Pan Am: Will Women Take Flight?

Though I agree with Nancy Franklin of the New Yorker that you can’t judge a show by its pilot, I would counter that, in the case of Pan Am, there is quite a bit we can glean from the season opener. Indeed, just as one can gather quite a bit from a book’s cover–is the book a romance? pulp fiction?–so, too, from Pan Am’s first hour.

In fact, the way the show “covers” its four female leads is quite telling. As Franklin puts it, they are “like a team of thoroughbreds, the camera at first showing us only their locomotive parts—their hips, legs, and feet.” While the animal metaphor here is troubling, it is sadly apt–the female leads are held up as “show ponies” to an extent, with an emphasis on their outer surfaces–their sleek bright-blue uniforms, their perfectly coiffed hair, their bright red lips. Yet the show also hints at what is under the surface of their dieted exteriors, insinuating the more sinister underneath of their “show” status. For one, their bodies are objectified. Like the canines at a dog show, they must be preened and prepped, then prance through the airport in perfect step, hat tilted at the right angle, gloved hands just so. On the maiden flight of the “jet clipper Majestic” we see them deliver fancy drinks and banter with the passengers, the only “dirty” work involving lifting a passport from a suspect passenger–a foray into espionage that, like everything else in the show, is given a light touch.

Yes, the show implicitly condemns female employee weigh-ins, as well as marriage and beauty imperatives, and it gently hints at institutionalized sexism, but it also celebrates these woman as of a “certain breed”–hip, intelligent, forward-looking and ever-so-slightly subversive. Though the appearance requirements are made plain, what goes unsaid is that, to qualify for the job, one had to be white and also wealthy enough to afford the type of education that would result in a character like Kate’s tri-lingualism. Here, the show accords with a “sexy feminist” vision of female empowerment, one that toys with issues of oppression only to make light of them.

The focus on marriage and female appearance is key here–two well-worn areas that are “safe” areas of feminist concern. Not many viewers will take issue with the suggestion that marriage is not for everyone or that weigh-ins should not be a work requirement. These “feminist givens,” so to speak, allow for such shows to seem feminist on the surface while continuing to promote counter-feminist notions–for example, that true power comes from individual opportunity and gumption, rather than from societal and institutional change.

The show seems to be saying, “Ah, look at  the glamour, the adventure, the fun,” rather than, “Yes, the role of stewardess awarded women certain freedoms, but also involved exploitation, objectification, sexualization and cowed subservience–not to mention classism and racism.”

As noted at AfterElton, the show “openly celebrates” the 1960s era’s “sense of optimism and promise, and the supremacy of the United States.” It is, in effect, hip-feminism, or feminism light, cloyingly revisionist and naively nostalgic–much like one of the most successful films of the summer, The Help. As that film and this new series attest, we like our history lessons doused with large spoonfuls of sugar. Sure, give us a bit about sexism and racism, but please wrap it in pretty packages, lovely fashion and a feel-good nod to female empowerment. To add spice, put some men on the side and make them pine away for our lovely leading ladies–as with Pan Am’s pilot Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel). Perhaps the best indication of the faux feminism saturating the show is ABC’s own pitch about the women of Pan Am: “They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet.” Ugh.

Even more telling is ABC’s description of the show as “a sleek, globe-trotting romance.” “Join our crew,” ABC beckons, “travel to intoxicating cities … and bump into history along the way.” Or, more aptly, why not drink down nostalgia through this bouncy pop-culture lens, dull your sense of history and haphazardly bump into enough historical detail to make the show seem as if it’s grappling with the past rather than just turning it into nostalgic adventure.

Meghan Casserly of Forbes hits the appeal of such shows on the head: “Sexy Feminists are a safe, well-liked bunch.” Indeed, give us our strong women but please make them hip and hot–or of the type Casserly asserts “would do well in a room full of old-boy TV executives, pitching a show about ’empowerment’ costumed in corsets, shortened hemlines and the tee-hee-hee of Mile High Club references.”

