A culture writer for Vox set forth fervent debate recently by asking whether the Seinfeld character Elaine Benes was meant to be hot.
He followed up this tweet with another, along similar lines. Very similar:
Before you groan about some man holding forth on women’s looks, some details might be worth highlighting. Alex Abad-Santos is asking to whom Elaine Benes and Fran Fine are “supposed to be” attractive in the universes of their respective television shows. This is different from whether Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Fran Drescher are alluring.
Also relevant: Alex Abad-Santos is gay. He is not discussing whether he would, personally, seek to romance these 1990s sitcom characters.
Some of what he observes about Elaine and Fran is a function of time. We get older, while television characters stay the same age (35, give or take). This impacts our perceptions of them. Sitcom characters who seemed weird and old to 1990s kids when we first watched these shows are now our own age or (gulp) younger, leading us to see them in a whole new light.
Fran Fine and Elaine Benes have something in common beyond big hair and a 1990s sitcom presence. They’re both Jewish. Or… are they?
Fran, yes, she is Jewish, The Nanny is extremely Jewish, we can set that aside for now.
Elaine Benes’s Jewishness or lack thereof could be, and doubtless is, the topic of dissertations. Not a dissertation, but not far off: for the 25th anniversary of its final episode, Nathan Abrams of The Jewish Chronicle looked at how the sitcom was, and wasn’t, revolutionary in terms of open displays of Jewishness. And per Abrams, “the ethnicity of George, Kramer and Elaine is more ambiguous despite George and Elaine being played by Jewish actors.”
It’s a fun article, but alas on this front wrong on two counts. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is “of partly Jewish descent,” which makes it difficult to suggest that she is hiding being A Jew by playing a gentile character.
As for Elaine Benes, the character, there is no ambiguity. We know she’s white, both because we have seen her, and because this is the subject of that episode where she winds up heading to the Gap. And we know she isn’t Jewish because, as is the focus of an episode Abrams himself mentions, Elaine is, to use the derogatory word without which you will not know which episode I mean, a “shiksa.”
And yet. There’s something Jewish about Elaine, her brunette Upper West Sider-ness, her lady-Larry-David-ness. Elaine Benes is very possibly Jewier than Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The idea that Elaine would have “shiksappeal”—that is, that she’s someone men specifically attracted to non-Jewish women would be drawn to—beggars belief.
For a trend you need three. While the originator of the hotness debate doesn’t mention this next one (or does in a tweet I didn’t see, for all I know), there is very much a triumvirate situation here.
You do not go through life a pale, slim, dark-haired, somewhat serious-faced lady-Jew and not hear your fair share about Lilith. By “Lilith” I of course mean Lilith Sternin, from Cheers, then spin-off Frasier. No, not Lilith from the Bible, nor Lilith the feminist Jewish magazine. Lilith of Frasier and Lilith. Lilith, who is unambiguously Jewish on the show.
Now, Lilith was not supposed to be hot. Not on the show, at least. Her impending arrival, on Frasier, elicits shuddering from the cast. Lilith is Frasier’s icy, rigid, humourless ex. She is also, apparently, hot, as far as viewers themselves are concerned. This is why ten trillion people have independently come to the conclusion that the character, played by the American Jewish actress and dancer Bebe Neuwirth, was actually, would you believe it, hot. Some hashtag their observation, “unpopular opinion,” though the opinion is widely held, online and off-. Everyone thinks they’re strange for thinking this. And yet, think this everyone does.
Even apart from Lilith (who also has a lil’ moment with Frasier’s brother Niles as well, because sitcoms do things like this), the Crane men seem to have had a thing for Jewish women, going by the episodes my random streaming re-watch of it has put before me. There’s one Frasier pretends to be Jewish for (her mother demands this), and another he picks up at a shiva. There’s his too-hot-to-handle fling with a character played by Lisa Edelstein. And Niles’s wife-for-five-minutes, plastic surgeon Mel Karnofsky, is a bit, you know. I am not a Frasier completest enough to know if her background is ever stated outright.
Frasier and Niles like their women urbane and well-educated. Sophisticated. In the crude shorthand of sitcoms, Jewish women fill that role.
I could go on, but will stop and ask: Why is the hotness of these women treated as some strange discovery? Because I don’t think it’s just about age of first viewing versus watching a rerun decades later. It’s also about how “hot,” at least in the 1990s, at least among white people, implied something very specific: tan, blonde, and wholesome-looking. A look found among Jewish women, sure, but not coded as Jewish.
A pasty, dark-haired city-dweller—an Elaine, a Fran, or a Lilith—could maybe hot be to some, but was a specific type, an acquired taste.
The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz