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Cantor demonstrates how, during the 1960s, Gilligan's Island and Star Trek reflected America's faith in liberal democracy and our willingness to project it universally. Gilligan's Island, Cantor argues, is based on the premise that a representative group of Americans could literally be dumped in the middle of nowhere and still prevail under the worst of circumstances. Star Trek took American optimism even further by trying to make the entire galaxy safe for democracy. Despite the famous Prime Directive, Captain Kirk and his crew remade planet after planet in the image of an idealized 1960s America.
With the end of the Cold War and the onset of unprecedented globalizing forces, faith in the American way of life has wavered. Contrary to the claims of those unacquainted with the cartoon, Cantor shows why The Simpsons is actually a powerful defense of the nuclear family and local communities, which has grown out of our disillusionment with national politics. In The X-Files we witness the treacherous workings of a government conspiracy, conveying the geopolitical anxiety that has emerged with the collapse of the clear-cut ideological polarities of the Cold War. By observing such trends in American popular culture, Cantor concludes that what had originally appeared to be the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy may in fact signal the beginning of a new phase of history, in which traditional forms of political organization have become obsolete and are being replaced by new global networks.
Gilligan Unbound is a celebration of the profound possibilities offered by the study of pop culture. Cantor, without condescending to either his readers or his subject matter, rescues the serious study of popular culture from academic jargon and incomprehensible prose. See for yourself why his award-winning essays on professional wrestling and The Simpsons have attracted worldwide attention and why the National Enquirer calls him a "top prof."
"The Courage of the Fearless
Crew": Gilligan's Island and the
Americanization of the Globe
"A social microcosm?" asked Mr. Paley incredulously. "But I
thought Gilligan's Island was a comedy!"
"It's a funny microcosm!" I replied in desperate haste.
The whole thing sounds so darn democratic.
—Thurston Howell III
Gilligan's Island must be the most successful bad show in the history of television. Though it has its amusing moments, ever since it originally aired in 1964, the show has been blasted by critics. At the time of its debut, Jack Gould wrote in the New York Times: "Gilligan's Island is quite possibly the most preposterous situation comedy of the season." Terence O'Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle was even more hostile: "It's difficult for me to believe that Gilligan's Island was written, directed, and filmed by adults.... It marks a new low in the networks' estimate of public intelligence." Someone—I think it was Woody Allen—best captured the negative response when he quipped on the Tonight Show: "CBS has a great idea for a new series next fall—it's a comedy version of Gilligan's Island."
And yet, despite all the critical contempt, the show was popular with television viewersfrom the beginning, and when it was canceled by CBS, the reason was not low ratings but a scheduling difficulty involving Gunsmoke. Last broadcast as a first-run program on September 4, 1967, Gilligan's Island went on to remarkable success in its afterlife in syndication, becoming one of the most watched programs in television history. Reruns are still regularly broadcast on cable channels such as TBS, TNT, and NIK, and audiences evidently continue to be delighted by the wacky misadventures of the hapless castaways: Gilligan, the Skipper, the Millionaire and his wife, the Movie Star, the Professor, and Mary Ann. As if the public could not get enough of the castaways' comic efforts to adjust to life on their tropic isle or to escape it, the show was remade as a cartoon series on ABC, The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-77). Not to be left out, NBC reunited the original cast in three made-for-television movies (1978, 1979, and 1981). In recent years, several television advertising campaigns have referred to the series, some of them featuring original cast member Dawn Wells. In 1999 Wells also appeared on MTV in a continuing segment, "What Would Mary Ann Do?", offering advice on life in the tropics to guests at the MTV beach house in the Bahamas and thereby proving that Gilligan's Island is alive even for the MTV generation. During the summer of 2000, when a game show called Survivor became the most popular program on American television, its tropical island setting inevitably led to comparisons with Gilligan's Island in all the media. One of the most successful movies of 2001, Cast Away, points in the direction of Gilligan's Island in its title and explicitly refers to the series. In short, the show has achieved something of the status of a myth in contemporary America, becoming a reference point in popular culture for understanding the world.
