On November 18, 1992, the creators and writers of Seinfeld posed a serious question to Americans, just weeks after they elected Bill Clinton as their new president.
"How long can a modern human go without masturbating?" they asked, without even using the dreaded M-word, with more than 22 minutes of side-stepping stuttering hilarity.
But with "The Contest" the Seinfeld tapped into uncharted territory for television. The phrase "master of my domain" would become code for taming your lustful onanistic urges.
Today if a current sitcom tackled this same subject it wouldn't be a big deal. Censors in 1992 were still scared of the m-word. We were all still two years away from the Jocelyn Elders debacle too.
And with porn so prevalent on smart phones now, the novelty of jacking it to a copy of Glamour is sweetly-innocent.
Even the concept of a woman masturbating -- giggle giggle -- was foreign in 1992. The fact that Elaine got her rocks off to the spank bank images of John F. Kennedy Jr. in her aerobics class helped string the Kennedy thread through the history of the series.
I love Seinfeld and I love this episode first because it's really funny. Masturbation is a universal human act, thus it's very relatable. And because our society is so uptight about sex, it serves as good comedy. But I also love this episode because it let Elaine bust stereotypes about women and their sexuality. Elaine did this constantly on the show. But Julia Louis Dreyfus's performance really sticks out in this episode.
Elaine has the same sexual urges as the three male characters. But as it pertains to the contest, she has to put up more money because they hold the stereotypical notion that women don't crave sex as much as men do. Elaine proves just as willing to express her sexual desires as the other guys. And that's not something unique to this episode. Elaine is consistently portrayed as a very sexually active woman; one calls to mind the sponge episode where she rushes to buy as many forms of the contraception she likes before they are taken off the market.
Despite Elaine losing the contest (as noted above due to her JFK Jr fantasy) and being sexually active in general, she isn't criticized or demeaned as a slut/whore/prostitute. She is allowed autonomy over her body and the freedom to express he sexual desires as she wishes. Aside from an episode or two, she is generally portrayed as a happy, successful, and single person.
Women's autonomy over their body, whether it's abortion or their sexual desires, are still treated as taboo subjects, if they are addressed at all. You can probably find a bunch of male masturbation jokes, not to mention the glorification of men sleeping with as many women as they can. One only has to remember the Sandra Fluke issue (wherein conservatives called her a slut for wanting contraception) to see that women are still degraded for expressing themselves sexually.
Elaine was a great female role model for me when I was growing up. She showed me that women didn't have to conform to the stereotypes that society has created and that feminism has been working to change. But even as popular as the show was, it only seems to have marginally changed the way society treats women. Pop culture is only one part of that change, and arguably a very small part of it. But I would like to see more characters like Elaine challenging stereotypes and being good role models for everyone.