Though I think Casserly’s suggestion that SlutWalks fall into this “sexy feminism” category is too simplistic, I agree with her suggestion that “girl power” feminism–where nudity, bikini waxing and sexual agency are framed as key paths to freedom–is problematically shaping mainstream attempts to come to grips with feminism. While the show’s executive producer, Chad Hodge, claims that Pan Am is “all about empowering these women to be whatever they want to be,” I would counter that it is more about empowering ABC’s viewing numbers by jumping on the faux feminist bandwagon.

Underlying this trend, as documented at Women and Hollywood, is the lack of female writers, producers and executives. In short, when females are involved in making shows and films, there is a tendency for more nuanced explorations of sexism, racism and other forms of oppression. When privileged white males run the show? Not so much.

Yes, one of the show’s executive producers, Nancy Hult Ganis, was a Pan Am flight attendant for several years, but her role on the show seems mainly to consist of  monitoring “her characters’ manners and behavior in scripts and on the set, keeping a careful eye on what they wear, how they speak and even whether they chew gum (they absolutely can’t). While Ganis has noted flight attendants’ large role in the labor and feminist movements, the show as of yet has not incorporated these aspects. Instead, what we have in the current fall line-up was aptly named by Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times as feminist backlash–“How else to explain why, in an era where real-life women are running for president and running men off the road of life by any number of measures, women in serious dramatic television roles are still wearing girdles and gloves?”

Sure, it’s nice to have female leads in a show and acknowledge the importance of female agency in terms of sexuality, work and the institution of marriage. But it would also be nice if such shows offered us more than glossy covers and gave us some meaty, historical pages to wade through.

Instead, what we have is what The Hollywood Reporter calls “revisionist feminism of the strangest sort” that “takes sexism and somehow makes it aspirational.” The closing scene of the pilot, as the post points out, makes this particularly apparent: Our four leading stewardesses “are strutting in slow motion, all swivel-hipped and breezy as they cut a swath through the terminal and get set to board the plane, like models on a runway. Suddenly the camera looks back and focuses on a young girl of four or five, in awe of what she sees.”

We, the viewers, are supposed to embody the gaze of this young girl, to fix our eyes on four female beauties who may take flight but don’t soar above (let alone really resist) the sexism of their era, let alone ours. Like this young girl, we view the scene through glass–trapped on the outside looking in. If we were the figurative pilots, writing and producing more shows instead of just starring in them, perhaps women could truly take flight in television drama.

Photo of woman posing as Pan Am flight attendant at Comic-Con 2011 from Flickr user under license from Creative Commons 2.0.



  1. Jennifer Moule says:

    THANK YOU. You definitely summed up my ambivalence about this show as the daughter of a flight attendant that started in 1971 with these rules and similar experiences. Also please check out this video of Air Canada flight attendants’ struggle for economic fairness

  2. Not to mention the second to last scene in the bar in which the women and their apparent progressiveness are explicitly defined by the male gaze.

  3. Well…this show is objectifying the women’s bodies…that I don’t like. But, maybe it’s at least a step forward, for people who are not at all familiar with feminism??? I don’t know…I have mixed feelings for this TV show.

  4. I’ve watched the show twice, and I like it. Pan Am has great potential to help get people who would never pick up ‘those feminist books’ theoretically interested in exploring these very same issues for themselves.

    Just one episode managed to touch on women’s health, pregnancy discrimination/job discrimination:)

    It invoked racism with a pilot talking about ‘natural selection at work’ in a bar, when audiences would find out that prior to the civil rights laws being enacted, businesses did have very restrictive hiring practices in place, only accepting certain types for certain positions. It is of course outdated now, but such practices/ideas are what publically what would have been part of that era.

