Escape From Gilligan's Island


This article originally appeared in Issue# 40-41

Is make believe more real than real life?

Producer Sherwood Schwartz remembers receiving some strange telegrams shortly after his hit series Gilligan's Island began airing on network television in 1964.

Forwarded by the Coast Guard, the telegrams complained that, "For several weeks, now, we have seen American citizens stranded on some Pacific island. We spend millions in foreign aid. Why not send one U.S. destroyer to rescue those poor people before they starve to death?"

The mystified Schwartz notes; "There was even a laugh track on the show. Who did they think was laughing at the survivors of the wreck of the U.S.S. Minnow? It boggled my mind."

To be sure, the forwarded telegrams were fewer than two dozen. Most TV-watching adults are indeed better able to distinguish fact from fiction than the relatively few viewers who thought the farcical — and imaginary — adventures of the mid-'60s castaways were true-to-life. But many more — perhaps most — viewers are like the sports fan who brings a TV set to the ball game. Such a spectator may see a strike pitched, but only really believes in it when confirmed by the TV announcer.

"Twenty years ago, the question: 'Does television shape our culture or merely reflect it?' held considerable interest for many scholars and social critics. The questions have largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture."
- Patrick Michele

The world of Gilligan's Island and hundreds of other "places" and "people" have come to exist, to some extent at least, in the minds of American viewers. In fact, television has become the source of the rules behind the rules — the sense of commonality that provides the shared assumptions that govern, and fuel, our traditions, customs, institutions and values.

Common Culture

Every culture reveals itself through its underlying assumptions, the decisions it makes about what's important, how to solve problems, who has the power, what is acceptable and what is forbidden.

Most cultures support this worldview with stories, beginning with the tales told around a campfire and working outward. A complex society may have a range of competing stories, just as the printing press made dissemination of varied ideas possible. But almost always one strong point of view predominates.

Stories that support — and create — these commonly held assumptions thus become a kind of propaganda, not in the form of deliberate lies, but as widely disseminated social mores. This definition of propaganda, formulated by social theorist Jacques Ellul, describes it as a stabilizing force that grows out of the need of the whole society.

Thus propaganda exists at all technological levels and uses all media. But it is most effective when it reaches an individual alone in the mass, and this is a key to understanding television's power.

TV acts upon a lonely viewer separated from outside points of reference (such as religious beliefs), and subjected to a tunnel vision that encourages unquestioning acceptance of the worldview he or she sees on the screen. This process is a kind of censorship, although not in the technical sense of a prior restraint on speech. Instead, a far more effective web of cultural restraints tends to stifle competing ideas before they can even be presented. TV's exclusion of unusual or extreme points of view because they tend to reduce profits typifies this system of prior restraint.

"The Watergate scandals became 'real,' not when the Washington Post reported the stories, but when television reported that the Washington Post reported the stories."
- Joshua Meyerowitz, No Sense of Place

Thus, the story of our time is the story of how our culture's propaganda — that myth-making, storytelling, values-creating function — has been appropriated by television, and what that has meant. Since societies need stability, which depends on commonality, uniformity, and conformity, every society propagandizes and censors. But our society's use of the most effective propaganda tool ever invented depends on the fact that most viewers fail to understand the underlying messages it creates.

TV's Worldview

Consider who populates the television world, keeping in mind that for most Americans, it becomes their world for up to seven hours a day, every day, throughout most of their lives.

According to communications scholar George Gerbner at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, in the TV world two-thirds to three-fourths of the important characters are male, American, middle class, unmarried and in the prime of life. They are the people who run the world, and the world behind the screen shares their values. TV thrives on stereotypes, and its portraits vary. But once formulated, their images are drawn in indelible ink. For example, here are some conclusions from recent shows: Teachers are failures in love and life. Journalists are strong and honest. Scientists are deceitful, cruel and dangerous.

Unlike real life, TV violence rarely occurs between people who know each other well, and most of it does not result from rage, hate, despair or panic, but from the businesslike pursuit of personal gain, power or duty.

As TV sees it, marriage shrinks men and makes them unfit for the free-wheeling, powerful and violent lifestyle of real men. On the other hand, women appear to gain power through marriage, though they lose some of their capacity for violence.

"The visionaries of the electronic age have tended to only look at what it is possible for the new Age of Information to bring us, not what the probabbly outcome will be in a larger social or moral sense...we should remember that technology is not just 'hardware.' It cannot be removed from its social context or consequences."
- Stewart Hoover

White, young Americans are more than twice as likely as all others to commit lethal violence and then live to reach a happy ending. In the symbolic shorthand of TV, the free and strong kill in a cause that was good to begin with.

Thus there is an interesting trade-off in the TV world. The price of being good (such as a teacher) is powerlessness. The price of having power (such as a scientist) is to be evil. But if one happens to be a powerful, white American, then the end justifies all kinds of means, and one is rewarded with the TV images of happiness.

Here are a few of the central myths and values from which these images and symbols spring:

  • The fittest survive. The social Darwinist theory — that differences between ethnic groups account for their varying rates of material success - is reflected in the TV world. Thus lower-class and nonwhite characters are especially prone to victimization, are more violent than their middle-class counterparts and pay a high price for violence. In the myth, the fittest survive, and in the TV world the fittest are not lower-class, non-white Americans.
  • Power and decision making start at the center and move out. In the media world, the political word comes from Washington, the financial word from New York and the entertainment word from Hollywood. While watching television, one gets the sense of existing at the edge of a giant network with someone at the center deciding what the millions "out there" will see.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence proposes just the opposite — that government derives its power from the consent of the governed. But, center-out decision making clearly supports the needs for standardization and control of our government bureaucracy and capitalist economy. Instead of giving people meaningful say in the issues that affect their lives, the TV world provides less significant choices. Ten different boxes of detergent, 20 versions of wheat cereal, five varieties of aspirin represent the abundance that replaces meaningful choices in TV's value system.

