Anybody Can Rule
Author and University of Virginia English professor Paul Cantor talks about his recent book Gilligan Unbound, Francis Fukuyama, why Klingons quote Shakespeare, and Gilligan's place in world politics
By Jayson Whitehead

Why did you pick Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek as the representative shows of the '60s?

To back up, I kind of backed into writing this book. Ever since the late '80s I have been giving lectures on TV shows. It started out as a bit of a joke, a bit of comic relief during the year, and I worked up a kind of comic lecture on Gilligan’s Island, and then people asked me to do Star Trek. When I came to write the book, I was originally just going to collect a bunch of these essays—I had about 15 of them. It wasn’t going to be a well-organized book, but it happened that my editor wanted an essay on the The X-Files—that was the only condition of the book. And I was very excited about that because I loved The X-Files and I wanted to write about it.

Well, when I sat down to write about the The X-Files, the next thing I knew I had 140 pages of manuscript, and I suddenly thought, "this book is getting too long." I will have to cut some of the material out, and then as I looked at the X-Files essay—it was clearly about globalization—I began to see that a good bit of the material I was really interested in had at least some bearing on the issue of globalization. And then I made the decision to cut out half the essays and focus the book on globalization. And it was at that point that 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. I really had an interesting contrast between the '60s and the '90s. So I didn’t set out to find what will represent the '60s and chose Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek. I just basically found a pattern in the material I had been working on.

Andy Griffith dealt with similar themes.

Right. CBS at that time really was very much into a kind of nostalgia and defense of an older America. That’s what Beverly Hillbillies was. In some ways it is what Green Acres was. The values projected on CBS were very much the 1950's Eisenhower-era values of family and small-town, tight-knit community, very suspicious of strangers, especially Hollywood and Beverly Hillbillies was the whole joke of that, a celebration of these older American values. And so, this book could have been endless; all sorts of things could have illustrated my thesis or complicated or challenged this thesis. But I was happy with my choice in the sense that these were two clearly important shows of the time. Gilligan’s Island was actually more successful than Star Trek. But the interesting thing about them for me was how well they both lasted. It is certainly what puzzled me about Gilligan’s Island (laughs). How I tried to think about it is, "Why did this show become so popular in syndication?" These certainly were not the only shows I could have done and may be in some sense not the most representative shows, but they’re in the ballpark. I think they're fair enough to choose them.

What’s interesting about your discussion of Francis Fukuyama and what he calls the "end of the nation state" is that with shows like Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek there are still large pockets of America that don't even regard these shows in a nostalgic sense but actually still feel the same way.

Yes, I think that is true. Again, one of the points about the television audience is that it is very complex and has different layers. People understand the shows on different levels. And yes, I think that the enduring popularity of these shows reveals an enduring American sense of patriotism. It doesn’t take much for it to surface. Obviously the events of September 11th have tapped into a deep-seated patriotism in the American people. And we’re seeing some change in the popular culture as a result but, you know, patriotism surfaces even in The Simpsons. That’s why they never carry their cynical observations about politics too far.

Can you see us reverting back to a nation state in some senses—just because of the patriotic fervor now?

It really depends upon how things go. I can see a certain series of events that would lead into a resurgence of patriotism, and I can see other events that would follow a different course, a course that just might take us back to where we were in the '90s, and this is particularly difficult to predict. I think long term the trends that I talk about against the nation state are still in place. If anything, I feel that in many ways the The X-Files predicted the world we live in. And the fact is that terrorism does not fit into the world of the nation state. It is one of the reasons we are having a hard time dealing with it and why this war we are in looks so different to people and is in fact difficult to conceptualize, because our notion of war is very much tied up with our notion of the nation state. And terrorism, despite all the talk about state-sponsored terrorism, is not a nation-state phenomena. And it may well be that dealing with terrorism will end up undermining the nation-state further. But again, that is unpredictable.

With the end of the nation state, we are moving continually towards democracy. But in some Islamic countires there is still a theocracy.

Yeah, that is the way we characterize Islamic fundamentalism, and a number of the Islamic states have elements of theocracy. The fact that these Taliban leaders were at one time religious leaders… Theocracy is having problems, too. It is interesting to see—as far as we can tell the Afghani people appear to be happy to have been liberated from Taliban rule precisely because they didn’t feel comfortable with theocratic rule, with the suppression of music, dance, and so on. But we really are seeing a clash between democratic, modern ways of thinking and theocratic, more traditional ways of thinking. Essentially the theme of The X-Files is the conflict between a rationalized modernity and more traditional ways of life, which it continually associates with the Third World or with foreigners.

The WTC attack was tied into our culture and our entertainment industry. In a sense, we are experiencing a real 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" that was sparked by her 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 said because of Gilligan’s Island. I was very flattered actually that she had picked up on my book. Her name was Catherine Seipp, and her argument was that people see the show around the world and they both envy and resent us. It was a very clever and very humorous piece. But yes, I think that a lot of the resentment that is 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 was 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 Connor and part of the deal was to go and have dinner in an authentic Australian roadhouse and the guide got lost…. We finally found the place, we get 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?

In a certain sense, 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 and 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 was 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—you 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 [the show's creator] Sherwood Schwartz. He heard about the book actually reading 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 him to send him 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 were 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 were 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 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. 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 Sherwood 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 and Gilligan’s Island would not be there.

I might say it’s ironic in a way, in that the show that I say the nastiest things about in the book is the one that provoked the one kind letter I’ve got. But no, 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 had enemies to fight. You see a lot of concern about that in the 1990’s. Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man dealt 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 that is 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. I wonder if it brings some of those issues to the surface, even just some of that Cold War sentiment.

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 1990's 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 were 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; Chris Carter has admitted that he monitors the The X-Files website. They have gotten some ideas for shows from the Internet. They often make compliments to the biggest Internet fans by using their names for minor characters in episodes. I think the Internet is going to be a very powerful tool for television and we’re only just beginning to see what its impact is going to be. But the Lone Gunmen were clearly the first major Internet characters on television and they got their own show even though it didn’t succeed. And I think it’s one of the things that shows how clever the people on the The X-Files were, that they really saw the major change that was coming along in the 1990's with the Internet. They took advantage of it in promoting the show, incorporated it into scripts. It probably will be remembered as the beginning of the Internet Revolution in television.

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.