By Jayson Whitehead
It's a cross-over hit from the ivory tower. Gilligan Unbound, a cultural meditation on four provocative television shows actually began as "a bit of a joke," says author and University of Virginia English Professor Paul Cantor.
"I worked up a kind of comic lecture on Gilligan’s Island, and then people asked me to do Star Trek," says Cantor. Before long, he was asked to consider the X-Files.
"I began to realize that there was a pattern in what I had: Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek on one side and The Simpsons and The X-Files on the other," says Cantor. "I really had an interesting contrast between the '60s and the '90s."
Critics, too, have found his book interesting. The L.A. Times named it one of the 10 best of 2001, and libertarian magazine Reason lauds its “provocative” view of globalization. In the aftermath of 9/11, Cantor's ideas have gained new currency.
The WTC attack was tied into our culture and our entertainment industry. In a sense, we are experiencing a backlash against our entertainment, which is certainly related to TV…
Absolutely. I think you could almost say TV was the issue that provoked this. Early on, someone wrote a piece called “Gilligan’s Island vs. the Taliban” [published locally in C-ville on October 16] that was sparked by the author’s having read my book, and she basically was trying to answer the question everyone was asking in October, you know, “Why do they hate us?”
And she says because of Gilligan’s Island. I was very flattered, actually, that she had picked up on my book. Her name is Catherine Seipp, and her argument is that when people around the world see the show, they both envy and resent us. It is a very clever and very humorous piece. But yes, I think that a lot of the resentment fueling terrorists is a sense that their way of life is being undermined by these encroachments of western modernity, and that’s deeply embodied in the power of Hollywood– the films, video tapes, radio broadcasts, and television shows.
American globalization continues to pick up steam as our entertainment leads it…
Oh, it is extraordinary. The most remote place I have ever been is the so-called Red Centre of Australia, absolutely the middle of nowhere. I was there to see the famous Ayers Rock– I being the intrepid explorer– and booked this special cheap tour to go to something called Mount Caran. Part of the deal was to go and have dinner in an authentic Australian roadhouse. But the guide got lost. We finally found the place, we got in, and they were watching Seinfeld. And laughing at it. Which– I am from Brooklyn, from New York– I have always understood Seinfeld and never understood why the rest of the world likes it. In the middle of nowhere in Australia they were watching it.
You discuss Gilligan as the archetypal democratic hero. Was the key to Gilligan's success that the creator set up the archetypal hero as such a blank buffoon?
Democracy rests on the idea that anybody can rule, and therefore every man can rule. It is one of the great tensions within democracy that somehow it asks for greatness in rulers while on the other hand it wants to claim you don’t have to be anything special to rule. And I think that the logic of the show really turned on that kind of issue. You see all of these various traditional claims to rule– the skipper’s military experience, the professor’s wisdom, Mr. Howell’s wealth– and in a sense the show devalues all those things even though in another sense it does celebrate them. But the point about Gilligan is he is the perfect man of the street: he really is your average Joe. And the point is that he somehow is the fundamental spirit of that island; that’s why it is named after him.
I see the three other shows you discuss as having a brilliant mind behind them, putting a lot of thought into them– I would call them very intelligently structured shows. Gilligan’s Island is so stupid, but it has endured and been so influential.
Now let me say a word in defense of Gilligan’s Island because the only person I have heard from to discuss the book is [show creator] Sherman Schwartz. He heard about the book– actually he read that syndicated article on "Gilligan's Island vs. the Taliban"– and wrote me a letter asking about the book. I sent him a copy of it, and we’ve spoken on the phone. He was very excited when the book was reviewed in the LA Times. The interesting thing is he basically has put in writing that I figured out what he wanted to do with the show. Before he read the book, when he wrote me the first letter asking for a copy, he outlined "this is what I was doing in the show," and he actually was discussing many of the same episodes that I discussed. He said, “My favorite episode was 'The Little Dictator'” and talked about the one where Gilligan is elected president. I jokingly wrote back to him, "I wrote all these books about Shakespeare, and I never so much as got a note from him, and here you are kind enough to send me this letter."
