|Photo by Arbron on Foter.com / CC BY|
I am rewatching Seinfeld. Seinfeld! And it's great! In terms of being an entertaining show, it totally holds up.
It's also wild to watch because it is SUCH a throwback technology-wise while otherwise feeling pretty modern (even much of the fashion could get a pass today). The weirdest thing? How easily they just pick up the phone to make a call. Do they need to ask someone out? Has there been a misunderstanding? BAM! On the phone! Talking live! No hesitation! Dialling the numbers they know in their heads!
This is so... not how we live anymore. Can you imagine? If the show was on now, there would be a whole episode debating the implications of sending a message over text, WhatsApp, a Twitter DM, or Facebook Messenger.
Before I started watching it, I had a theory that it would also hold up in terms of content - that it wouldn't be very offensive, even by modern sensibilities, and that more recent shows would be worse.
I was sort of wrong and sort of right.
It definitely isn't as bad as a LOT of other shows, including some newer ones. HOWEVER, it sure as heck doesn't get the pass I thought it might.
Up until season six, here is what I have observed:
Jerry and (especially) George avoid doing perfectly normal things that they perceive as slightly effeminate. It's usually played to make fun of them with scathing commentary from Elaine about how ridiculous they are being, but that doesn't mean they are always shown to be wrong.
The episode where George and Jerry are outed as a gay couple by a reporter, though? These days, I think the reporter outing them against their will (so she thinks) comes off worse than the two men being upset for being wrongly outed.
The fatphobia is garden-variety and mostly present in offhand comments or the fact that half the women Jerry dates refuse dessert to "stay slim." It's a true representation of how ingrained all that was into society at the time: nobody is mean-spirited, they just all deeply believe in the supreme importance of being thin.
The low-hanging fruit here is a remarkably whitewashed New York (aside from the occasional super-diverse crowd scene, which almost makes it more annoying because you see that they knew how to cast diverse people and normally just didn't do it).
The real racism, however, seems to consistently present itself as the white men haplessly bumbling into situations where an "overly-sensitive" person of colour takes it "the wrong way."
This dynamic is really present the time Jerry buys Elaine a really over-the-top, stereotypical statue of a Native American and presents it to her (complete with some fake chanting) in front of her friends, one of whom he does not realize is Native American. Oops! NOW it's bad, not because it's offensive in general, but because a Native American person is actually present to see it!
Through the rest of the episode, he tries to apologize but feels on edge that he "can't say anything" without offending her. She is written to fly into a rage the minute he says anything wrong, making him a poor white guy with good intentions who keeps getting yelled at by the sensitive Native woman he wishes would just chill out so they could date.
And then, of course, there is the blackface episode. Kramer goes to the tanning salon before meeting his Black girlfriend's family, falls asleep in the tanning bed, and comes out with exaggeratedly-dark skin. (Instead of the sunburn he would actually have.) He has no idea, walks into the dinner, and is berated by her dad who thinks he is in blackface. Once again, the message is clear: white guy didn't really do anything wrong, but the person of colour is jumping to conclusions and getting unreasonably angry.
Somehow, the white men manage to be the victims every time. EYE. ROLL.
Jerry's comedy is 90% pointing out the differences between men and women. Most of it isn't technically offensive, it's just so ingrained in gender dynamics that it's very annoying.
There's also lots of talk about the big mystery of female anatomy and pleasure and moods, reinforcing that we are these impossible-to-understand-or-please creatures. (At least they make it clear that they want to try, though.)
Then, drumroll please, there's the episode where George gets caught gawking at a teen girl's cleavage by her dad. (Jerry also noted it, but he didn't gawk, so that's fine.) It's okay though, because the dad, who catches George in his agog state, later gets caught in the gravitational pull of Elaine's cleavage and then forgives George for his transgression. Because nothing makes someone staring at your teen daughter's cleavage more understandable than your own tingly feelings over another woman's boobs.
So. No free pass. Seinfeld is officially a problematic fave, but somehow less problematic than Friends or even 30 Rock. (So far! Four more seasons is a lot of time for the show to be offensive!)
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