Seinfeld & Circumcision in the 1990s

I have been re-watching the Seinfeld series on Netflix. For the young whippersnappers, it was a primetime sitcom that ran from 1989 – 1998. The show was considered revolutionary for being about “nothing”, just the lives of its four main characters who live in Manhattan: Jerry Seinfeld, George Constanza, Eliane Bennis, and Cosmo Kramer. The core group are unmarried thirty-somethings whose friends are getting married, having babies, and moving to the suburbs.

The topic of being invited to or attending a Bris comes up regularly in the early seasons but in season five one episode focused on it. As someone who advocates against infant and child circumcision, I felt myself bracing for a really awful episode. But I was surprised at how they approached the subject and that there was a clear anti-circumcision message swathed in layers of comedy.

And I want to do what I do best and over-analyze it.

About Circumcision

Circumcision is a form of genital scarification (the act of intentionally scarring the body) that shows the scar bearer’s inclusion in the cultural group. For males and females, it’s often done just before puberty, as a kind of coming-of-age ritual, but for some, it’s done shortly after birth. Modern cultures have attached medical or hygienic benefits to the procedure to justify circumcision’s continued use, but more on that in a bit.

Bris Mahal

In Judaism, circumcision is supposed to be done on male babies on the eighth day after their birth, in a ritual called Bris Mahal. The origins of the ritual, very briefly and very irreverently, Abraham, (the Abraham who founded the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; considered by followers of those religions as a prophet of God) was finna to sacrifice (murder) his son because God told him to. But at the very last second, God recanted and demanded only a part of his son’s penis, specifically the foreskin. Going forward the scarred penises of the faithful would represent their covenant with God and no more child sacrifices would be necessary– only foreskin sacrifices.

Brit Shalom

Fortunately, around the world over the last few decades, it has become more common for Jewish parents to spare their child’s genitals and instead host a Brit Shalom (a bloodless naming ceremony) to introduce their new baby to friends and family. They recognize that any child of a Jewish family is a part of the community regardless of what their genitals look like.

Medicalisation

Unfortunately, in the United States, in the second half of the 20th-century routine infant circumcision (RIC) for male newborns regardless of their parent’s religion, became almost ubiquitous. It had shifted from a cure-all performed (from the scourge of masturbation, epilepsy, tuberculosis, blindness, insanity, etc) performed on older children and adults of both sexes in the late 19th century, to an issue of hygiene.

The hygiene justification only highlighted the irrational thinking that went into the decision to circumcise a newborn baby: cutting off part of the penis and leaving an open wound to stew in a diaper was somehow cleaner… than what, exactly? Had circumcision-as-hygiene proponents not quite grasped that babies could be washed? (only clean what you can see, never retract a baby’s foreskin, it’s attached like fingernails until puberty). What’s worse is that this tradition was established during an era when many medical professionals and psychologists doubted that infants could even feel pain. In fact, babies were even given open heart surgery without anaesthetic well into the 1980s. Among the lies medical professionals told themselves and parents (and are still used) was that when a baby passed out from the pain and terror, they had “slept through it”.

I am opposed to routine infant male circumcision and to any nonconsensual genital cutting of anyone, of any age, male, female, or intersexed. I see it as a violation of human rights. It’s an unjustifiable procedure that will be forever seeking justification: yesterday it was to prevent your masturbating child from becoming a pervert, today it’s claimed to prevent HIV, and tomorrow… /sarcasm/ maybe it will be the cure for “toxic masculinity.”

Harm

In non-medical settings, babies have died from herpes infections, contracted during an orthodox bris where the mohel sucks the blood from the baby’s penis with their mouths. Even under medical conditions, healthy infants die from circumcision through blood loss or infection. There are also risks of cardiac arrest caused by the shock of the pain or from the side effects of anaesthetics if they are used. The very best outcome of circumcision is still unnecessary amputation of healthy tissue, permanent sensory loss, and functional damage to the penis. The worse outcomes, short of death, are literal emasculation, urinary problems requiring multiple reparative surgeries, impotence, etc.

As it is, in the US, many conditions that are treated with antibiotics or topical steroids in females are treated with circumcision for intact males, despite the fact that some conditions, like urinary tract infections, still occur in circumcised males. Many Americans erroneously believe that foreskins are bound to fail eventually and will need removal. This is why proponents claim that it’s safer to circumcise a newborn than waiting until they’re older boys or even adults capable of consent. But what does “safer” have to do with a procedure that’s unnecessary? We don’t prophylactically remove tonsils or the appendix, and these body parts are much more likely to “fail” than a foreskin.

MGM and FGM

Yet, in the face of all this information, there are still parents who will consent to have it done to their newborn so his penis will “look right”, whatever they imagine “right” is: like dad? like other boys? The majority (60-70%) of the world’s males are intact and a growing percentage of US males are intact. Most infuriating, in my opinion, are the people who will offer up their male newborns to be strapped down, genital tissue crushed and sliced away and justify it as “cleaner” and better looking, yet then rage against people who offer up their female children to have their genitals cut to make it “cleaner” and better looking.

