Almost every American who owned a television from the late 1960s to the early 1980s has watched an episode of Gilligan’s Island. And if you were a child during that era—in a time before cable and console video games—you probably watched all 98 episodes more than once.
It shames me to consider it now, but I suspect I’ve seen each episode at least a half dozen times—over 8,000 hours engaged with this single cultural artifact. Even more embarrassing is the that despite spending so many hours watching the show I never considered whether there was a deeper meaning in this “text.”
Because Lewis Napper is much smarter than I am—or perhaps because he felt the need to justify the time he wasted watching the show—he has put a lot of thought into the situation of this sitcom and produced a short essay titled, “Here On The Island: A Scholarly Critique of the Style, Symbolism and Sociopolitical Relevance of Gilligan’s Island.”
The entire essay is quite delightful and surprisingly astute. Here, for example, is his take on the perpetually underestimated Mary Ann:
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.