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The Glamorous Jet Age


Pan Am is in the midst of its first season on ABC. The show is named after the famous Pan American World Airways, and the show is about the relationships between the stewardesses, the pilots, their customers, and the places that they fly to.  It takes place in the 1960s at the start of the jet age – where flying, and particularly flying Pan Am, was a classy and glorified experience. Pan Am created an elitist and glamorous culture surrounding the nature of flying.

The show often displays the objectification of Pan Am stewardesses, and how they are utilized as sex objects to “sell” Pan Am to its customers. In the scene below, one of the more outspoken stewardesses defends herself against an aggressive passenger.

I think this television series explores the issue of the exploitation of workers and the unethical behavior Pan Am exhibited by sculpting these women into hyper-feminized living marketing campaigns. The sad thing about all of this is the sense of empowerment these women felt being a Pan Am stewardess. This is reflected in the interviews with the real live Pan Am stewardesses who inspired the show:

These women claim that they are the women who they are today because they were Pan-Am flight attendants. They say that it was “the gift of a lifetime” to be a Pan-Am stewardess. There is no doubt that on the surface, the idea of being a Pan-Am flight attendant is a magical one. They were considered to be the models of their day and they got to travel all over the world. They saw it as “a lifestyle, not a career.” While there are undoubtedly attractive features to this job, the glaring displays of sexism simply cannot be ignored. We’re talking about a company who hired based on height, weight, age, and attractiveness. We’re talking about a company who had frequent “weigh-ins” before flights and severely punished flight-attendants who didn’t wear their girdles.

Largely, I believe this lifestyle created a false sense of empowerment for these women. I think the sense of power and control they gained can be paralleled to Helen Gurley Brown’s empowerment of the working girl through the creation of “The Cosmo Girl,” who essentially sought upward mobility through men. The problem with these forms of power is that they are severely limiting. While they may lead to a sense of power, really they are just embracing and perpetuating the very system which they seek to overcome.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the treatment of these workers to those in the Nike case. While both are exploited, it is clearly a very different kind of exploitation. The exploitation of wage laborers in China and Indonesia is clear – we may not all be very informed about it, but there is hardly a question that these workers are being treated like inanimate machines.

The exploitation of Pan Am flight-attendants is a bit more masqueraded. So masqueraded to the point that the individuals themselves who are being taken advantage of don’t realize it, or at least don’t realize that it’s such a bad thing. Workers in Nike factories know they’re being exploited – they exist in dangerous working conditions, their peers jump off the factory roof to kill themselves, their peers have died and gotten injured making products. But with the scenario I’m discussing here, the exploitation is much more subdued. In away, I think Pan Am took advantage of not only these women’s bodies, but also their minds. They distorted and framed the situation to make it seem that it was for the women’s advantage. Hegemony and capitalism at it’s finest.

 

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “The Glamorous Jet Age

  1. I have never heard of ths show, yet it appears to be very similar to the show Mad Men that I did my post about. While I couldn’t agree more about the overuse of sexism in the clips you showed and the description you supplied, I couldn’t help but immediately expect that such practices would not be tolerated today. Then, I remembered seeing commercials for “Hooters” airlines, commercials that the stewardesses are dressed like pinup models and utilized as selling agents for the airline. It is very upsetting to see that this behavior is still apparent today, and obviously everything should be done to change this. However, I also wonder if embracing such a role for these females at the time (the ’60s, not today) helped women develop such a great sense of confidence and autonomy that they eventually pursued more fair treatment and equal oportunities more fervently. Because, at this time, women were just beginning to break the societally transcribed mold of housewives, so I wonder if such a theoretical “high” position like being a Pan Am stewardess eventually led to women recognizing that they deserve better treatment. In that case, maybe it was a necessary evil, unfortunate at the time but generating positive outcomes for future generations of working women.

    Posted by Derek | March 6, 2012, 9:07 am
  2. We still see exploitation of attendants today… for example… the attendants of Ryannair that I discussed in a previous blog post. Virgin Atlantic has also “sexed-up” their advertisements by using their employees sex appeal to lure customers. (See Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hbib-A6NpW8) So, has much changed since the 1960s? I do not know if attendants find working for an airline as a lifestyle anymore but, sexism and ill-treatment of female attendants is still extremely prevalent.

    Posted by Dana Silverstein | March 6, 2012, 5:46 pm
  3. I found it interesting in watching the videos how positive the Pan Am stewardess’s were about their experiences. The way that these experiences are displayed in Mad Men and Pan Am is that women were simply something for men to look at. I suppose that at the time women did not realize that this was a problem, or that there were better options for them. Instead, they looked at the job as a an opportunity to travel and learn. It is crazy how much things have changed since then!

    Posted by alyssakinell | March 6, 2012, 5:52 pm
  4. I think jobs still exist today that are similar to the stewardesses at Pan Am. An example is bartenders and cocktail waitresses versus waiters. Although women doing these jobs are not forced to wear a girdle or subjected to weigh ins, there still seem to be hiring tendencies. Women working these jobs tend to be younger and attractive. I think if you compare the men in these jobs to women, the men have a much wider variation in appearance than women. So yes there are now non-discrimination laws in place and hiring based on weight and height is illegal, but are things really changing that much or is it only the laws that are forcing these changes?

    Posted by Lauren Daley | March 7, 2012, 1:35 am
  5. In response to Lauren’s comment, I agree that there are definitely jobs today that mirror Pan Am’s hiring policies and tendancies. However, I think the key difference is how the women in these jobs perceive their roles. I don’t think cocktail waitresses and flight attendants today view their roles as empowering, as the interviews with the real Pan-Am stewardesses display. Largely, the women who take these sorts of jobs today are doing it to make a living. If they had a choice, I think they would pick something else. However, the Pan-An stewardesses were so entranced by their roles that they were blinded by the fact that they were being objectified and perpetuating a patriarchal society.

    Posted by Beth O'Brien | March 7, 2012, 12:52 pm

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