Female circumcision (FGM, I’m calling it circumcision despite believing that it’s genital mutilation the same way I am calling MGM circumcision in this article) was practised in the United States into the 1950s and was still being recommended into the 1970s, or the same reasons male circumcision was practised: to prevent or cure just about anything, including reducing masturbation but also to help women achieve orgasm. Where female circumcision is practised, they have almost identical justifications for the practice as Americans have for male circumcision and like the AAP, they too, believe the supposed benefits of female circumcision (UTIs, STIs, hygiene, aesthetics) outweigh the risks.

However, since 1996 in the United States, female circumcision, including the least damaging “skin pricking” is illegal*. As more biomedical ethicists point out the hypocrisy, rather than giving male babies the same rights as female babies, some proponents of male circumcision are trying to re-legalize female circumcision.

(*labioplasty, a cosmetic procedure that changes the shape and length of labia minora is legal in the US but only for consenting adults).

Effective Advocacy

What I have shared here rarely convinces parents who have already made, or decided to make, harmful and irreversible decisions about their children’s genitals. They’ll just tune it out because I’m angry about it, and it’s natural for people to get defensive in the face of someone who is mad about something they identify with. Yet, when you’re advocating for something important you need people to be willing to listen and few people can listen when they are on the defensive.

People need to feel comfortable enough to consider other perspectives on the subject and even more so to change their minds. This is where the comedy comes in: if people are laughing at themselves they are being self-reflective. It’s very difficult with the subject of circumcision– it’s such a sensitive area— even today when circumcision rates are falling dramatically.

Just imagine how risque having a primetime sitcom focused on circumcision was in the 1990s, when the rejection of routine infant circumcision just barely started to graze the mainstream.

Seinfeld’s The Bris

(Season 5, Episode 5, aired Oct 14, 1993)

Religious Tradition

While at the hospital, visiting their friends who have just had a baby, Elaine and Jerry are asked to be godparents, which obligates them to organise the Bris. Kramer immediately defends the baby by advocating against circumcision to the parents regardless of it being a religious tradition, after all, we don’t sacrifice virgins anymore.

About Looks

Back at Jerry’s apartment, Jerry (who, being Jewish, is ostensibly circumcised himself) and Elaine discuss the look of an intact (uncircumcised) penis. Elaine says she isn’t a fan because it makes the penis look like it doesn’t have a face. The writers are establishing that the procedure is about looks, especially later when George mentions hygiene and Kramer immediately shuts that down as a myth and no one objects. But then they establish that intact penises aren’t that weird looking: George (one of the most superficial characters in the show) had a college roommate who was intact and even he got used to seeing it. (… Do male college roommates walk around nude often?)

Everyone in the audience has someone in the show they can agree with: Jerry is ambivalent, Elaine is pro-circ, George is resigned, and Kramer is opposed. Yet, the show has barely begun and the writers have already established that all of the justifications for infant circumcision: religion, looks, and hygiene are invalid.

As a rebuttal to Eliane, from yours truly, as far as looks go, there are more differences between individual erect adult penises regardless of circumcision status than there are between circumcised and intact erect penises. The biggest differences between circumcised and intact are functional: the owner’s (?) range of sensation and the motility of the skin. The addition of the “but hey that’s me” comment at the end of Elaine’s criticism is intended to make it a matter of personal opinion… but she’s not talking about herself, she’s talking about another person’s genitals. How far should someone else’s opinion, their sexual fetish for a dick with a face and a personality, justify the appearance and function of another person’s body? A non-consenting infant or child’s body?

Irrevocable

When Kramer points out that having foreskin increases sexual pleasure, George asks “how does that help me?” This underscores the fact that once a parent consents to having their baby circumcised, that’s it, the child’s genital integrity is gone forever, they will never get the full sexual experience as an adult.

When Kramer tells Elaine she should call off the Bris, Elaine makes a flippant remark about the practice ending when a mythological creature (Kramer believes he found a pig-human hybrid at the hospital) roams free– but until then she’s complicit, “off with their heads!” It fits the character of a pro-circ person who isn’t normally amoral to make jokes like this in an effort to minimize the pain and suffering of the victims, a balm for their cognitive dissonance. The audience laughs but the fact is the only way this practice will end is by people advocating against it, especially to their friends and family– by doing what Kramer is doing.

The Mohel

At the Bris, while waiting for the Mohel to arrive, Kramer is there pleading with the mother not to go through with it. The mother is bawling but she’s still going to let it happen.

