The Castaways of Gilligan’s Island: The American Pantheon

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I had been looking forward to introducing my ten year old to Gilligan’s Island, and after watching the pilot (available on Amazon Prime), I now understand why this show manages to linger in my conscience long after its many contemporaries have faded away. This show echoes today among the various reality shows and in most ensemble comedies. What is Community, if not Gilligan’s Island transplanted and transmogrified. The appeal is in the crystallization of middle American archetypes of Kennedy-era America into a pantheon. If in an alternative reality, we worshipped a nature-based divinity with seven aspects, we would worship these “Six and One in One.” If you are honest with yourself, you may admit that you already do.

The Six non-Gilligan castaways represent important aspects of the American psyche. The Skipper is the authority figure, having a presumed backstory as a veteran, but lapsed into a pudgy softness that is almost maternal -observe the moobs. He is in fact both parents who are equally ineffectual. The Millionaire is America’s 1%, ascotted, bilious, and lockjawed, he is married to Lovey, who represents America’s fading glory. The Professor is representative of America’s science and technology -he is the space program, modern medicine, and computers, but is sterile -his shirts are white, never soiled or bloodied. Mary Ann is the virginal Girl Next Door -pretty as a daisy, fresh as laundry line-drying on a summer day, and fertile as the Kansas soil that she hails from. Ginger is the encapsulation of American desire. Like Joan Harris née Holloway of Mad Men, she is not blond, but essentially a stand in for America’s fetish for blonds. Ginger is as obvious as an flesh-colored orchid. Mary Ann and Ginger could be a two-faced goddess that could be named Madonna-Whore.

These all face off against the great demon Gilligan, who is trickster, destroyer, and adolescent priapism -he is the baby boomer in early adolescence ready to terrorize his parents and peers. If the censors had not been in the way, Gilligan’s Island in the second season would have seen Mary Ann and Ginger, both pregnant, foraging for clams while Gilligan sipped coconut juice from the Professor’s skull, using the Skipper as his living chair, wearing a vest made from the Millionaire. Lovey would have been the main course in the season one finale. There are no people of color on this show, but Gilligan’s shirt is red, which is a marker, a red flag. For along with being the trickster, destroyer, and phallus rampant, Gilligan is the Other. At best, he is the troublesome minority who amuses with minstrelsy, but at worst, he will come and take your women.

And why would we worship at the altars of such as these? We already do, because each of these characters is a demographic group that consumes and drives the economy. Each of these characters has a store at the mall. Each of these characters has a magazine, a channel on cable, and political candidate shaped for them.

When I tried to explain this to my 10 year old, he said this, “It’s a stupid tv show that makes no sense and is frustrating because of that idiot Gilligan.” Such an innocent. He has so much liberal arts education to learn!

Dawn of the Dead -is all about us.

I recently watched the remake of Dawn of the Dead on Hulu while on call. In general, I find the horror genre either to be a thinly veiled subcategory of Chick Lit or generally too scary to watch. The first category, the horror Chick Lit or Chick Flick, are all the romantic vampire stories and beauty with beast fables. They are dreck even when an auteur like Joss Whedon labors to make them watchable. Something dark lies in the feminine psyche for fantasies about blood sucking, pasty faced, pretty boy immortals sells. The latter, the truly scary horror, deals in the supernatural. In the heart of all rational people, there is a primitive spot that wonders if there is good and evil and not just cause and effect. When a film taps this, and reveals the frightening voids and yawning chasms presented by contemplation and imagining of evil, even this fairly rational and educated surgeon can get a twee scared watching The Grudge in the dark (she looks like an ex-girlfriend).

But zombie movies? Not so! For some reason, I love them because I’m a doctor. The slow zombie era of Cesar Romero came to an end with the fast zombies of 28 Days Later (and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later). Zombie movies appeal to my inner infectious disease expert. In some way, I deal with the necrosis and suppuration every week, and seeing hordes of diseased people doesn’t seem too scary. It then boils down to how the undiseased people react in these circumstances which entertains me: by denying, by panicking, by getting armed, by having sex (more denial), and by getting oddly rational. When HIV began killing people in the late 80’s, the response was not unlike the plot of a zombie movie. There was fatal ignorance and denial, followed by panic, then calls for concentration camps, followed a neurotic mix of hedonism, consumerism, prudishness, and rampant heterosexualism. The collective sigh of relief was the announcement by Dr. Ho of multidrug therapy, as conceptualized by the not-gay and not down-low Magic Johnson just staying alive.

The most recent remake of Dawn of the Dead makes great fun with these concepts. The survivors of the plague hole up in a shopping mall, and all the zombies congregate there and mill about outside the locked entrances. And its the same now in the time of the economic plague that I see hordes milling about at our local mall. Despite the recession, the place is always full. I think people go there because going to the mall and shopping is a talisman of normalcy. After the horrible events of 9/11, President Bush told everyone to go shopping. Shopping! And that is what I see going on, the continued shopping for a little slice of happiness, is not unlike the zombies congregating at the mall in Dawn of the Dead. “I think its some retained memory they have that brings them here,” says one of the characters.

As a medical student, I was assigned patients and was their intern, responsible for their health. Never mind that most of them had HIV and were crack abusers, making them somewhat unstable. I learned to have a conversation with them, those who in another era would have been called possessed and unclean. I took the lessons of the plaque dedicated to the twenty medical students who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918, and understood implicitly the bargain I had to make. To be a good physician, I would have to take good care of all people. I performed central lines and spinal taps in poorly lit rooms on patients whose viral titres made them frankly toxic to be around with a needle, a scalpel, or broken glass (from lidocaine vials). I learned equanimity in the face of really horrible things like the gal who hid a roll of dollar bills in her abscess (pocket of pus) cavity on her lower abdomen. She’d pay for crack with those filthy bills and earned them by doing who knows what. If that trumps zombies, I don’t know what. I always wash my hands after touching money.

Eddie Murphy had a claymation animation sit-com in the 90’s called the PJ’s. It featured a crack addict who was spot on and completely true. Ironically, he was the straight man, and dished wisdom while eying the pigeons for a possible meal. The great tragedy in the AIDs/Crack epidemic of the 90’s was its victims who made to the hospital after living on the streets for years were incredible specimens. They had to be to survive for as long as they did. They were all tall, lean, and if you looked past the insanity, wear, tear, and grime, were usually good looking with good bone structure -think Na’Vi, twenty years after the aliens from Earth returns to Pandora, colonize them, and put them on reservations with their sensory pony tails cut and cauterized at the stump.

We forget that the heroes of the Zombie movies are in fact, the Zombies. Once infected and left to wander around for fresh brain, they are the perfect citizenry. Their behavior is predictable, and their intentions are true. They offer no political resistance by asking no questions, and their happiness lies in fresh brains. Substitute fresh brains for fresh fruit out of season, perfectly-red meat packed in styrofoam and plastic, and giant homes in the suburbs, and you have it. The real monsters in Zombie movies are the protagonists, they with their guns and fire, keeping the thronging mobs from their happiness and fulfillment.

So stop being a wet noodle! Go, run out and buy yourself some Zombie pickle and get happy! A good place to start: On January 27th, Apple will present their next great thing, by the way, you happy Zombie.