And, indeed, it was kind of a strange moment in my career. You spend your whole life as an English professor interpreting things, and nobody ever tells you that you’re right, and here the creator of Gilligan’s Island sent me a note saying, "This is what I had in mind." And in talking to him and corresponding with him, I found he really is quite intelligent and well read. I noticed this just in reading his book about Gilligan’s Island that he talks about Aristophanes and commedia del arte, and he is obviously well educated. If you go back to Gilligan’s Island now, it’s almost embarrassing because there are references to Diogenes in it. You would not expect to find that in a television show. And so I give Sherman Schwartz a lot of credit. We shouldn’t underestimate what was going on in that show.
I guess if I can rephrase: if history looks on it, you will see Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The X-Files probably placed on the high end of television culture, but Gilligan’s Island would not be there.
I know exactly what you are saying. One of the reasons I included Gilligan’s Island in the book was to make the point that it doesn’t have to be the high end of pop culture for us to learn something from it. And in a way I offer it as a kind of test case: if you can find something interesting in Gilligan’s Island, you can probably find something interesting in anything on TV.
When you write about Star Trek, you raise the question, "Does the end of history mean the end of Shakespeare?"
Really what drew me into that Star Trek topic was the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I was really struck by the use of Shakespeare in it, but above all the fact that they associate Shakespeare with the Klingons. Now part of it was a joke. The Klingons generally function as the Russians in the Cold War mythology of Star Trek, and when the Klingons claim that Shakespeare was originally written in Klingon it's like those old Soviet claims that a Russian invented television and so on.
But as I began to think about it, it got deeper than that, because the reason that the Klingon General Chang quoted Shakespeare was that he was an old-style aristocratic warrior. And it did seem to me that the movie raised that issue: whether a galactic peace would somehow be enervating. There is a sense of something coming to the end in that film, and in some ways it’s positive because it means bringing peace to the galaxy, but there is some sense that the whole mission of the Enterprise was premised precisely on this Cold War space– that people like Kirk can show their heroism only because they have enemies to fight. You see a lot of concern about that in the 1990s.
[Francis] Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man deals with that, and clearly the film had that debate in mind because the end of history comes up in it. I doubt that the writers of the film were familiar with Fukuyama's work directly, but they knew about that issue, and I think the film turns on that.
What’s interesting about the fighting going on now is how it brings us back to the Cold War in that both America and Russia were involved in Afghanistan during the last stage of the Cold War.
Many people have welcomed the resurgence of patriotism and the sense that America now has a purpose again in the world, and I think it reflects that kind of post-Cold War emotional depression of the 1990s that you often see reflected in The Simpsons and the The X-Files. The question, though, is whether it really is a return to an old style of warfare or something really quite new, and whether we really can identify our enemies any more or identify them in national terms specifically. Surely, one of the ironies of the situation now is that we find ourselves allied with the Russians, and the Russians are helping us, and we are staging our operations in Afghanistan from states that used to be part of the Soviet Union. It really is confusing in that sense.
You also touch on how The X-Files tied in so much to the internet, and how its success was related to that.
I think that’s a fascinating subject. It clearly is the first show that really made a great deal of the internet and, in general, of communications technology. It’s actually funny now to go back to the first season and see that Scully and Mulder often miss each other on their regular phones, and answering machines have to kick in, and sometimes the plots turn on the fact that they can’t reach each other by phone. And then pretty soon the cell phone is there– an inescapable companion.
They were one of the first shows to have plots turn on the issue of the internet. There is that episode about internet dating and its perils called "Too Shy." And I point out how the success of the show heavily depended on the internet– that at points its ratings were not over the top in the first season, and at points where Fox was nervous about the future of the show they monitored the internet traffic. They could see the depth of interest in the show. They saw that the website they set up for the show was getting more hits than anything else on television, and I think Fox was clever to see the new issue of the internet.
Indeed, I think television is still relatively young, and I think the major transformation of television in this coming century is going to be the integration of television programming and the internet. You see a foretaste of that in the The X-Files; [creator] Chris Carter has admitted that he monitors the The X-Files website. They have gotten some ideas for shows from the internet. They often pay compliments to the biggest internet fans by using their names for minor characters in episodes.
Do you ever watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Yes, I just have started to get into Buffy through the reruns. I have had students and friends tell me, "You’ve gotta get into Buffy," and I just saw their internet dating episode where a demon gets into the internet. It was a very interesting way of representing the fears that go along with this new technological possibility. I can’t say I’m a committed Buffy fan yet; I’m working on it.
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