Sep 20, 2012

Gilligan's Island

Gilligan's Island (1964-67), the tale of seven nitwits who set out from Honolulu for a “three hour tour” and end up stranded on a desert island is famous for its ineptness and naiveté, but actually it was no more inept or naive than most other 1960s escapist sitcoms, and it had a lot for gay kids to like.

1. Beefcake First mate Gillian (Bob Denver, below) was slim, smooth, and occasionally shirtless.

Lithe, hard bodied Denny Miller, a 1959 Tarzan (left), appeared twice, as a "jungle man" and as as a surfer who rode a wild wave all the way in from Honolulu.

 In February 1965, Kurt Russell appeared as a jungle boy, wearing only a loincloth (he counts as beefcake when you're five years old)

Even the Professor (Russell Johnson, whose son David was a fixture in West Hollywood) take off his shirt a couple of times.

2. Utter lack of heterosexual interest.

There was lots of heterosexism, of course.  When the Professor wonders why headhunters would abduct only the girls, Gilligan quips “Because they’re boys!”  When Mrs. Howell becomes the recipient of anonymous love letters, they interrogate all of the male castaways. They are innocent.  "But that's impossible!" she exclaims.  "That's everyone on the island!"  It never occurs to her for a moment that either Ginger or Mary Anne might be interested in her. 

The Skipper occasionally bats his eyes at Ginger or Mary Anne, but the other two single men, Gilligan and the Professor, never display the least interest in girls.  (Incidentally, Russell Johnson's son was very active in gay politics in Los Angeles.  Since his death from AIDS in 1994, the elder Johnson has devoted himself full-time to fundraising for AIDS research.)

3. Same-sex bonding.  When Gilligan and the Skipper fantasize about being rescued, they mention hamburgers and milkshakes, but never girls or “settling down.” Perhaps they've already settled down: they’ve been together since the War (probably the Korean War, over a decade ago), without even a perfunctory search for girlfriends or wives. 

Presumably Bob Denver, who had previously played "allergic to girls" on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis played Gilligan as a man-child with “arrested development,” excused from demonstrating heterosexual desire because he hasn’t “discovered” girls yet,

But occasionally we see a hint of an alternative explanation:. In “High Man on Totem Pole” (February 1967), a new batch of headhunters captures the Professor, the Skipper, and Mr. Howell. The girls are disconsolate:

Ginger: All of the men are gone!

Gilligan: I’m still here!

Ginger: [Dryly.] I said, all of the men.

But what sort of man is not really a man?

 In the last original episode of the series, “Gilligan the Goddess” (April 1967), savage tribesmen visit the island in search of a “white goddess” to throw into a volcano. Gilligan pretends to be a girl, donning a wig and a sixties mod dress, so he will be selected (the plan is to go to the other island and call Hawaii for rescue).

 Blustering King Killiwani (Stanley Adams) demonstrates an interest in Gilligan even when he is male, ignoring the other castaways while forcing him to dance, but when Gilligan becomes “Gilliana,” he becmes downright grabby. Unwilling to reveal the truth and ruin the rescue plan, but also unwilling to let Killiwani commit date rape, the castaways try to distract him with food and entertainment.

Mrs. Howell: Anybody for passion fruit?

Gilligan: No passion fruit! I think I’ll have a banana. [He grabs one and peels it, then feeds a piece to Killiwani.]

Girls: And now for your pleasure we present the great magician, Thurston Howell the Third!

Gilligan: [Applauds.] He’s great. He knows a thousand tricks, and I want to see them all.

Killiwani: [Places hand on Gilligan’s knee.] You the only trick I interested in!

Gilligan rejects the passion fruit because he is skittish about getting passionate, of course, but his choice of a phallic symbol-banana instead suggests another dimension, especially when he feeds it to Killiwani. His gesture is natural, almost unconscious, and surprisingly intimate; he behaves as if he really in a romantic relationship. (We should note that he objects to the ruse because he doesn’t want to dress like a girl, not because he dislikes Killiwani’s attention.)

Maybe  same-sex desire was  not beyond all imagining, even in 1967.


  1. Ginger and Mary Anne had a subtext too.

  2. The Skipper wore an ostentatious pinkie ring. I always thought that was signaling that he was gay.


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