Who's the one woman on television who has epitomised what it means to be a deliciously selfish single woman? Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, or any of the women on Sex and City, might come to mind. But it's actually Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose characters have done the most to reframe what it means to be a single woman.
Unlike Murphy Brown and Sex and the City, shows that put their characters' single statuses front and centre, Louis-Dreyfus' characters just happen to be single. First, she gave us Elaine, who could match her guy friends for a number of partners, sex drive, frank sex talk and emotional detachment.
Then she played Christine Campbell, a divorced mum who maintains a close relationship with her ex-husband while running a business and doing pretty well on the dating market. (Scott Bakula, Blair Underwood and Eric McCormack were among her suitors on The New Adventures of Old Christine.) And now her Veep character, Selina Meyer, has got all the way to the White House as a single mum with a sex life.
Although Louis-Dreyfus has been married to writer-actor Brad Hall for nearly 30 years, she has spent most of that time modelling for us how to remain happily independent while demanding from our dates not just what we deserve, but maybe even a little more. Hey, a woman doesn't rise from hanging with George and Jerry to president of the United States by pining for Prince Charming.
At the time Elaine was conceived as a character pop culture hadn't seen a female character like Elaine Benes. As the only major female character on the show that dominated the 1990s, she became the model for single womanhood for a generation and beyond, via reruns. From her, Gen X women learned to care as much about sponge-worthiness and cunnilingus as they did about romance and marriage.
Creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld based Elaine on what they considered a rare bird: a woman Jerry could date but remain friends with afterward. Singlehood was built into Elaine's character, and her relationships tended toward either total weirdos - the Maestro, the guy obsessed with the song Desperado. Or "mimbos" - hot guys who gave her great sex, but little else.
She isn't merely picky, like Jerry. She seems to be actively choosing guys with whom she has no future.
Sure, she isn't exactly a people person, and her dancing is a national embarrassment. But she's also smart and sexy as hell. She's a fully realised woman.
Elaine showed us there was life beyond the sit-com wife, beyond even the idealised single-woman stars of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Murphy Brown. She bridged the gap from Mary's sweet perfection and Murphy's kick-ass careerism to Carrie Bradshaw's frank sex talk.
A judgey grandma type might say it's no wonder Elaine ends up alone. Elaine displays few, if any, signs of generosity or reciprocity in relationships; she's more interested in superficial pleasures than anything else. But these traits represented bold choices for a female character, giving us a corrective for the continuous women's magazine headlines worrying us about what men want. Elaine occasionally expressed a desire to get married, but she was not in any apparent hurry. And she wasn't about to start caring about what men wanted just to get herself down the aisle.
Elaine showed us that men and women can be friends - and that friends-with-benefits rarely end up together after a mushy New Year's Eve declaration of love.
Women masturbate, can have unemotional sex and can't resist a pretty face any more than men can. These ideas came later, fully formed, in Sex and the City, but that was a show about women, mainly for women. Seinfeld brought these fairly radical-for-the-time ideas to a huge, mainstream, largely male audience.
Louis-Dreyfus' later characters have only furthered Elaine's legacy. Christine Campbell unapologetically dated her kid's dreamy teacher and her therapist, among several inappropriate dating choices.
President Selina Meyer takes Elaine's selfish-single-woman mandate to a new level. As a divorced mom, she has become president without the encumbrance of a first dude. It's a luxury our likely first female president might envy just a little. Selina dates just like a powerful man might, calling upon a chief executive played by John Slattery for no-strings-attached sex and hooking up with her running mate, played by Hugh Laurie.
Could a single, female president be in our future someday? If so, we have Julia Louis-Dreyfus - and Elaine Benes - to thank.