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.