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Kitsch Rules

Why 'Gilligan's Island' and 'The X-Files' Hold the Key to America's Global Reach

GILLIGAN UNBOUND: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, By Paul A. Cantor, Rowman & Littlefield: 256 pp., $27.95

November 11, 2001|JONATHAN V. LAST | Jonathan V. Last is the online editor for the Weekly Standard

Paul A. Cantor is a strange creature: a conservative professor of English at the University of Virginia who specializes in Shakespeare, loves pop culture and is flat-out funny (he once referred to Mel Gibson's "Hamlet" as "Lethal Bodkin"). In his new book, "Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization," Cantor examines four of his favorite television shows--"Gilligan's Island," "Star Trek," "The Simpsons" and "The X-Files"--and explores how they speak to America's understanding of its place in the world. Cantor is a proponent of a thoughtful conservatism that should be interesting to liberals and instructive for conservatives, for he has the courage to say out loud that not everything on television is dross and that some of it is not only entertaining but significant as well.

Which brings us, naturally, to Gilligan and Capt. Kirk. The two '60s shows "Gilligan's Island" and "Star Trek" presented a Cold War view of the United States as a country which was doing the globalizing, rather than being globalized. As Cantor puts it, "Gilligan's Island" is about "the Americanization of the globe." The show postulated that a representative group of Americans could be plunked down in the middle of nowhere and establish a miniature America. Each of the characters in "Gilligan's Island" stood for a certain American trait: the Skipper is the military, the Professor is science and ingenuity, the Millionaire is Wall Street , the Movie Star is Hollywood's culture machine, Mary Ann is Midwestern innocence and Mrs. Howell is High Society.

Gilligan, of course, has no special gifts, but this lack of qualities makes him what Cantor calls "the democratic man par excellence." "Unlike the other characters in the show," Cantor writes, "he has nothing to distinguish him and that constitutes his form of preeminence in the context of a democratic regime." Which is why Gilligan always saves the day.

"Gilligan's Island" reflected an America at ease with itself. Even though the country was in the middle of a Cold War, the castaways had a calm confidence in our founding principles and our moral preeminence. The show's creators saw the spreading of American ideals as a form of manifest destiny. Those ideals were also at the heart of "Star Trek." Gene Roddenberry may have made a big deal about the Prime Directive and its mandate not to interfere with other planets, but the truth is that the crew of the Enterprise spent much of its time destroying rival forms of government. Or as Cantor says, "Their mission was to make the galaxy safe for democracy."

Whenever Kirk and company encountered forms of totalitarianism or aristocracy or theocracy, they whipped out their phasers in the name of freedom. In many ways, Cantor points out, the attitudes in "Star Trek" mirrored the assertive foreign policy of the Kennedy administration, with Kirk as JFK and Mr. Spock as "McGeorge Bundy with pointy ears." But American attitudes--and TV shows--began to change with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, globalization also meant the importing of other cultures and ideas.

Cantor spends the second half of "Gilligan Unbound" dissecting two shows from the present, "The Simpsons" and "The X-Files." He claims that "The Simpsons" takes a comic view of globalization: All's well that ends well and there's nothing wrong with Babbitts and Bobos. When the Simpsons travel to Japan, they find themselves on a television program called "Happy Smile Super Challenge Family Wish Show" whose host laughingly informs them, "Our gameshows are a little different from yours. Your shows reward knowledge. We punish ignorance."

"The X-Files" sees a darker version of globalization in which the government is controlled by shadowy forces which are part of an international syndicate. The syndicate unleashes an endless stream of unpleasant things--like mutant plagues and killer bees--on the public. Cantor supposes that the fundamental discomfort at the root of "The X-Files"' paranoia is that Americans sense that, with the end of the Cold War and the world coming together, we may be running out of history.

As a philosophical matter it's impossible to pass judgment on Cantor's theories about where globalization is or isn't taking us--it's 195 years after Hegel pronounced the end of history and we're still not 100% certain he was right. In fact, after Sept. 11, theocratic fundamentalism has issued a searing challenge to that very pronouncement. But on a more pedestrian political level, Cantor has accomplished something so rare that it seems phenomenal: He has written a conservative book on pop culture which is smart and felicitous. Cantor has laid out a blueprint for how conservatives should engage the culture in the future.

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