With the recent passing of TV legend Sherwood Schwartz at age 94, Steve Green, Scott Ott and Bill Whittle, the hosts of PJTV’s Trifecta, use their newest segment to explore the semiotics and subtext of one of America’s most beloved — and most hated TV shows. They riffed off the same book, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture In the Age of Globalization that the late Cathy Seipp used for her terrific profile of the show at Reason magazine in October of 2001. Cathy, who would later contribute extensively to PJM a few years later, began by asking the question that was on everyone’s mind back then: “Why do they hate us?”
Here are some of the usual answers: Israel. McDonald’s. The Gulf War. Infidel American women who run around in short skirts with heads uncovered. Hollywood. U.S. arrogance and naivete about other cultures.
To all that, I suggest another reason: “Gilligan’s Island.”
Shakespeare scholar and literary critic Paul Cantor wrote “Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture In the Age of Globalization” before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (The book will be published in November.) But his argument that “Gilligan’s Island” was really, at its core, not just a silly ’60s sitcom but a paean to American democracy is particularly noteworthy right now, in the wake of the disaster.
“Gilligan’s Island” premiered in 1964 on CBS, to almost uniformly terrible reviews. But since then it has never, not even once, been off the air. For 12 years, “Gilligan’s Island: The Musical” (co-written by the TV show’s creator Sherwood Schwartz) has been touring theaters across the United States. On Oct. 14, CBS presents the latest in Gilliganiana: a new TV movie called “Surviving Gilligan’s Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Running Three-Hour Tour In History.”
Gilligan’s typically clueless comment when a visiting banana-republic dictator proposes making him the puppet leader of the island (“I was the president of the eighth-grade camera club”), Thurston Howell III’s lament about the possibility of an island election (“The whole thing sounds so darn democratic”) … all this and every other bit of the “Gilligan’s Island” political philosophy has been dubbed into 30 languages.
Somewhere in the world, someone right now is watching the show’s central idea that, as Cantor puts it, “a representative group of Americans could be dropped anywhere on the planet – even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – and they would still feel at home – indeed they would rule.” Unfriendly countries probably find this infuriating. But friendly ones don’t seem to mind.
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Academics are famous for reading all sorts of strange ideas into texts. But in the case of “Gilligan’s Island,” Cantor is not simply projecting images onto an inkblot. Creator Sherwood Schwartz notes in his own book about the series, “Inside Gilligan Island,” that “I know about the social content of my show, and the seven characters were carefully chosen after a great deal of thought.”
Schwartz named the Castaways’ ship, the S.S. Minnow, as a jab at then FCC chairman Newton Minow, who’d famously characterized television as “a vast wasteland.” He recalls CBS chief William Paley’s horror – “I thought it was supposed to be a comedy!” – at Schwartz’s description of “Gilligan’s Island” as a social microcosm.
Schwartz’s response is a classic of let’s-save-the-pitch quick-thinking: “It’s a funny microcosm!”
Viewed through the prism of America’s enemies, it’s easy to see how the “Gilligan’s Island” gang represents everything Muslim fanatics and their sympathizers hate. As Cantor describes it, “The Skipper embodies American military might, the Professor represents American science and technological know-how, and the Millionaire reflects the power of American business…the presence of The Movie Star among the castaways even hints at the source of America’s cultural domination of the world – Hollywood.”
All of which is a reminder that television, movies, and all of our pop culture reflect the people who produce it, and the audience that it’s aimed towards, particularly in retrospect. They’re historical documents in that sense, allowing later cultures to get a sense of what we were like and how we lived. No matter how alien it can all seem in retrospect.