In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
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The concept of masculinity has served as the inspiration for countless characters, both real and imagined, throughout human history. From the Greek heroes to the characters of Shakespeare and Hollywood, the nebulous idea of what it means to be a man has shifted across cultures and eras, often defined as much by that it doesn’t represent as that it does.
If there is one man who best encapsulates the former, it is George Costanza – a paragon of the qualities that least embody our understanding of the ideal man. Based on ‘Seinfeld’ co-creator Larry David, and played by the inimitable Jason Alexander, George is the most iconic character to emerge from what is arguably the greatest sitcom of all time and a deliberate affront to the very notion of masculinity.
A walking contradiction, he is prone to bouts of both delusional confidence and crippling self-doubt, whose erratic behaviour fuels so much of ‘Seinfeld’s celebrated observational comedy. Through his constant lying and flagrant self-interest, he is often the author of both his greatest social failings, as well as his greatest personal successes. From inadvertently causing the death of his fiancé, to nabbing a job with the New York Yankees through a policy of doing the exact opposite of what his instincts tell him to do, George is a case study in how not to behave.
Originally intended as the comedian colleague and foil to Seinfeld’s character, Alexander crafted his performance into a “shameless imitation of Larry David,” with many of the character’s plot lines originating from the awkward real-life experiences of David himself.
As the sidekick of the more outwardly successful Jerry, George is the pop-culture poster boy for mediocre men. If James Bond serves as the archetypal man’s man, George is the antithesis: the neurotic, cowardly, selfish “Lord of the Idiots” to whom a near limitless number of pejoratives could apply.
Yet it is his romantic misadventures that most memorably capture George’s uniquely un-masculine nature. He’s a man who frequently manages to punch well above his weight, due in no small part to his unscrupulous dishonesty, before inevitably becoming entangled in the web of lies on which the relationship was built.
From pretending to be homosexual to get out of an unwanted relationship, to dating the daughter of his unemployment officer to extend his benefits, George’s approach to dating showcases his dishonourable, self-serving nature and the comedic opportunities it presents.
Jason Alexander received widespread critical acclaim for his performance as George. He was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and four Golden Globes during the show’s run but, somewhat appropriately for the character of George, never won.
Yet George remains as iconic as any traditional Hollywood heroes before or since – a timeless comic creation who helps define our understanding of masculinity by showing us what it isn’t.