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Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization
Paul A. Cantor
Lanham & Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
$27.95, 266 pages, ISBN 0-7425-0778-5.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen


Paul A. Cantor is professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is originally a Shakespeare scholar but he has considerably widened the scope of his research over the years. He has authored an impressive series of essays, often book-length, on Shakespeare, Romanticism, comparative literature and literary theory in general. In Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, he principally tackles four TV shows: Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons and The X-Files. The book is divided into two sections, entitled "National Television and the Democratic Ideology of America" and "Global Television and the Decline of the Nation-State". Cantor states in his Introduction that he views his book as "a contribution to our understanding of globalization". (xv) I quite agree, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization may indeed help the reader make a bit more sense of globalization. It has attention-grabbing sociological overtones, it shows Cantor's excellent grasp of history, economics and politics, and is generally far-reaching.

When I read the book myself, however, I was even more thrilled by other features: the analytical method per se and the things Cantor has to say about the shows themselves. I was not disappointed. Not very much has been written about Gilligan's Island (comparatively speaking), and his outtake is refreshing as well as edifying. Star Trek and The X-Files are such cult series that hundreds of books and essays have been published about them, not to mention the thousands of web pages that discuss them. Everything is on offer, from the gushing and awkward prose of geeky fans to the most highbrow exegeses, taking in the neurotic ravings of conspiracy theorists. Cantor still manages to find new angles, which is quite an achievement.

He is even better when he examines The Simpsons, demonstrating among other things that in spite of appearances, the cartoon series may very well constitute a compelling vindication of the nuclear family and local communities, linked to many Americans' disappointment with federal politics. To supplement this I recommend The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer, edited by William Irwin, Mark Conard, and Aeon Skoble (2001).

I hope I'll be forgiven for the following lines, which might be viewed as trivial details, irrelevant gibberish or the ravings of a bitter scholar with a personal vengeful agenda. The blurb of this book angers me: "In Gilligan Unbound, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar and literary critic proves once and for all that popular culture can be every bit as complex, meaningful, and provocative as the most celebrated works of literature—and a lot more fun." Well, what a relief. And here we all were, poor Cultural Studies devotees, painfully plodding along, deluding ourselves, not knowing that we would have to wait for decades, until 2001, for Cantor to finally come to our rescue and prove that point, "once and for all". And of course, a Shakespearean was needed for the task, and not just a Shakespearean, but a "distinguished" one. I presume this means that the famous Shakespearean Marjorie Garber—who started examining popular culture eons ago—does not deserve the adjective "distinguished". It gets worse: "Cantor, without condescending to either his readers or his subject matter, rescues the serious study of popular culture from academic jargon and incomprehensible prose." True enough, some of us students of popular culture are not altogether serious. True enough, some of us are overly keen on jargon, to the point of writing rather cryptically (I'll refrain from naming the culprits here). But there are many of us who try for clarity, thank you very much. As for the notion of condescension, I won't even address it, for fear of sounding even more hysterical.

If this were strictly the idea of a Rowman & Littlefield publicity executive, it would be quite tolerable. But alas, Cantor does it too, to a certain extent. When he states that he looked at those TV shows "drawing upon the analytic skills [he] had developed during years of studying literature" (ix) I can only approve, having added Cultural Studies and Gender Studies to my once purely literary research myself, and so often having to grit my teeth when some people disregard my literary forays just because I happen to spend a considerable amount of my time writing about people like Madonna. But must he add that "intelligent and well-educated people are genuinely interested in hearing shows such as The Simpsons and The X-Files analyzed in a serious academic manner"? (ix) Later he writes that he regards this book "as an experiment—to see what happens if we provisionally drop our intellectual prejudices against television […]" (xxiv) What point is he really trying to make? Who is he trying to convince that a little bit of slumming can do no harm? The educated people who are prejudiced against television are often the same who are prejudiced against popular culture in general and the study of popular culture; does he think he's going to make them change their mind? Just because he's a "distinguished Shakespeare scholar"? My guess is that his readers are more likely to be, like me, people who have happily never had such prejudices, and so his half-apologetic remarks will irritate them more than anything. Or is it that he merely wants to make clear that he is not one of those left-wing Cultural Studies specialists he criticizes later, who always, he unfairly believes, see all TV series as "telling the same sad tale of racist and sexist stereotyping"? (xxxiv) In the essays themselves he sometimes continues in this vein, feeling compelled to write things like: "The Simpsons may seem like mindless entertainment to many, but in fact it offers some of the most sophisticated comedy and satire ever to appear on American television" (67) A forthcoming issue of Cercles will be entirely devoted to American sitcoms, and as its editor I guarantee I will not indulge in such provisions. Sex and the City might not be Hamlet, but I trust our contributors' musings about it will constitute self-sufficient validation, of the show and of its study. Of course, seeing that the title of this Cercles special issue is "Gender, Race and Class in American TV Sitcoms", it will probably do little to dispel Cantor's misgivings; but the pieces themselves might.

Apart from that, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization is an absolutely fine book, well-researched and well-written, convincing and entertaining. I am prepared to go as far as to venture that readers can take pleasure in the essays and be edified even if they have never watched Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons and The X-Files. Of course, they will enjoy them even more if they are regular viewers of such shows, and be positively elated if they are "fans". I unhesitatingly recommend it. I only hope that next time, Cantor will do without the unwelcome precautions / justifications.

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