On December 7, 1995, “The Sponge” episode of “Seinfeld” first aired. The episode of the TV sitcom centered on the news that Elaine Benes’ contraceptive of choice, the sponge, is being taken off the market. This episode, that spurred a new standard for women when assessing romantic interests, was a part of the seventh season of the game-changing “show about nothing” created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Although the show originally featured an all-male cast, the addition of Elaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, added a groundbreaking independent woman’s perspective to the wildly popular 1990’s sitcom.
In “The Sponge,” while Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine and Kramer (Michael Richards) sit at Monk’s Cafe, Kramer, in the middle of getting signatures for his upcoming AIDS charity walk, informs the group that the sponge is going to be discontinued. Upon hearing the news, Elaine scours a 25-block radius until she lands upon Pasteur Pharmacy that has one case of the Today sponges left. Much to the shock of the pharmacist, she stockpiles the 60 sponges left in stock, saying, “Just give me the whole case, I’ll be on my way.” For the rest of the episode, Elaine explores if her current boyfriend, Billy, is sponge-worthy. (“Yes, yes – before they went off the market. I mean, now I’ve got to re-evaluate my whole screening process. I can’t afford to waste any of ’em.”) Meanwhile, Jerry discovers that his new girlfriend owns what looks like a lifetime’s supply of the sponge in her apartment.
Elaine’s unabashed sexuality was revolutionary at the time. Long before shows like “Broad City,” “Girls” or “Insecure,” Elaine was one of the only characters on primetime television that cycled through boyfriends as frequently as the male characters. Whether it was the Mimbo, the hot ditzy guy she dated until his face got ruined in an accident, or David Putty, who she started dating again after a breakup only so he would help move her dresser, Elaine was “the master of her own domain” and in charge of her dating life. With her floral granny dresses and shoulder-padded blazers, Elaine was not dressing for anyone but herself. Additionally, Elaine, like her male counterparts, was undeniably selfish. This character trait ran counter to the traditional portrayal of women as nurturers and stoically selfless in their relationships. By avoiding gender norms still prevalently promoted on other 1990’s sitcoms, Elaine ushered in a new era of multi-dimensional female characters on TV.
Since her Emmy-award winning portrayal of Elaine, Louis-Dreyfus continues to play empowered and opinionated female leads in shows like “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and currently in “Veep.” The actress and comedian, who got her start on “Saturday Night Live” in the 80s, has won eleven Emmy Awards so far. Additionally, thanks to her incredible performance as Selina Meyer on “Veep,” Louis-Dreyfus has earned a record-breaking six consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series and five Golden Globe Awards for Best Actress, Television Series Musical or Comedy. After working with her on his show, Seinfeld perfectly summed up Louis-Dreyfus’ comedic talent by comparing it to her ability to eat a peanut M&M without breaking the peanut: “She cracks you up without breaking your nuts.”