You may tell jokes, Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, but you are no Comedian.
At the heart of ‘The Gymnast’ is a rather complex articulation on the ambiguity of images and coded meanings. Whether they are embedded in our society in the form of pure image as pictorial symbol (the sight of Hitler via his dress and mustache, but without any historical meaning) or as an evolving signifier of (often unmet or unnecessary to even attempt to meet) expectations, the episode constructs several divergent plot lines nonetheless working conceptually as one seamless whole. This ‘whole’ becomes the form of a series of punchlines at the episodes many closes, each one articulating essentially the same thing; that what we see, receive or expect, is the exact opposite of what we’ve been told is reality (both from inside and outside the cultural megaphone [i.e. the television set or a close friend]); the placid Mr. Pitt channels Hitler in business mergers (highly charged image removed from its murderous, xenophobic reality), sexual urban legend is balderdash (or at least leaves one perpetually unfulfilled), a seen reality isn’t the constructed one (the difference between the plot of a filmed novel and the same written one), and someone who contemplates deeply is bound to have life be a series of egg-on-your-face misadventures.
It’s this last point, on deep concentration, that forms the over-arching device to which we can get in and around all the stories intervening plots and chief concept. Kramer goes to Mr. Pitt’s office to pick up a print he’s included in Elaine’s bundle, which we learn after he’s ripped the craft paper wrapping off, is a framed 3d autostereogram picture. It will take everyone succumbing before this image in studied, precise viewing for the true image to reveal itself; some will remain transfixed and confused (Mr. Pitt), some will see it quickly (Kramer) while some will see it only when completely losing their sense of time and place (and humorously, dress) as George does near the episodes’ close. The idea of an austereogram—a great timepiece of the mid 1990’s when they were briefly all the rage—is that in-between your eyesight’s peripheral range there could be a computer generated composition that could overlap the areas in focus and unfocus to which a composite real image could form from the previously seen incoherent scribble of pixelated line and color. Amongst all this symbolism of seeing past the indecipherable is a real life situation replicating this idea that what is at the surface of an easy rocket ship picture is really a complex computer generated mishmash of colors and swirls (or perhaps more abstractly, it’s arguing this point vice-versa: what is difficult and unseen is in fact easy and clear). In this plot line, Jerry contemplates even continuing a relationship with Katya after he realizes this relationship has no communication potential (he condescendingly equates all of Romanian culture to a few glib characterizations) but after Kramer brings in a videotape highlighting her gymnastic skills from the previous decade’s 1984 Summer Olympics (hence the episode’s title) the boys begin theorizing that Jerry has to make it—at least—to the couples first sexual escapade because sex with a gymnast is potentially “the threshold to the magical world of sensual delights that most men dare not dream of!” complete with feats that will “melt your face” (both quotes, Kramer). Jerry, amidst all this outlandish hyperbole, soldiers on only to have his dreams of earth-shattering sex met with the tepid realization of normalcy. Elaine, in the first of the episodes two key gender backlash moments (for the second, see below), perfectly lampoons Jerry’s (and therefore all the boys) absurd sexual theories when she asks Jerry what he really expected to happen in the bedroom (he says perhaps he could have been used as a gymnastic “apparatus” to which Elaine just howls with laughter). Jerry has been sold the computer swirls, to keep with the austereogram analogy in the episode, from his friends and his culture, and he thought that with (minimal) effort he could have the rocket ship literally come true. That beneath the abstruse exploitation was some sort of wish fulfillment, and that the idea was to just see the rocket ship, no matter what it took or what it meant. He, in his eyes, was the only one necessary to have clarity given to him, and that being in a possible austereogram himself was never a potentiality.
The final, and most biting punchline comes when Katya turns the tables with scalding exactness on Jerry’s gender dominant objectification. It would seem that the actual lesson here is that under every swirl of computer generated imagery of our abstract world is a rocket ship to which we define and articulate; one man’s (or cultures) stereotype is another woman’s fact and vice versa. Jerry has never been burned like this, since his objectification (and since he’s acting partially on Kramer and George’s wish fulfillment, we can extrapolate it out further) has never been so turned on its head and shown back to him with such naked honesty that you can’t help but be mesmerized with Katya. Elaine is usually the symbolic destructor of societal norms in the show (and she too has a go—literally—at the episodes conceptual centerpiece when he rips the framed art from Mr. Pitts hands and destroys it over her knee) but here it’s an altogether different female that decides a few already decided upon walls need a bit of shaking up and Seinfeld even gives her an Eastern European accent to further the connection. What’s even more powerful is how the difference is framed in such a feminist way: Jerry has been duped by urban legend, it’s his fault his tastes are subject to such juvenile prodding (we can extrapolate that Katya was perfectly fine in bed), while Katya’s point to Jerry is him not meeting how he defines himself, and what that definition then means. It’s an argument the subdominant person has to make to their overlord (in this case the man vs. female dynamic) to remind them (I mean both sides here) that there is no inherent reason they sit in that exalted position. Seldom has gender hierarchy destruction been this damn fun, and it’s wonderful that Katya’s friend Misha is implicated in it too; it offers a multi-gender understanding to her belief (that comedians should be supreme lovers) and skirts that possibility that she’s just being petty (Jerry’s beliefs are locker room gossip from young boys, hers are engrained sexual lore). Here is also geopolitical power structure subversion as they are from the Eastern bloc, and timely too as the Cold War’s phase out is a mere echo away. America might have won, and men too, but here is a wonderful reminder that anytime the bedrock is shook the whole house of cards might just topple.