There's no doubt that "The Contest" is a groundbreaking episode of TV. On 18th November 1992, the 51st episode of Seinfeld introduced masturbation to network TV, without ever once mentioning the word. The action throughout the half-hour is entirely centred around a competition between Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine to see who can go longest without self-gratification. It's an example of a situation in which morality constraints actually improved the story — mentioning the word explicitly would eliminate some of the most memorable lines. (Tell me you don't think of it anytime uses "master" and "domain" in the same sentence.)
But looking back, what I find most impressive about this episode is the way it explicitly acknowledged female masturbation. In fact, Elaine's story line about struggling to go without after flirting with John F. Kennedy Jr. in her aerobics class is arguably the best in the episode. And the fact that the men are initially reluctant to include her in the bet at all, claiming, "It's easier for a woman not to do it than a man," both acknowledges common misconceptions about women's sexuality, and debunks them when Elaine bows out early on in the episode.
Speaking to Vulture for an oral history about the creation of the episode, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Seinfeldia, points out that Seinfeld ended in 1998, the same year that Sex and the City premiered on HBO. "I still have this weird fantasy where I want Elaine to meet the Sex and the City girls. I think she’d have a better time," she said. "I’m not saying they’re perfect, but I think it would be a better life choice for her than hanging out with these guys."
The timing isn't coincidental. Though vastly different, both shows broke barriers of what was considered acceptable for television — both on network and cable. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld have spoken about how difficult they found writing a believable female character — so much so that Elaine wasn't actually in the pilot. That's reflected when, only four episodes after "The Contest," George and Jerry are at a loss about how to write their Elaine character stand-in into their show about nothing. Yet, as Elaine Benes, Julia Louis Dreyfus still paved the way for other strong, funny, and overtly sexual women on TV.
In the time since "The Contest" aired, male masturbation has become almost ubiquitous. Female masturbation, however, still remains taboo enough that any portrayal on television still makes headlines. In honour of the episode's 25th anniversary, we take a look at all the women who took matters in their own hands.
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