How could a show that originally generated so much critical hostility continue to captivate audiences more than three decades after it was originally canceled by CBS? Of course the very silliness of the show has been one of its main assets. It appeals to children, who enjoy seeing adults behave like infants. In some episodes, the castaways even reenact fairy tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Cinderella. But there have been many infantile shows on television and few have demonstrated the staying power of Gilligan's Island. At the risk of appearing to take too seriously what is often viewed as the defining case of mindless entertainment, I will argue that its popularity is somehow related to its political content. Whether by design or happy accident, or more likely a combination of the two, the show turned out to provide a perfect reflection of the liberal democratic regime of the United States and has accordingly touched a responsive chord in its citizenry over the years. A product of early-1960s America, Gilligan's Island managed to capture the mood of the country at the peak of its self-confidence, when it was still exuding the New Frontier spirit conjured up by John Kennedy, the spirit that was soon to triumph in the U.S. moon landing. If Americans still look to the show today to be entertained, it is with a kind of nostalgia. It offers them a chance to get back in touch with an earlier point in their history, when America's place in the world seemed clearer and more secure—when Americans optimistically thought that they had the answers to the world's problems and their own.
Gilligan's Island thus serves as a test case for the serious study of popular culture. No one—myself included—would ever claim that the show embodied a profound understanding of America and its democratic way of life. And yet the show could not help mirroring in some way the beliefs of the audience for which it was created and therefore it gives us a window into 1960s America. I will look first at the ways in which the show managed to celebrate a kind of democratic vision of man, exemplified in Gilligan, and try to work out the democratic logic of several of the more overtly political episodes. I will then look at the vision of community the show offered and trace the way it harks back to earlier, almost idyllic visions of a simpler, more natural America. Finally, I will examine how the show reflected America's conception of its global role in the 1960s, indeed its global supremacy.
In its own peculiar manner, Gilligan's Island is a patriotic show, celebrating America and its democratic way of life. As played by Bob Denver, Gilligan is the democratic hero par excellence, the perfect representative of the man in the street in all his ordinariness. He is the ultimate television Everyman, and as such an object of identification for all viewers. With apologies to Robert Musil, he is the true man without qualities. And this lack is precisely what the show celebrates in Gilligan. Unlike the other characters in the show, he has nothing to distinguish him and that constitutes his form of preeminence in the context of a democratic regime. Paradoxically, he is the hero who is missing all the traditional attributes of heroism. Indeed he has nothing of the traditional hero except a dogged desire to be one—a stubborn wish to be recognized for doing good for his community. His goodwill is in fact his one admirable trait, though his general incompetence prevents him from translating it into any solid accomplishments. By contrast, each of the other characters has a distinctive virtue that sets him or her apart from the crowd. Each is defined by a form of excellence, often the sort of claim to superiority that traditionally entitled outstanding individuals to rule over their fellow human beings. Thus the show subliminally reminds us of older aristocratic forms of constituting society. Only Gilligan has no distinctive excellence and hence none of the traditional claims to rule. In the democratic utopia of Gilligan's Island, he therefore emerges as the truly representative human being and the chief figure in the community, the man who sets its tone and generally determines its fate. It is no accident that the community is known as Gilligan's island. As we will see, when the castaways seek to elect a president, they end up choosing Gilligan as their leader. He is living testimony to the democratic idea that you can have nothing to say for yourself and still deserve a voice in the community. He stands as an eternal monument to the great American democratic ideal: "On any given Sunday, anybody can rule anybody else."
In developing its democratic vision of the world, the show works to devalue traditional aristocratic notions by neutralizing conventional forms of heroism and excellence. The Skipper, Jonas Quimby (played by Alan Hale Jr.), is perhaps the best example in the series of a typical heroic figure. A physically imposing man (though a bit out of shape), he has a spirited nature and enjoys issuing commands and having them obeyed. He has served in the U.S. military, and projects the kind of authority that often flows from having led men in battle. The Millionaire, Thurston Howell III (played by Jim Backus), offers another model of preeminence and an equally familiar claim to rule: wealth and social position. He is reputed to be the richest man in the world and has all the advantages money can buy, including an education at the most prestigious university in the United States. His social polish and veneer of culture give him an obvious air of superiority and dispose people to honor his authority. Finally, among the men on the island, the Professor, Roy Hinkley (played by Russell Johnson), represents another traditional claim to rule: wisdom. His encyclopedic knowledge, especially his scientific and technological expertise, makes him the person the castaways often turn to for guidance in critical situations. As Mrs. Howell says in one episode: "Let's get the Professor—he'll know what to do—he's a professor."
