MEN WITH JOBS: SEINFELD AND THE FIGHT FOR ADOLESCENCE
INTRODUCTION In “When You Act Like an Adult, I’ll Treat You Like One…” Shauna Pomerantz and Amanda Benjamin say of Seinfeld (1989-98), “Each episode represents another struggle against the constraints and obligations of maturity. In fact, the characters equate traditional adulthood with death itself” (Pomerantz and Benjamin, 344). The childishness of Seinfeld’s characters is evident in Jerry's (Jerry Seinfeld) and George’s (Jason Alexander) marriage “pact” in “The Engagement” (7.1), George's and Kramer's (Michael Richards) settling a dispute with “Inky Dink” in “The Statue” (2.10), and Jerry’s knocking out his girlfriend in order to play with her G.I. Joes in “The Merv Griffin Show” (9.6). Though the main characters in Seinfeld do maintain a childlike sensibility throughout the series, this is not
“The Statue” (2.6): Kramer finds a replica of a statue George broke as a child. The two fight over and eventually agree to play “Choose” and “Inky Dink” to determine a winner.
“The Sniffing Accountant” (5.4): While living at home, George’s father gets him an interview with a bra salesman, and George’s response is simply: “That’s my whole afternoon! I was gonna buy sneakers!”
“The Sponge” (7.9): Jerry reveals one of his best kept secrets— he changes the label on his jeans from a 32” waist to a 31” to preserve his reputation as a thin man.
“The Pitch” (4.3): “They’re men with jobs, Jerry!” Jerry and George are meeting with NBC to discuss the pilot, Jerry. George is extremely uncomfortable with men in suits and people in corporate positions.
EXAMPLES OF CHILDISHNESS
“The Cigar Store Indian” (5.10): George’s parents come home from a long weekend away and they find a condom wrapper on their bed. After finding out that George had sex in their bed, his father grounds him.
“The Seinfeld Chronicles” (1.1): This is the most overt example of Jerry’s references to Superman, but he often brings in metaphors of Superman, Louise Lane, and even Aquaman in his daily conversations.
SELF-CENTRIC LIFESTYLE Seinfeld takes place in the real-life context of late twentieth-century New York, a “world in which friendship, not marriage, is the defining aspect of contemporary life” (Di Mattia). What strengthens the bond between Jerry, George, Elaine (Julia LouisDreyfus) and Kramer, is that as individuals they are each self-centered and narcissistic, and as a result their “individual goals reinforce those of the group as a whole” (Di Mattia). By maintaining a group dynamic, each character is able to prioritize him/ herself above the rest, and at the same time, has the support of the group (so long as it’s convenient for them).
“The Pool Guy” (7.8): When the pool guy at Jerry’s local gym gets knocked out as a result of Newman’s cannonball, Jerry and Newman risk his life in order to avoid giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
However, because the four are so accustomed to this exclusive friendship of taking and never giving, the notion of selfinvolvement is continually reinforced and perceived as “normal” and justifiable behavior, inhibiting the growth and development of Seinfeld’s main characters. Nevertheless, because the show lacks any moral fiber, it is often the other characters involved that pay the price for Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer’s selfishness.
“The Wait Out” (7.21): Jerry and Elaine have been “waiting out” the marriage between two friends in order to swoop in and make their claims. When it finally happens (thanks to George), the two can be seen celebrating the separation.
CRISIS OF MASCULINITY
“The Engagement” (7.1): George decides to make a change and reminisces about the great times he had with Susan (Heidi Swedberg). In a fit of spontaneity, he proposes to her.
The greatest example of the characters’ self-involvement in Seinfeld is with Jerry and George’s fixation on “playing” men. We call this the “crisis of masculinity,” and it is their tight-knit homosocial bond that coerces them to mime the responsibilities of manhood in order to prove to one another (as well as other members of society they feel are constantly judging them) that they are real “men”. However, the ideal of a “real” man has been lost for several decades now and has been renamed the male “mystique”, in which men are perceived to be “competitive, physical, prosperous, and heroic” (Di Mattio).
Much of Seinfeld’s humor relies on the dissonance between classic masculinity, and Jerry and George’s childish performance of how they believe men behave. The most notable example of this is in “The Engagement” (7.1), when Jerry and George essentially get bored of their adolescent behavior and decide to “make a change.” We are led to believe that both men have come to an epiphany when Jerry says, “What kind of lives are these? We’re like children. We’re not men,” only to realize halfway through the episode when Jerry once again breaks up with a woman for no good reason, that nothing has changed.
RELATIONSHIP WITH WOMEN Finding Comedy in its Faults In line with the characters of Seinfeld’s emphasis on individuality and personal gain, nothing could be more advantageous to the foursome than to engage in shallow, short-lived relationships or flings. In fact, in the show, relationships exist exclusively for sex and stories, and most procedural plotlines in the series deal with the new women/men in the characters’ lives and their unusual quirks become topics for clubhouse conversations. Typically, the character who is in the relationship will find a fault in their partner, and this fault will eventually get blown out of the proportion under the reinforcement of the rest of the group; however, as Di Mattio states, “it is easier to find petty faults with these women and to get rid of them, than it is to look at their own shortcomings. Women are presented as a means for personal gain.” Here, we are shown the world of dating from the skewed perspective of our childish main characters, who for the most part, perceiving “dating” to equivocate to sex and nothing deeper.
