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Here On The Island - by Lewis Napper

A Scholarly Critique of the Style, Symbolism and Sociopolitical Relevance of Gilligan's Island

 

Great works of literature often attempt to confront us with the obvious in such a way as to call the inevitable into question. Some strive to explain through metaphor that which is too complex or too abstract to state literally. Other forms seek only to capture some moment in time so that future generations may experience and learn from what has gone before them.

 

All of these qualities are ambitiously gathered in Sherwood Schwartz's masterwork, "Gilligan's Island." Through a thin veil of canned laughter, unpretentious slap-stick, and inexpensive production the complete modern sociopolitical predicament is brought to the light of day.

 

The island symbolizes society -- any modern western society. It presents a canvas for painting all of the issues of the latest, greatest countries. A simple vehicle with clear boundaries designed to remove all irrelevant, external stimuli from the story and its message. Simplify to clarify.

 

The Skipper represents official government. His authority stems not so much from democratic election as from the traditional role and powers of a ship's captain. This historical precedent seems to convey his right to leadership more than any personal characteristics or qualifications. The castaways rely on this symbolic "right" to leadership to unofficially consent to his capacity as governor.

 

Without exception, everyone on the island clamors to the Skipper for help at every crisis. "Skipper will know what to do." The Skipper is "brave and sure." The Skipper calms the islanders at each emergency not by alleviating the problem, but by standing tall, pounding his chest and loudly making, magnificent promises that neither he nor any other person could possibly keep.

 

Gilligan, the Skipper's "little buddy", embodies every extraneous governmental agency, policy and program ever foisted on innocent people anywhere. It is "Gilligan's island." Gilligan is well-intentioned. He sincerely wants to help. Gilligan saves no exertion, refuses no absurdity, respects no boundary in his unceasing efforts to solve, or at least soften, any and all of the everyday problems of the castaways. More often than not Gilligan is the problem. At best he makes a bad situation worse. At worst, he makes a great situation completely unbearable.

 

In every episode, Gilligan somehow manages to ruin another chance for the castaways to be rescued. Still, in the next episode, everyone will rely on Gilligan for some critical act. Schwartz forces us to ask, "Why do they continue to trust Gilligan when they know he will fail?"

 

Some speculate it is the Skipper's guardianship that leaves the islander's powerless to remove Gilligan's influence. While it is true that the Skipper is usually supportive of Gilligan, he is also often very critical -- especially following some significant mishap. The Skipper's protection is not the real reason Gilligan is left to perform crucial duties.

 

The answer, of course, is that the islanders have become complacent. Gilligan performs almost all of the menial chores on the island. Because he is so often relied upon for the unpleasant or mundane, it seems strangely natural to everyone that this dependence extend to the vital. No one wants nuisance Gilligan or blundering Gilligan, but no one is willing to do away with utility Gilligan.

 

Skipper and Gilligan as government vow to keep everyone fed, comfortable and safe. They are awkwardly reliant on one another and hilariously inept except in those cases where they pose a real hazard to the safety and well-being of those around them -- which is all too often the case.

 

The Howell's symbolize big business. Thurston and Lovey are indeed rich, but neither seem to possess any appreciable skill. They earned their wealth the oldest-fashioned way -- they inherited it. They are delusional, conniving, greedy, and corrupt. They would be ultimately doomed to failure if ever presented with the challenges and constraints of the real world or if they were merely called upon to compensate for their personal excesses.

 

Even though their monetary wealth is completely without value on the island, all of the castaways continue to treat the Howell's as if they were royalty. Most perplexing is the fact that, for no apparent reason, Gilligan attends to their every need and whim. With no evident remuneration, Gilligan bathes these "haves" with surpluses purchased at the expense of the "have nots."

 

Again tradition seems to be the reason. As if their "ancestral wealth" gives them some right to their exalted stations in life. The only other plausible explanation is extortion. Strictly by chance, the Howell's wholly own what is thought to be the most valuable and irreplaceable asset on the island -- the radio.

 

The radio is a permanent fixation for the islanders. It is almost exclusively entrusted to "the Professor" who, of course, exemplifies science and academia. The Professor is highly educated and capable of amazing feats especially given the sparse raw materials and tooling available. To everyone's amazement, he routinely produces sophisticated forms of medicine, weaponry and labor-saving devices.

 

However, much like Gilligan, the Professor displays grand incompetence in some crucial areas. He seems oblivious to the constant flirtations of both Ginger and Mary Ann. He preoccupies much of his time with endeavors that can be of little or no value to anyone. The most glaring area of failure is that the Professor is unable to repair the boat. With all of his extraordinary capabilities it is indeed a great misfortune that he does not even seem to be interested in the boat.

 

Mysteriously more complex than the Professor is the Ginger character. Blatantly her representation is that of sex-symbol. At once she seems to be a sign of hedonism and moral decay, but on closer inspection, Ginger's ethical code is much more elaborate. She recounts numerous tales of not resorting to the "casting couch" to further her career. She is willing to use her feminine wiles and seductive powers to solicit aid from outsiders, but she never actually fulfills any of her insinuated promises.

 

She may be an inspiration to resist temptation -- an attempt to suggest that sexual fantasy is often better than the act itself. She may also indicate dissatisfaction with the material -- as more is gained, more is desired. Considering the time of composition -- an era of sexual revolution -- one could deduce that Ginger is a reminder that no one should be ashamed of their sexuality, but that everyone should carefully consider the motivation and frequency of their actions.

 

The most fascinating and delicious twist of Schwartz's tale is the relative obscurity of its central character -- Mary Ann. Her name is not in the title and as compared to the other characters, she is not often seen or heard. This lack of input is the very essence of the Mary Ann character. Some may think this kind, level-headed, lovable symbol of the heartland is insignificant to the story, but nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways Mary Ann is the story. More precisely, in times of critical decision making, Mary Ann's absence is the point.

 

Mary Ann is easily the most well-adjusted of the characters. She exhibits a healthy sexuality, yet she is unquestionably moral and at the same time not hurtfully devout or judgmentally pious. She is the only truly competent individual on the island. She provides all that is necessary and essential for life. Full of blue-collar know-how, her rugged instincts move her to farm, cook and provide health care and other critical services.

 

Her lack of self-confidence and doubt of self-worth coupled with an overly-inflated opinion of the others is all that keeps Mary Ann from asserting her rightful place as leader. This revolutionary theme of Mary Ann as most vital yet least compensated, most important yet least revered, most adept yet least trusted, is crucial to understanding the series. It is an attempt to show the common person the folly of their institutionalized reverence of traditional leadership and their legitimate legacy as masters of their own destiny.

 

Without benefit of any huge bureaucracy or powerful tribunal, the castaways principally live in peace. More important than any traditional codification of laws is simply their collective treatment of one another. The series suggests that the key to successful life lies mainly in their own ingenuity to exist at ease with themselves, the elements and those around them. The peculiarities and blunders of each inhabitant are admitted and tolerated. Their differences are simply noticed and granted -- not violently opposed.

 

Even this lofty theme is not the primary thesis. The story is actually about something much more fundamental. The most remarkable message of the tale lies in the paradox of the concentrated lust of the castaways -- their burning desire to go back. Back to a time and a place that is more familiar and romantically remembered as "better."

 

The tragedy of the tale is not that they can never go back. The real affliction is the wish itself. They are all so preoccupied with the notion of going back that they never realize they are already in paradise.

 

Copyright Lewis W. Napper. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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