With their competing claims to rule, the men often come into conflict, for example, in the "Gilligan Meets Jungle Boy" episode (#19), when each wants to be the one to board an air balloon and seek out help. The Professor insists that logic prevail, but each man has his own conception of logic. The Skipper appeals to the military order of command: "It's logical for the captain to go," while Mr. Howell invokes the economic pecking order: "But I'm the richest man here." As the dispute deepens, all three get into the act and each appeals to a particular form of knowledge. The Skipper says, "I know navigation"; the Professor says, "I know air currents"; Mr. Howell says, "But I know the presidents of five major airlines." Though the appeal to knowledge might seem at first to suggest that wisdom is being invoked as the criterion for rule, closer inspection shows that the Skipper is typically appealing to his military experience and Mr. Howell to his social connections, while only the Professor is trying to establish his authority on the basis of a science, in this case meteorology. But in the democratic logic of the series, these claims to superiority cancel each other out, and the uncivilized jungle boy ends up flying in the balloon. Whatever virtues the Skipper, the Millionaire, or the Professor may embody, they are never allowed to achieve a position of secure authority in the island community.
Unlike the men, the three women on the island make no claims to rule. Gilligan's Island is not a feminist show and indeed has more than its share of what would today be called sexist moments. But in "St. Gilligan and the Dragon" (episode #20), when the men reject the women's demands for equal rights, they secede from the community and in many ways prove superior to the men. Each does have her distinctive form of excellence, as becomes evident in the episode that features a Miss Castaway contest, an aristocratic effort to choose the leading lady of the island, which involves the three excellent men aligning themselves with the three excellent women ("Beauty Is As Beauty Does," episode #38). The Skipper sponsors the Movie Star, Ginger Grant (played by Tina Louise), and sings the praises of her physical charms. Throughout the series, she tries to play the role of Marilyn Monroe and thus represents the traditional Hollywood ideal of feminine pulchritude. In the quest to crown "the most beautiful castaway in the whole wide world," Mr. Howell of course champions his wife Lovey (played by Natalie Schaefer), who is distinguished by her social grace. In response to the Skipper's preference for Ginger, Mrs. Howell insists: "There's really more to beauty than perfection of face and figure. It also means breeding and poise and a kind of charm that comes with maturity." Mary Ann Summers (played by Dawn Wells) at first seems to lack any of the aristocratic qualities of either Ginger or Mrs. Howell; as she herself says: "Ginger's too glamorous and Mrs. Howell's too darned cultured." But Mary Ann has her own claim to fame. A wholesome young woman from Kansas, she embodies many of the traditional American virtues: She is innocent, optimistic, hardworking, sincere, enthusiastic, kind, considerate, modest, ever eager to help and please. And, unlike Ginger, she remains blissfully unaware of her physical attractiveness. It is precisely Mary Ann's all-American and specifically midwestern set of virtues that constitutes her distinctive form of excellence. In the Miss Castaway contest, the Professor sponsors Mary Ann for her "sweetness and warmth." Though it is not in her nature to make any special claims for herself, she represents a form of moral goodness that makes even her stand out in a crowd.
But for all their claims to distinction, all three of the women fail to win the contest. Typically, Gilligan ends up as the ultimate authority in the situation. As the three other men soon realize, he is the one "uncommitted delegate" and "that leaves Gilligan to elect Miss Castaway." To everyone's surprise, he chooses Gladys, an ape he met on the island, because, as he explains: "We're all Americans except her. To enter a beauty contest, you have to be a native and she's the only one born on the island." Gilligan's sympathy for indigenous people reveals his democratic instincts; in his view, any inhabitant of the island has rights that must be respected. Dismissing all conventional claims to distinction—physical beauty, social poise, moral virtue—Gilligan sides with the most natural figure he can find on the island. The result of the episode is to link Gilligan with Gladys, who serves as the female equivalent of the man without qualities. She has no claim to winning the contest other than just being there. Like Gladys, Gilligan is a kind of cipher—distinguished only by his utter lack of distinction. In contrast to the other men on the island, he is not physically imposing, well-bred, or intelligent. He is a bumbler, good-natured to be sure, but chiefly characterized by his inabilities rather than his abilities, his failures rather than his successes. And yet in the inverted democratic logic of Gilligan's Island, he emerges as the reigning force in the community.
