Oct 30, 2022

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,  has become iconic for its ineptness and naiveté. They pull endless supplies from nowhere, build anything they need (except a boat) from bamboo and coconuts, and get a steady stream of visitors who promise rescue, but betray them or forget the island's location.  Even Santa Claus dropped by to offer holiday cheer.

But  actually, it was no more inept or naive than other 1960s sitcoms.

In case Gilligan's Island is before your time, the seven castaways are:
1.-2. The Skipper and his first mate Gilligan, who ran an island tour service out of Honolulu, and brought five passengers on the "three hour tour."
3.-4. The absurdly wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Howell, who for some reason brought suitcases full of money on the tour.
5. Glamorous Marilyn Monroe-style movie star Ginger.
6. Wholesome Kansas farmgirl Mary Anne.
7. The Professor, who has a B.A. from USC, a B.S. from UCLA, an M.A. from SMU, and a Ph. D from TCU, yet works as a high school science teacher.

The Skipper and the Professor were never referred to by name, except on the radio in an early episode.

There was 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) took 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, she interrogate all of the male castaways. They are innocent.  "But that's impossible!" she exclaims.  "We've asked everyone on the island!" She is omitting Ginger and Mary Anne. 

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.  After his death from AIDS in 1994, the elder Johnson 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), headhunters capture 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.

    1. Mary Ann was always jealous of Ginger, though. That's why she's envy.

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

    1. "Little Buddy" wasn't subtle enough for you?

  3. *Russel Johnson died in 2014 (should be switched to past tense, re: activist)

    1. Also, Gilligan, not Gillian. Heterosexist spellcheck? Given that Google Translate is sexist when you translate from Hungarian...

  4. Russell Johnson was a handsome man specially in those early Universal sci-fi movies from the 1950's like "It Came From Outer Space". Skipper and Gilligan are a couple .

  5. I knew David Johnson when he was establishing the gay and lesbian student group at UCLA. He told the story about how Russell once brought home a video tape machine (then an expensive rarity) and took videos of the family. Dave said that he was astonished to see himself. Roughly from memory, "I thought, 'how could anyone not _know_?!? I look like Lance Loud!'"

  6. I'm surprise nobody made a gay porn parody of this show


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