So long Mary Ann, it’s time that we began… to deconstruct Gilligan’s Island through a Jungian perspective

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To be our best Selves as parents, it is essential that we individuate—becoming our own, reasonably cohesive ego-selves, and striving to recognize and contain the multiplicity of the psyche—from Anima/Animus (the feminine within the male/the masculine within the female), Shadow, Mother, Father, Puer (eternal child), etc.  There are different ways of understanding this somewhat esoteric idea, with an excellent paradigm being an old TV Show from the 60’s.

Carl Jung said that God was like a common island to which all the bridges of religion lead.  What Jung never said was that this island might be Gilligan’s Island.

Some say that “youth is wasted on the young,” (and some say that we were wasted when we were young), but Gilligan’s Island was a show that was particularly fantastical to those of us who were kids in the years 1964-1967, folks on whom the tongue-in-cheek irony was completely lost, but within whom the secret profundity was left to ripen—sort of like new life in Alien.

While Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Sartre’s “No Exit” are admittedly hilarious (not to me, but to those guys and gals in black turtlenecks who seemed to always sit next to me, smelling of clove cigarettes and patchouli), “Gilligan’s Island” is both sublimely funny (in the way the French appreciate Jerry Lewis) and heart-wrenching, if only you let it in…


SCENE:  The sunrises on a quiet cove that is obviously a set on a Hollywood back lot.  A tired character actor with a drinking problem, perhaps Wilford Brimley, rows up on a tattered boat, smoking a pipe.

Our man-boy, Gilligan, runs to meet him, shouting and howling like a monkey to unseen others, “A boat!  We’re saved!”  In attempting to help the man out of the boat, Gilligan inadvertently blows up the boat, using a coconut filled with gunpowder.  The flash-powder-blackened visitor introduces himself as C.G. Jung (pronounced, “Say Gay Yeung,” but don’t ask, don’t tell—the answer is always Mu! anyway).

Gilligan explains that he’d been holding a secret invention that was going to free them all from the island, the bomb that the professor had made and asked him, the village idiot, to watch after.

Through a series of madcap adventures we meet the others on the island, but the through-line is that they keep trying to escape and Gilligan keeps messing up the plans—forever monkey-wrenching the apparatus to keep them in their homeostatic human condition.

That night, around the fire, C.G. smokes his pipe and explains the archetypal nature of their characters and their situation as they all listen, with a rapt attention never seen before on the island:

G.G.  “Vell, (please use your imagination to fill in the German/Swiss accent from here) the boat you arrived here upon is a symbol of the Self—the total psyche that contains all of the parts of the human personality.  It is ‘wrecked’ and thus an apt symbol for modern man and woman—trapped by the inability to hold the totality of the psyche and then split into a Sybil-like disarray of caricatures. 

Like a broken vessel, the unindividuated self cannot contain the opposites such as love and hate, material and spirit, rational and irrational; this broken self, tattered by Mother Nature in the form of a storm (wreaking vengeance for the hubris of masculine over-rationality).  The shattered ego-self has spilled you into the psychotic “island” in a quasi-autistic retreat from the world.  You think you are on an island, but you may be a paranoid hobo under a bridge for all you know.  The ocean that surrounds and entraps you and your faulty thinking is really the feminine aspect—the feeling function which none of you can navigate without a “self” (i.e. a boat, which is also why you had to blow my boat up when I got here, perpetually using being trapped as a defense against reality).

Now all the women on this island play variations on the Anima or the Mother, but none play any effective role in escaping.  It is as if the feminine principle likes the men to be trapped with nothing to do but compete for them and give them attention.  We have Ginger, the femme fatale or Shadow feminine who is nothing but high heels and a birthmark (evoking the “mark of Cain”—she’s dangerous, but none of you can actually lay a hand on her).  You have “Lovey” an ironic name for the cold materialist with no working neurons; she is the Shadow mother, the feminine that emasculates with cunning and feigned stupidity to trap the foolish Thurston, our resident Gatsby or Babbitt, into domestic sexual frustration and a life devoted to appearances.  Thurston is the impotent father, the rich man on an Island with nothing to buy.  He’s a joke, yet despite the Lord of the Flies opportunity for revolution, the rest of you have internalized his dominance and can’t shake your feelings of inferiority.

Mary Ann is our chief Anima (she’s the only one men who watch actually desire) and our most individuated character.  She represents the eyes and ears of the “normal” viewer, voyeuristically peeping in, but she too is trapped in her role, and as the nice girl-next-door she’s blocked from being interesting, much less from using her actual intelligence to get off the island. 