I have been speaking of Gilligan's nature in negative terms, but it is possible to redefine his character positively. If Gilligan has a virtue, it is a distinctively democratic one: agreeableness. Precisely because he is not outstanding in any way, he is extremely accommodating to other people and generally does what he is told to do. In the jungle boy episode, when the other castaways are disputing whether or not to send the child up in the balloon, Gilligan listens to one argument after another and tells each of the speakers that he or she has a good point. Finally an exasperated Skipper blurts out: "Gilligan, not everyone can have a good point. You don't have to agree with everyone, do you?" Gilligan's reply is of course: "You know something, Skipper? You've got a good point too." The reason Gilligan ends up voting for the ape in the beauty contest is that he does not want to insult Ginger, Mrs. Howell, or Mary Ann by expressing a preference for one over the others. In a rare act of diplomacy, he says: "All the ladies are very beautiful and each one deserves to win." But Gilligan's tact could easily be mistaken for an unwillingness to take a stand and make a decision. The man without qualities is also the man without opinions and hence well suited to the concessions to other people's views essential in a democracy. Gilligan's preeminent status on the island reminds us that virtue is relative to the regime. The very lack of character that would make him a nobody under an aristocratic regime gets reconstituted as compliance in a democratic regime and makes him its model citizen.
Gilligan thus becomes the ideological conscience of the island, the one who always recalls the other castaways to their democratic selves. This role is particularly evident in the episode in which the other castaways discover that Gilligan is keeping a diary of events on the island and become alarmed that he may be portraying them in a negative light ("Diogenes Won't You Please Go Home?", episode #31). The Skipper, for example, worries that Gilligan's diary may place the blame for the original shipwreck on his shoulders. Much of the episode is devoted to a series of heroic fantasies, in which—in Rashomon fashion—first the Skipper, then Mr. Howell, and finally Ginger reimagine and rewrite in their diaries the earlier episode in which Gilligan rescued them from a rampaging Japanese soldier. When Mary Ann finally gets ahold of Gilligan's diary, she discovers that far from criticizing his fellow castaways, he has been idealizing them. Of the Millionaire he wrote: "I'm on the island with Mr. Thurston Howell III. I don't have to say who he is—he's so rich that everybody knows him. Only money isn't important to him. He treats me like I'm just as good as he is—which shows what a wonderful person he is." Though Gilligan recognizes Mr. Howell's aristocratic claims to distinction, in his democratic innocence, he reformulates the Millionaire's character on an egalitarian principle. He does something similar in his humble remarks about Ginger: "And then there's a real live movie star with us. Boy, I've been afraid to even ask for her autograph, let alone talk to her. But she's just like a real person and everybody loves her because she's so good." The other castaways are chastened by Gilligan's democratic vision of them and the egalitarian ideal it expresses. The Professor tells him: "We see ourselves as we are and you see us as we would like to be." Gilligan truly is the democratic heart and soul of the island and seems repeatedly able to bring the other castaways down to earth whenever their sense of self-importance threatens to puff them up.
But the peculiarly negative form Gilligan's democratic heroism takes—the fact that he is the man without qualities—creates complications for him. He is public spirited and hence aspires to be a more traditional hero and be applauded for conventionally heroic deeds. In "The Sound of Quacking" (episode #7), he dreams himself into the role of a lawman in the Old West, Marshall Gilligan (the episode was actually filmed in part on the set of CBS's long-running hit show Gunsmoke). The "How to Be a Hero" episode (#23) is devoted to the issue of the problematic character of Gilligan's heroism. It begins with him trying to save Mary Ann from drowning, but all he can do is to fall into the lagoon himself, with the humiliating result that the Skipper must rescue them both. The Skipper is lionized for his courageous act; Mrs. Howell compares him to such traditional naval heroes as John Paul Jones and Horatio Hornblower. When all the attention showered on the Skipper leaves Gilligan feeling depressed, it is up to Mrs. Howell to analyze the problem. She tells the Skipper: "You're a hero and he's not—that makes him feel small and insignificant." As if she had been reading Hegel's Phenomenology, Lovey correctly points to the solution: "Gilligan needs recognition—something for his ego, I mean."
