Gilligan vs. Homer Simpson

Pop culture gets globalized.


When the Los Angeles Times named Paul Cantor's Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (Rowman & Littlefield) one of the best books of 2001, it was almost certainly the first time that such a commendation was lavished on a tome dedicated to a videotape machine. "IN MEMORY OF MY DEVOTED VCR, SONY SLV-240/July 20, 1994?December 29, 2000," the author announces at the start of his study of the most famous castaways in history.

Cantor, an occasional contributor to Reason, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia and is best known as a Shakespeare scholar. As his cheeky dedication suggests, he has a sense of humor, and Gilligan Unbound is, unlike much of what goes under the rubric "cultural studies," both accessible and a pleasure to read on the sentence level.

That's not to say the book is light, however: Cantor turns a sharp eye and a keen understanding of politics, economics, and history on the deeper significance of not just Gilligan's Island, but also Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The X-Files. In doing so, the Los Angeles Times noted, he goes far toward "uncovering a new thesis about where American pop culture is heading."

Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie talked with Cantor in late November.

Reason: Summarize your book's thesis.

Paul Cantor: It's about the representation of globalization in American TV. I compare shows from the 1960s and the 1990s and I contrast what I call eras of "national television" and "global television."

In the shows from the '60s, globalization takes the form of Americanization of the world. Gilligan's Island, for instance, suggests that you can take a representative group of Americans, drop them anywhere on the planet, and they'll end up recreating an image of the United States. You see all the elements of specifically American self-confidence in Star Trek, too. There, American democracy is "galacticized." In one out of two episodes, Capt. Kirk shows up and ruins any regime he encounters, especially if it smacks of aristocracy or theocracy.

Reason: What changes in the '90s?

Cantor: In the more recent shows, you see the reverse process at work. Now, it's America that is being globalized. In Gilligan and Star Trek, you see American power being projected outward. In The Simpsons and The X-Files, you see outside forces transforming America. The Simpsons views this comically and positively; in The X-Files, it's tragic and dark.

The striking thing about The Simpsons is how an American small town has been changed. The show obviously hearkens back to situation comedies like Father Knows Best, which was also set in a town called Springfield. But you never would have had Apu Nahasapeemapetilon running the grocery store in that Springfield. The X-Files definitely moves away from the idea that America is in control of the world, or that the government can be trusted to protect its citizens. It's just the opposite—there are all these dark conspiracies, somehow connected with aliens or the government itself, that are secretly ruling the world.

Reason: What explains the shift between the '60s and '90s shows?

Cantor: The main thing is the end of the Cold War, which was obviously present in Star Trek, but also in Gilligan—there are all sorts of space-race episodes, for instance. The Simpsons debuted as a regular series six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once the Soviet threat was muted, people were less inclined to rely on a national government, to turn to it as their savior, and more inclined to see things from foreign lands as not necessarily threatening—though The X-Files clearly reflects ambivalence about this. These shows are in some sense about the end of the nation-state.

Reason: You wrote Gilligan Unbound long before September 11. Is the nation-state back?

Cantor: People feel threatened again and they're turning back to the nation-state, at least in the short term. But in fact, terrorism may be one sign of the end of the nation-state, as Jean-Marie Guehenno suggested in his brilliant 1993 book, The End of the Nation-State. In fact, the underlying question we're facing now is whether a nation-state can deal with an enemy that is not a nation-state.

It's too early to tell how that will play out, but I think it's clear that we're moving into an era where economics will trump politics, which is an important way of thinking about globalization.