The Skipper is a symbol of the inflated ego, portly and ostensibly the “captain” of the broken vessel, a devalued by-product of a past age.  He’s another impotent Father—a working class Thurston who is equally ineffectual and simple-minded—a father who cannot get us ready for “real life” (i.e. able to leave the island).  Thurston’s last name being “Howl” is an obvious nod to his nihilistic spiritual mentor, and probable lover, Alan Ginsburg, also hinting at the plausible notion that “Lovey” is actually Thurston’s beard).  Thurston’s inability to come out of the closet, for example, is one more nail in the coffin of potential individuation; were he more real, you would either get off the island or at least have a truly rockin’ party while still there.

The professor is the most insidious of all, representing the intellectual man, the inventor of bombs and artificial intelligence cloaked in a ‘good fellah’ disguise.  He is cruelly attractive in pure physical terms, but his pre-Asperger’s era Asperger’s renders him clueless in the face of Mary Ann and Ginger’s sexual innuendo.  He is the hollow man, intellectual to the level of complete alienation; only he doesn’t even feel his alienation, leaving that to others because he has no feeling function.  In being the frustrating male, the professor is the very sort of Animus that gets women into trouble and prevents them from owning their own intellectual power.  The island is curiously absent any sort of lothario, again showing how there is just not enough psychological raw material here to build even one authentic human.

Gilligan is clearly the most cunning of all—the “star” who the fake sound-stage sun revolves around.  Gilligan is both Puer and Trickster.  As Puer, he doesn’t want to leave Neverland because it really works for him (I mean look at who’s making the most money on the show, who gets the title role, etc.); as Trickster, it is Gilligan who holds the key he pretends not to have.  In being the most archetypally charged of all of you, Gilligan is the least equipped to live in any sort of reality.  As the Puer he hates work, the Mother and reality in general, and thus has no real wish to ever get off the island.”

C.G. finishes speaking and futzes with his pipe.  As the others register his message, there is a sparkle of horror and recognition in the eyes of all these part-objects he’s so coolly dressed down.  In a flashing moment of clear consciousness of the threat C.G. poses to their non-individuated island existence, the time-warp threat of cancellation (TV’s version of psychic annihilation through lack of attention), they swarm the old man and hack him to death, tossing him into one of the native cauldrons laying around from a previous episode.  They slow cook the would-be bringer of insight and eat him, wiping the blood off their mouths with their sleeves as they ritually intone, “We eat you up we love you so… but cancel the show?  NO!”

Having come for dinner, the individuating man becomes dinner.  The universe’s counterpoint to Gilligan’s Island is Carol Gilligan, a psychologist who argued that Freud and some of the other big names created a psychology that is way too male centered.  She might argue that Gilligan’s Island is stuck at a pre-conventional level of moral development, focused only on individual survival.  There is no sense of sacrifice or devotion to the group.  Carol Gilligan suggests that as we develop we might move on from “goodness” to a more individuated sense of identity as a full person, especially for women to recognize their power as women.

So from Puer/Trickster Gilligan to feminist Carol Gilligan, let’s dedicate today to getting off the island of our masks, internalized macho-rationalism and part-identities to the authentic truth that sometimes we are pretty good and sometimes we suck, but we’re real and unique individuals sharing one world.  And let’s do it in service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce



2 Responses to “So long Mary Ann, it’s time that we began… to deconstruct Gilligan’s Island through a Jungian perspective”

  1. Mike Lang Says:

    First of all I am mad… – actually disappointed. I was reading Ken Wilber’s comments and in a fleeting moment, about a nanosecond, had the glimpse that I might have been the first to correlate Gilligan’s Island to Carol Gilligan’s theory. But, like the wheel itself – someone already “got it” and put it into print. What cushioned the blow is that, someone like you; with the fantastic skills of taking the depth and perception of a subject, combined it with the ability to express, translated the two to the common; and as byproduct, absolutely nailed it. Thank you. Three to fifteen hours back in my life and another aspiration. Thank you again, it was an excellent read.- MSL

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Mike, Thanks for stopping by to read and sharing your kind thought—and the synchronistic experience of both making the same connection. Einstein might argue that I didn’t think of it “first” as time itself is an illusion. The fact that we both thought something similar becomes a pretext for connecting—and becoming conscious of connection between all things is precisely what gets us off the island of alienated and ego-centric faulty thinking.


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