  • Happiness consists of limitless material acquisition, with its corollaries: Consumption is inherently good; property, wealth and power are more important than people. Both human life and property may be sacred, but in the media world-view, property rights are a little more so.
  • Progress is an inherent good. The words "new and improved" echo throughout commercial messages. This is TV's version of the "doctrine of progress," which deifies the journey instead of the goal. To say at any given moment that "enough is enough" would spell immediate doom.
  • There is a free flow of information. The illusion of media independence obscures the existence of propaganda and censorship. When was the last time you saw a long-haired radical hippie anchoring the news? Although the example may seem bizarre, the point is not: Radical, even non-establishment, points of view have almost no opportunity to find expression in mass media, especially television.

To sum up, the major value that the mass media communicates to us on behalf of our culture is power: power over others and power over nature. In today' mass media world it is not so much that power corrupts as that the aura of power and its glamorous trappings attract.

Thus the mass media worldview tells us that we are basically good, that happiness is the chief end of life, and that happiness consists in obtaining material goods. The media transform the value of sexuality into sex appeal, the value of self-respect into pride, and the value of will-to-live into will-to-power.

Perhaps worst of all, the media constrict our experience and substitute the media world for the real world so that we become less and less able to make the fine value judgments that living in a complex world requires.

Media Control

The technology required for our current mass communication system, with its-centralized control, high profits, capital-intensive nature and ability to reach every individual in the society, immediately and economically, makes it perfectly suited for a massive production-consumption system that is equally centralized, profitable and capita! intensive. Indeed, our current production-consumption social structure in the United States simply could not exist without a communication system that trains people to be knowledgeable, efficient and hard-working producers and consumers. The fact that the capitalist system tends to turn everything into a commodity is admirably suited to the propaganda system of the mass media, which turns each member of the audience into a consumer.

"I know of no drug except heroin or morphine which will produce the dramatic relief TV vividly pictures."
- Sen. Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin)

In this regard, the media handling of Watergate is revealing. The public and the media were shocked not so much by what the president and his men did as by the fact that they got caught, publicly, in a way that could not be imaged away. But after Watergate we saw a return to the old value system. Those indicted and convicted immediately became a commercial success, using the very media that condemned them to tell their stories, satisfying society's demand for positive images that would restore through imagery the public's confidence in the political process.

It is very clear that a communication system that rewards wrongdoing and provides the greatest amount of visibility to wrongdoers communicates a set of values, assumptions and a worldview that is completely at odds with those presumably held by the more than 70 percent of its citizens who profess traditional religious values.

This skewing of values is a natural result of TV's orientation as a sales tool. Television is structured to meet the needs of sponsors, not of the audience. Therefore, communication is one-way, and individuals in the audience are treated as consumers to be "influenced" in ways that have nothing to do with their needs or life histories.

Telling Our Stories

Most of the great religions remember a period when they were the minority culture, nurturing subversive religious beliefs that were out of step with the majority. Those who disagree with TV's value structure must return to that period of subversion. Since we recognize that the story-telling in our culture takes place on television and not in the home, our stories must use religious education's long and rich tradition of song and dance, biography and history, narrative and drama to portray vivid stories told by the moving image.

Such programming seeks out points of vulnerability within the mass media's powerful and virtually monolithic structure, insinuating itself in ways that are sufficiently in line with the media's own expectations. This subversive activity employs a kind of media jujitsu that turns the media's own massive weight and ponderous structure to the advantage of small, poor, but creative and liberating programming.

Every culture must have its myths. But unfortunately, television supplies us with so many messages that we are able to pick and choose only those which reinforce our own individual biases; this encourages increasing opportunities to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world. "Just me and my TV" gives us the impression of freedom. But it is a freedom without perspective, with no value center other than ourselves.

History does not move simply because some new form of technology arrives on the scene, but in response to human vision and activity. For us, it must start with the vision of a peaceful world, with the production of destructive devices giving way to beneficial goods and services, and economic domination to a vision of democracy where people are able to have a real say in their futures.

It is one of the more hopeful signs that there are many groups and organizations today that share concern about the technological era and its consequences. There is also hope, and considerable evidence, that we may have underestimated the continuing influence of those traditional institutions — the family, community, school and religious groups — that have managed to survive without the benefit of the mass media for many years and that continue to transfer cultural values.

We have no real reason to believe that the world of television can be completely turned around. But at the same time those committed to the task of trying to change it must continue to hold up the ideals of faith, hope, and open and free communication in their communities.

If religion cannot move with power and authority to bring about the changes necessary, it can at least whisper subversion and at the same time hold the vision high for those able to see it.


Reprinted by permission from Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Culture and Values by William F. Fore, copyright©1987. Augsburg Publishing House.

Author Bio: 

Rev. William F. Fore, Ph.D., a Methodist, was Director of Broadcasting and Film at the National Council of Churches, then taught Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media (Friendship Press). In retirement he maintains a website at that provides 5,600 full-text articles and books by recognized religious scholars.