Jerry’s godparenting job is to hold the baby while the mohel cuts at its penis. He’s uncomfortable about this. Elaine makes another flippant joke, “You’d think you were getting whacked.” Everyone, including Elaine (thus the bad jokes), is uncomfortable about it because they know it’s inherently immoral but everyone, except Kramer, is going along with it because it’s a religious tradition. Yet, none of the characters are religious, they have all actively mocked religion in other episodes. Many new parents brush off their religious beliefs but their renewed devotion should fall well short of taking a blade to their newborn’s body. For this group, the Bris is not really about religion, none of them believes that it’s necessary to sacrifice a portion of a newborn’s penis to maintain a covenant with God. It’s just a cultural tradition to stand around with appetizers while someone takes a scalpel to a newborn’s genitals.

As a godparent, Elaine picked out and scheduled a mohel (a religious official who performs the circumcision, usually in a non-medical setting) to do a home-based bris. She looks for the best and the man who shows up is insane, violent, and totally incompetent. He can’t stand to hear the baby cry before the bris has even begun and lectures the parents on controlling their kid. (The characterization of the Mohel was so outrageous that Jason Alexander, who plays George Constanza, almost refused to do this episode until the writers toned it down from the original.)

In a last-ditch effort to save the baby from genital mutilation, Kramer snatches the baby but he can’t get away from the crowd and ends up falling off the sofa. The baby is safely retrieved, only to be handed to Jerry to hold while the shaky mohel gets out his blade. Of course, they don’t show the Bris itself because it’s a sitcom, not horror. They do, however, show George passing out, he later says that it was “very traumatic” and he was only observing.

Rush to the Hospital

In the next scene, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and George are in the car (which was mangled earlier in the episode). Jerry is being rushed to the hospital because the mohel “circumcised his finger”. It’s very clever writing: this grown man had what was done to a newborn’s penis done to his finger and he is being rushed to hospital in incredible pain, afraid he will be “deformed.” Kramer, of course, is the only one thinking of the baby, who was also taken to the hospital.

Business

At the hospital, Jerry and the Mohel get into a fight about injuring Jerry’s finger. The Mohel yells about Jerry trying to ruin his business, his livelihood. Money is on the line. Circumcision is big business, even when it’s called a Bris and protected as a religious tradition. But in a medical setting, it’s industrialized, there are the forms newborns are strapped into for the procedure, and the various clamps used to crush the foreskin before it’s cut away, these things must be designed and mass manufactured. Then the foreskin itself is sold to laboratory supply and biomedical companies to produce products for research or skin grafting or sold to high-end cosmetic companies for anti-ageing products.

The baby’s parents come out and say that the bris went perfectly: they got the intended genital trauma they paid for. Their baby’s penis will have a face, a pErSoNaLiTy, for future pseudo-sadistic sex partners.

The Godfather

Sometime after the Bris, back at Jerry’s apartment, his finger is thickly bandaged, as he complains how his “boy” was “massacred”.

The parents show up at Jerry’s apartment and rescind Jerry’s and Elaine’s godparent status and give it to Kramer because he showed how much he cared about their son, and how far he would go to protect him.


The writing in this episode is subtle enough not to offend people who have been, or who have had their children circumcised but it’s enough to get insightful people to think about circumcision and to question it– and often that alone is enough for a moral person to reject it.

If you have access to the episode, I recommend watching and I would love to know what you think about the writing. If you saw it when it originally aired in 1993, what did you think then? Did it start a conversation about circumcision? Did it influence your thinking?


If you would like to support my work, please consider becoming a Patron on Patreon.

Sources

Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. 2017. Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. Simon & Schuster.

Beyond the Bris

Earp, Brian D. 15 Aug 2017. “Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality.” British Medical Journal: Journal of Medical Ethics.

Gee, Amy, Elena Kraus, and Amy Bilyeu. Jan-Feb 2019. “Female Genital Cutting: Considerations for the Western Physician.” Missouri Medicine, 116(1): 32–34

Greenberg, Zoe. 25 July 2017. “When Jewish Parents Decide Not to Circumcise.” New York Times.

Harris, Ben. 7 Oct 2021. “These Jews want to normalize not circumcising– and they want synagogues to help.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

James, Susan Donaldson. 9 March 2012. “Baby Dies of Herpes in Ritual Circumcision By Orthodox Jews.” ABC News.

Morris, Brian, et al. 1 March 2016. “Estimation of country-specific and global prevalence of male circumcision.” Population Health Metrics, 4.

Moss, Lisa Braver. 1990. “A Painful Case.” [from section: “Current Debate: Circumcision Decision”]. Tikkun, 5(5), pg 70-72.

No Author. No Date. “FGM.” Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC).

Odukogbe, Akin-Tunde A., Bosede B. Afolabi, Oluwasomidoyin O. Bello, and Ayodeji S. Adeyanju. April 2017. “Female genital mutilation/cutting in Africa.” Translational Androgyny and Urology, 6(2).

Rovner, Y and S. 13 Aug 1986. “Surgery Without Anesthesia: Can Preemies Feel Pain?” Washington Post.

Webber, Sara and Toby L. Schonfeld. Spring 2003. “Cutting History, Cutting Culture: Female Circumcision in the United States.” The American Journal of Bioethics, 3(2).

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