“The Soup Nazi” (7.6): In a rare twist of events, Jerry and his new girlfriend are extremely affectionate in front of others, calling each other “Schmoopy.” George is particularly sickened by it, and attempts to mock them by doing the same with Susan. This ultimately backfires on him.
Women as the “Other”
“The Voice” (9.2): Jerry and the gang have an inside joke about his new girlfriend’s stomach talking in a deep voice while she sleeps. When faced with the ultimatum to either drop the voice or break up, Jerry chooses the voice. “Hellooooo!”
Another way that the characters of Seinfeld demonstrate their immaturity when it comes to dating is by ostracizing their past and even current partners. By discussing their partners in terms of the “Other,” these relationships will always remain temporary and transitional, and the partners will never pose a threat to the group’s core dynamic. Often times it is someone’s maturity that the group will sneer at, such as in “The Contest” (4.11), when Marla (Jane Leeves) is affronted when she finds out the gang have been competing in a masturbation contest; when Elaine hears about it, instead of feeling sympathetic for her she says, “Boy, she’s a wacko.” In the show, “Maturity is something to be eschewed; those who engage in mature acts are to be pitied and avoided” (Pomerantz and Benjamin, 344).
!While much of Seinfeld’s plot has to do with the ups
and downs of dating, not one relationship results in a happy ending. In fact, for the gang, relationships “impinge upon their buddy system and threaten the homosocial order they work so hard to maintain” (Di Mattio). Not only are the characters forced to be responsible for someone else’s feelings, but their leisure time is also jeopardized by the other person, making it harder for them attend group meetings at Monk’s or catch up on the latest gossip in Jerry’s apartment—there is an eminent fear that they will be “ostracized from the community.”
“The Sponge” (7.9): Now that George and Susan are engaged, he feels the need to tell her secrets. He tells her Jerry got a girl’s number off an AIDS walk list, and Jerry later finds out, telling George, “You’re out of the loop!”
PRIORITY OF FRIENDSHIP Aversion to Change
“The Pool Guy” (7.8): Elaine befriends Susan, and George feels his “worlds are colliding.” George describes the difference between “Relationship George” and “Independent George,” and blames Elaine for killing “Independent George.”
Perhaps the biggest reason relationships are so villainized in Seinfeld is because they represent change. While the group is certainly afraid of the responsibilities of adulthood (George in particular), we do see Elaine working in a corporate setting for most of the series, Jerry making adult decisions when it comes to spending money (for example, buying his parents a Cadillac), and even Kramer spending a few days working for an office until he gets fired for being incompetent. It may not be the responsibilities that they are afraid to face, but more so the fear of having to give up the group dynamic they have perfected over time.
CONCLUSION Much of Seinfeld’s humor relies on the dissonance between classic masculinity, and Jerry and George’s childish performance of how they believe men behave. The most notable example of this is in “The Engagement” (7.1), when Jerry and George essentially get bored of their adolescent behavior and decide to “make a change.” We are led to believe that both men have come to an epiphany when Jerry says, “What kind of lives are these? We’re like children. We’re not men,” only to realize halfway through the episode when Jerry once again breaks up with a woman for no good reason, that nothing has changed.
Media "The Seinfeld Chronicles." Seinfeld. NBC. 5 Jul. 1989. Television. "The Statue." Seinfeld. NBC. 11 Apr. 1991. Television. "The Pitch." Seinfeld. NBC. 16 Sept. 1992. Television.! "The Contest." Seinfeld. NBC. 18 Nov. 1992. Television. "The Sniffing Accountant." Seinfeld. NBC. 7 Oct. 1993. Television. "The Cigar Store Indian." Seinfeld. NBC. 9 Dec. 1993. Television. "The Soup Nazi." Seinfeld. NBC. 2 Nov. 1995. Television. "The Engagement." Seinfeld. NBC. 21 Sept. 1995. Television. "The Pool Guy." Seinfeld. NBC. 16 Nov. 1995. Television. "The Sponge." Seinfeld. NBC. 7 Dec. 1995. Television. "The Wait Out." Seinfeld. NBC. 9 May 1996. Television. "The Voice." Seinfeld. NBC. 2 Oct. 1997. Television.
Scholarly Di Mattia, Joanna L. "The Show About Something: Anxious Manhood and the Homosocial Order on Seinfeld." Info: Ann Arbor, MI: Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library 14 (2000).
McMahon, Jennifer. "Seinfeld, Subjectivity, and Sartre." Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing, edited by W. Irwin. Chicago: Open Court (2003): 90-108.
Pomerantz, Shauna, and Amanda Benjamin. "“When You Act Like an Adult, I’ll Treat You Like One...”: Investigating Representations of Adulthood in Popular Culture." DOCUMENT RESUME (2000): 356.