Gilligan's Island vs. the Taliban


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.

At the "Surviving Gilligan's Island" press conference, a British journalist plopped himself down next to me and began happily singing his version of the theme song: "Just sit roight back and 'ear a tile, a tile of a fightful trip…"

If the "Gilligan" theme song is so embedded in viewers' minds, so, perhaps, is its subliminal message to an entire generation around the world. As Dawn Wells (who played Mary Ann) remarked as she surveyed a room packed with reporters: "We raised you!"

Perhaps especially annoying to anti-Americans across the globe, the castaways have little regard for whatever indigenous culture they find on the island. When they put on a show, it's a festival of Dead White Males: a musical version of "Hamlet," to the tune of "Carmen."

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."

Extending this trope, I would add that the Millionaire displays an unseemly Western uxoriousness towards his one wife—insulting to societies where women are fourth class citizens, after the children and the camels. Mary Ann, besides her fondness for short-shorts, is offensively spunky to anyone who thinks women belong in robes and head scarves. She's the type of virgin who offends the fantasies of suicide bombers bombers everywhere, as she obviously wouldn't even give them the time of day in paradise.

And then there's Gilligan, the essence of the naïve, childish American—as Americans are so often described, ad nauseum, abroad. But bumbling, unsophisticated Gilligan has a way of ruining the plans of every Soviet cosmonaut or Third World dictator who drops by. "Representing the average citizen at his most ordinary," Cantor writes, "Gilligan presides over a kind of democratic utopia on the island and is repeatedly called upon to act as its savior."

What's more, he always prevails.

Why do they hate us? It just may be because of "Gilligan's Island."

Yes, this is sort of a silly answer. But it's still smarter than the question.