At the Skipper's instigation, the castaways decide to stage a situation in which Gilligan can believe that he has acted heroically. If he cannot be a real hero, at least he can become the simulacrum of a hero. After several failed attempts, in which Gilligan only manages to make things worse when he is trying to save first the Skipper and then Mr. Howell, his friends hit upon a workable plan. Since Gilligan has been talking about a headhunter loose upon the island, the Skipper decides to dress up as a savage, appear to capture the other castaways, and leave it to Gilligan to rescue them. The irony is that a headhunter really is on the prowl; typically Gilligan's foolishness in the eyes of his fellow castaways turns out to be a form of wisdom. He is able to defeat the savage only because he overhears the Skipper's plan for a masquerade. Since Gilligan thinks that the real headhunter is merely the Skipper in disguise, he is not afraid of him and eventually drives him off. Anticipating the famous opening of the movie Patton (1970), the episode ends with Gilligan speaking in front of an American flag and for once accepting the recognition he deserves. He concludes the episode with a succinct if somewhat ungrammatical formulation of the democratic premise of the whole series: "So I guess being brave just kind of comes natural." Less impressed by the conventional goods of the world than the other castaways, Gilligan is presented in the series as closer to nature (a fact shown by his affinity for Gladys and other native primates on the island). His function is often to teach the other castaways that the goods they are pursuing are merely conventional, and that they thus could be happy without the so-called benefits of mainland civilization for which they are often pining. In particular the series repeatedly stresses the conventionality of money by showing how meaningless Mr. Howell's vast wealth becomes in the natural context of the island; removed from the context of mainland civilization, his dollars tend to become mere pieces of paper. As the man without qualities, Gilligan shows that the less one cares about conventional goods and the closer one comes to the natural state, the more suited one is to democratic existence.
* * *
Gilligan's status as the archetypal democratic hero is appropriately confirmed in the one episode in which the castaways elect a leader, "President Gilligan" (episode #6). The episode characteristically begins with a testimony to Gilligan's incompetence. While digging a well with the Skipper, the Professor thinks of adding Gilligan to the team, only with the qualification that "he can't do anything wrong if he's just digging." But before Gilligan can prove the Professor wrong, a crisis of authority develops when the Skipper goes off to enlist Gilligan's services. It turns out that he is already working for Mr. Howell, who is planning the construction of Howell Hills Estate. With both the Skipper and Mr. Howell ordering Gilligan around, they quickly come into conflict. When the Skipper insists: "I gave him an order," Mr. Howell pointedly replies: "And I gave him a job." This exchange reveals the divided regime on the island—the Skipper's authority is military in nature, while Mr. Howell's is based on his economic power. Typically, the Skipper will brook no opposition and tries to silence Mr. Howell: "Look, I'm having enough trouble running the island without a mutiny." This early episode is the first to raise seriously the issue of authority on the island, the fundamental political question: who rules?
Excerpted from Gilligan Unbound by Paul A. Cantor. Copyright © 2001 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
|Notes on Method|
|Pt. I||National Television and the Democratic Ideology of America|
|1||"The Courage of the Fearless Crew": Gllligan's Island and the Americanization of the Globe||3|
|2||Shakespeare in the Original Klingon: Star Trek and the End of History||35|
|Pt. II||Global Television and the Decline of the Nation-State|
|3||Simpson Agonistes: Atomistic Politics, the Nuclear Family, and the Globalization of Springfield||67|
|4||Mainstreaming Paranoia: The X-Files and the Delegitimation of the Nation-State||111|
|Conclusion: "There's No Place Like Home"||199|
|About the Author||255|