On The Money, Gilligan’s Island as Economic Metaphor

On the Money,

Financial Advice for the Working-Class

Gilligan’s Island as Economic Metaphor

So, I found myself wondering recently, as I’m sure you often do, “Why were two millionaires on this little tour boat with five other people?” Then it finally hit me. After forty-some years, the Gilligan’s Island metaphor for the US economy became obvious to me.  Others may have unraveled this mystery (although a cursory Google search revealed no evidence of this), and Herb Schwartz may have spilled the beans about it himself, but I figured this out for myself, based entirely on my own extensive knowledge of the show.  Although I have not seen an episode of Gilligan’s Island in at least 20 yrs, I reckon that I have seen every single episode of the show at least five times, and I think about the show often.


Like most television programming, Gilligan’s Island was an expertly crafted piece of capitalist propaganda. While intended as light entertainment for the masses, on a subtler or subliminal level Gilligan’s Island reinforces the guiding myths of capitalism, and provided a working metaphor for the crisis facing capitalism in the sixties. That’s a crisis we continue to face today, so it’s still relevant to revisit Gilligan’s Island to see what we can learn from it today. That’s probably why the show is still on the air in over 35 countries, including the US.


Let’s start with the castaways themselves, representing the major segments of the economy:


We’ll start with the millionaire and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Howell represent the power of capital. They are the one-percent. They are not portrayed as mean or ruthless people, no, they just have class and enjoy the finer things in life. When the castaways need something, Mr. and Mrs. Howell always have it, and are willing, after some coaxing, to part with, or share it. Why did they take so many changes of clothes, and their record collection, among other things on a “three hour tour”? We’ll never know, but they have stuff, and can be persuaded to put it to use, if you can explain to them, how it will benefit them.

Now let’s look at the movie star, Ginger, the hot seductive starlet in the sequined dress. She represents the propaganda industry. Seemingly, she appeared in every movie ever made. She knows a lot about deception and seduction, at least about how they did it in the movies.


The Professor clearly represents the scientists and engineers responsible for the technology of modern civilization. He knows how everything works, and can make practically anything out of what they have on hand, except a new boat. This really sums up our situation regarding technology. We can make nearly anything, if we put enough energy into it, except a new place to be, or a way to get there.


You’ll also notice the Professor is rather fond of Mary Ann. Mary Ann, the All-American farm girl, represents the agricultural industry, our nation’s farmers. Now that high-tech, automated farming methods dominate the American heartland, the farmer relies on, and trusts, university professors, high-tech machinery and chemicals . Mary Ann is as sweet as pie, innocent, and full of colloquial wisdom, but she looks up to the Professor as a kind of father figure.

The Skipper represents authority. He’s the military (a retired Navy man), police, judge and jury. As captain of the SS Minnow, he wields absolute authority over all of the others, at least when they are at sea, but now that they are shipwrecked, he’s still the biggest guy.


That just leaves Gilligan, the American worker. The bumbling buffoon who wrecks everything because he can’t do anything right. Everything depends on Gilligan, and that’s where everything goes wrong. Gilligan does all of the back-breaking work. He does most of the digging, carrying, running, and any other unpleasant jobs.

He takes orders from the Skipper, because allegedly, he works for him, or at least did when they had a ship. But even on dry land, Gilligan endures lots of abuse, mostly from the Skipper, who regularly insults, and abuses him. The Skipper sleeps directly under Gilligan, so Gilligan has no privacy. When the Skipper snores, Gilligan has to endure it, but the Skipper will poke Gilligan if he snores at all.


This brings us to the SS Minnow, the scuttled, unrepairable tour boat. Chartered by Mr. Howell, for himself, his wife, and a few of his close associates, the SS Minnow represents the US economy in its entirety. The SS Minnow embarked on a three hour tour. We can call that the period of economic prosperity that followed WWII.


So, this “fateful trip” began back in 1945 with the conversion from a war economy to a consumer economy. This era of unprecedented economic expansion led to a massive growth of the middle-class that fueled suburban sprawl and the era of cheap, disposable consumer goods known as the “Populux Age”


That is, the SS Minnow sailed on, full speed ahead, and Gilligan was satisfied with his wages as first mate. In fact, he was probably overpaid, considering how incompetent he was. He’s just lucky to have a job at all, right? So they sail on, but they hit some rough seas, and then become shipwrecked on an uncharted desert island.


In the early sixties, some of the serious consequences of our expanding consumer economy were beginning to show themselves. Three years before the debut of Gilligan’s Island, in 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, implicating DDT, once hailed as a scientific breakthrough worthy of a Nobel Prize, as responsible for massive bird die-offs and extinctions.


Roadside litter became ubiquitous and impossible to ignore, leading to the, very famous, “Crying Indian” commercial. From our manned space program, we began to see the Earth, not as a huge endlessly abundant, endlessly resilient womb, but as a delicate wisp of gas between the surface of a tiny marble, and the vast emptiness of space. Suddenly, in the sixties, it became apparent that if we continued this expanding consumer economy, we would all soon drown in our own waste, rough seas indeed.

 Crying Indian Commercial

That’s why the SS Minnow no longer sails full speed ahead through open water. She’s run aground on an uncharted desert island with finite resources. They all want to get back to their old familiar lives, but they’re stuck on this island, trying to make the best of their new situation, and always trying to, “get off the island”


The Professor has no college, Mary Ann has no farm, Ginger can’t call her agent, the Skipper has no ship and the Howells have only a few baubles of their once great wealth. They all continue to reenact and maintain their hierarchy, because they all imagine they will get back to civilization, and because they are all clever enough to convince Gilligan to do their work for them, however badly.


The Skipper is, understandably, attracted to Ginger, who is in turn, attracted to the Skipper’s power. Ginger uses her sex-appeal to gain a degree of control over him. Gilligan on the other-hand just goes to pieces around Ginger, and she has little use for him. The Professor sees right through her, whenever she tries to use her seductive powers on him.


Ever wonder why we have so many TV shows about cops? The propaganda machine targets those in authority more even than it does the working masses. That’s because it is more important for the cops and military to believe in the American Dream, than it is for the masses, because the rest of us will do what we are told when they point their guns at us. That is, when the Skipper gives him an order, and hits him with his hat, Gilligan will do whatever Ginger wants.


The Professor is smart enough to trick Gilligan into doing what he wants, himself, and the Howell’s simply treat Gilligan as a low-level servant. Gilligan will do anything for Mary Ann, just because he loves her. They all reinforce the idea that Gilligan is dumb, incompetent, and wouldn’t stand a chance on the island without the rest of them, even though he does most of the work. Gilligan, is just dumb enough to go along with it, giving the whole oppressive hierarchy, the appearance of a happy family.


I’m afraid things have gone from bad to worse on the island in the intervening 55 yrs, but it seems that Gilligan may have finally had enough. The Skipper has become much more sadistic, and carries a sack of buckshot in his cap. The Howell’s enormous wealth has grown exponentially. A few of the Professor’s experiments have gone awry, with terrible consequence, so the castaways don’t trust him so much any more, even Mary Ann has her doubts. Ginger’s as seductive as ever, but she struts around in a thong now, and has had more than a few wardrobe malfunctions lately, testifying to the fact that it’s harder to get and hold people’s attention in this day and age.