this. Kramer makes a swift exit and upon his return, drops money on the counter and declares he’s “out of the contest.” Apparently, the woman across the street affected him so much, he couldn’t endure the constraints of the contest any longer. Kramer follows this with a warning to Jerry, that the nude woman is “going to get [him] next,” almost as if she is consciously involved in “breaking down” Jerry’s will power.

When George’s mother caught him, in a spell of fright she fell and injured her back. As George visits her in the hospital, he discovers an attractive female patient being sponge-bathed by an attractive female nurse. Despite the contest, George makes it a point to be at the hospital during this time to visit his mother in order to observe this. This scene is presented as a lesbian porn movie behind a curtain and George is beside himself with glee, refusing to fetch his hungry mother dinner to be able to watch the whole show. The idea of women as men’s entertainment is seen quite a few times in this episode and is used to define their heterosexuality. Although these women are acting completely independent of the main characters of the show (a woman in her apartment, a patient in a hospital, etc), their actions are absorbed and interpreted as intended for their enjoyment.

Seinfeld is an intriguing display of masculinity in the sense that these men (and woman) are represented as “normal,” everyday people. There is nothing about them that is incredibly out of the (dominant) ordinary, relatively speaking. By the same token, these are four individuals that seem to speak for a wide audience in a show that claims to be about nothing.


Cristoina said...

The episode, "The Contest" is definitely an infamous episode and gives a pretty accurate commentary on how society views womyn's sexuality and masturbation. It seems that once again Elaine has to be either raised to a man's standards (as being on of the guys) or judged completely different and as you stated before as inferior to men and in this case men's need for sexual release. I think about Seinfeld a lot when it comes to men and womyn being friends, and it seems that since there is less sexual tension due to Elaine and Jerry having dated in the past, they can have a legitimate platonic relationship that includes a few comedic jabs at their past relationship. This idea that sex is a reoccurring plague on male-female friendships seems to be a common theme in the mainstream media today.I wonder if this depiction has any validity or has the media constructed this notion and simply perpetuated that men and womyn are so completely different and reinforcing gender binaries? I was almost glad to see Elaine's character in "The Contest" lose and prove that womyn can pleasure themselves, that they enjoy it, it's healthy and natural, and not just for the stereotypical "sex crazed" man.

Ani Reina said...

In the episode "The Pool Guy" it is interesting to see that neither Jerry or Newmen will try to save a guys life. It seems not only to be a test to their manhood but a fine line for them to cross since they are not hyper masculine. Not only that but caring is never seen as a masculine trait, therefore Newmens response of "maybe" just makes him that much more masculine than Jerry for not caring.

taco said...

Your review is really interesting, and I liked that you addressed a lot of different issues that the show deals with. I found it interesting especially because it does such a good job of describing the male-female friendships in Seinfeld. Also, Cristina's response made me think more about Elaine's relationship to Jerry, George, and Kramer; though Elaine and Jerry dated a long time ago, as both Cristina and Sandy pointed out, the show makes it clear that Elaine is just 'one of the guys.' Elaine is an exception to the rule because she is asexual in relation to the male leads, just as they are asexual in relation to one another. Though she dates just as the men in the show date, she is sexually unavailable to them. It's almost as if her relationships with other men function to strenghthen the bonds with her male friends: she's sexual, but never with them. In order to be friends with Jerry, George, and Kramer, Elaine has to be like them; and in order for Jerry, George, and Kramer to be friends with Elaine, they have to deny her sexuality (something that seemingly would separate them from her if they were to acknowledge it). I see this dynamic in my own life, and it's interesting that, in some ways, it seems like it's socially mandated that we approach female/male relationships as only partial human beings, in which we must either deny our sexuality or our commonalities.