When The Skies Were Friendly And The Girdles Were Tight: A Review of “Pan Am” (Sunday, 10 EST, ABC)

October 14, 2011, 5:28 pm

Guest blogger Ryan Murphy was a San Francisco-based flight attendant for United Airlines and elected representative of the Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO. He has a PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, and is a visiting assistant professor of women’s studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

As a United Airlines flight attendant-turned-academic, I am inclined to closet the fact that I indulge in ABC’s “Pan Am” every Sunday night. After all, in the fantasy about an age of girdle checks and slapped behinds, four subsequent decades of union busting, work speedups, and confiscated pensions vanish, and the flight attendants who continue to fight for a fair workplace in the skies disappear.

Though I absolutely think we should be disturbed by what is being erased in the boom of early-1960s kitsch TV, I want to reflect for a moment on how much we have to learn from what is visible. In the remnants culled from a bygone era, those electric blue uniforms and lavish hotel lobbies that came with flying for Pan Am in 1963, we catch a glimpse of our own deeply constricted – yet enduring – ability to imagine a better future.

Take the boy who is the captain of the seven-person crew at the center of “Pan Am’s” imaginary. In the early 1960s, the average captain of a trans-Atlantic flight would have been in his late fifties. At the very top of the pilot union’s seniority list, he would likely have come to Pan Am from a leadership position in the Air Force during World War II, commanding B-17 raids on the rail lines leading to Hamburg, or designing the low-altitude firebombing that burned Tokyo in the spring of 1945. Twenty-year-old Pan Am stewardesses certainly would have gone out with him on layovers in Bermuda, Brussels, and Buenos Aires. They might have become his friend outside of work. And, in various instances, they could have been his lover. But when such sexual connections occurred, a Pan Am stewardess would have been having sex with someone older than her father, and married to a woman older than her mother.

“Pan Am” uses the character of the captain to cover up those transgressions even as it fantasizes about flight attendant sex. The show absurdly turns him into a foxy boy in his late twenties with a shaggy mop-top more fashionable at UC Berkeley in 1963 than at an airline full of military men. As “Pan Am” re-packages a senior captain into this desirable young body, it tightly contains airline sex within the boundaries of conventional attractiveness, age, race, class, heterosexuality, and gendernormativity.

Thus, by watching Pan Am we are blocked from imagining airline work as an endeavor that challenged conventional ideas about sex, love, and interdependence. We don’t see that some flight attendants in 1963 were already building the networks of same-sex desire that lead many to doff their high heels – or keep them on – and come out as lesbians, butches, and femmes in the coming years; that support networks across differences of gender and age would lead middle-aged women to be primary caregivers for young men as many in the first modern cohort of male flight attendants died of AIDS in the 1980s; or that the airline industry would be a center of the push the expand the definition of “family” benefits so that same-sex couples, cohabitating friends, and intergenerational households could access medical and retirement coverage. But as we watch quips between pretty girls and a pretty boy on “Pan Am”, we forget the complex sexual, emotional, and social connections that grew out of airline work, connections that might be immensely helpful to everyone as we navigate a lean economy today.

Nevertheless, there is something enduringly hopeful about “Pan Am”. The show, after all, fantasizes about work. Even if ABC meant the girdle checks and behind-slaps to be the core of that fantasy, they are telling a story about work being pleasurable at a moment when all mainstream economic conversations revolve around making work more painful. I left the airline industry not because they cut my compensation by a third and took away my pension – which they did. Instead, I left United Airlines because of the austerity measures that took the pleasure out of working the skies. As they slashed our layover times and swapped downtown stays for quick rests in dingy motels at the end of the runway, what I loved about being a flight attendant fell away. Gone were my morning walks in Boston Common. Gone were my visits to the Guggenheim before heading to Kennedy for the night flight to LAX. And gone was reading at the spectacular Seattle public library after working in from O’Hare.

As we watch “Pan Am”, we do not think about the things I lost, or about that airline’s final days. We do not learn how the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 faced Pan Am with impossible competition from low-cost discount carriers that offered employees no benefits, no living wage, and no union representation. We do not learn how the 1980s Wall Street boom allowed “corporate raiders” to ransack and deunionize Pan Am’s competitors like Continental, Eastern, and TWA. We do not learn how women who spent three decades working for Pan Am lost their jobs with no notice as the carrier finally succumbed to the financial hemorrhaging in the wee hours of the morning of December 4th, 1991. And we do not learn that most flight attendants hired today work for low-paying subcontractors that carry the name and brands of major airlines like United, American, and USAirways, but circumvent their union contracts.

Instead, “Pan Am’s” audience fantasizes about the things that my coworkers and I most enjoyed about the airline industry. We watch Pan Am flight attendants wake up from post-flight naps in sharply appointed hotel rooms with views of the Tiergarten. We watch them run with their friends up the steps of Montmartre. And we watch them turn heads in hotel lobbies just off the Thames on their way to London Airport. In that gaze, “Pan Am” is a paean to pleasure at work. As my generation of academics is told that with our 4-4 teaching loads, our forced furloughs, and our health coverage givebacks that we should be “happy to have a job,” we might have something to learn from ABC’s fantasy. Indeed as we are told a tale about a group of women who demanded much, much more than the status quo, our interest in the stewardesses of Pan Am of 1963 might reveal a desire for a more robust future.

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