    I don’t see airing such a show as part of a backlash. I see it as a teaching tool to show/remind people of how much progress has been acchieved—and to be thankful for the acchievements. People believing they are watching a ‘fun’ show about flight attendants then learn about sex discrmination…etc.

  5. And the young girl scene IS notable–but for a different reason.

    Right now, ‘The pan am stewardess’ is a ‘big opportunity’ for her, and other little girls.

    But by the time she becomes the age of those women, the rules which they worked to change and and explanded world will mean it is not the only imaginable option to ‘see the world’ as a career.

    She will have many more opportunities and freedoms. Being a (then) flight attendant will only be one opportunity–with many more on-the-job rights.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone. I was somewhat torn about the show too, and I do see that it has some “teachable” potential, but I think the glossy, upbeat framing leans too much towards “empowerment feminism” — all fluff, no bite. It’s no Mad Men, and no One Day at a Time or Murphy Brown either. In short, it takes us back in too many ways and forward in not enough.

    To the point about “natural selection” – I didn’t read that in relation to race, though that’s a very interesting point. I felt the “male-gazing” co-pilot was talking more about beauty and sexual freedom as he is gawking at the women, and presumably, thinking which of these “rare specimens” might fly into his bed… That is how I took it at least.

  7. It’s fluffy, and takes on social issues with half-measures, so we can congratulate ourselves for being sooo much better now, but I’m enjoying it. I skipped the pilot and started with the second episode. I don’t see the show taking on race issues explicitly or even implicitly, which is a bummer but par for the course (hello Mad Men).

    I kept thinking about labor issues, but isn’t the show set much earlier than a lot of action on that front? I have to wonder if we’ll see consumers (viewers of the show) saying, “Flying was pretty neat then. WTF happened?” and some interest in how the industry went to hell.

  8. Murphy Brown was problematic because Miles was scared of the strong woman, despite being the supervisor. And the assistant of the week can only get played so many time. Why has Murphy not either obtained an assistant or learned to get along with people as a condition of keeping her job?

  9. Sara,

    I have yet to watch episode two but must given your comment!


    You are right about Murphy Brown. My love for Candace Bergen is surely clouding my feminist lens!

  10. In 1965 I joined an all girls choir in Timmins Ontario Canada. I was five.I was walking along the street and out of a church I heard these beautiful voices emerging through the cracks.I went in and heard from the balcony my future.I learned a lot from women, mainly from women other than my mother because my home was dominated by a man who was a product of his father.Thankfully that’s all changed and now the women of today think it’s not only funny that the women of the seventies burned thier bras but it was also silly.I’m the byproduct of those times and it was the strong women that ventured forth out into the world doning the suits of winged change that too inspired me to look differently not only at women but the ever changing world.

    So if one might ask me how do I feel about the new Bunny show on NBC I’d say “What’s up Doc”? This would be the only (as in a cartooned rabbit)bunnies worth watching.At least the cartoon had classical music as an accopianment . I think Hugh Hefner and his bunnies did more to set back the women’s movement. I hope that this show Pan Am is a window to the time machine and gives us all a perspective and jumping off point to the next valley for we have climbed to the ceiling for which many great women have taken positions and many have stepped back to nurture our future generations with a solid knowledge that the past is a little glossy, but that slope is not as slippery and the trail is paved with glory. For their task now is not blazing out in a rebellious cause, for their voices will be heard. Men have been taught to listen, women have learned to speak and two planets are learning to bridge the gaps.

    If the next step in human development is to address poverty then let’s start leading the charge. Terrorists have learned that the poor have a voice to which those voices are fed a diet of altered religious beliefs leaning on the facts that their oppressors are drowning in riches unfit for a pious man.

    Finally if we educate the needy and teach him to fish, he shall build a shopping mall and a new school of fish which will feed a healthy new prosperous society.

  11. Despite what I said earlier, Murphy Brown did have some merit. I liked how it made the far right nearly hysterical.

    Yes, the economy was (also) an issue in 1992. But they tried to instead convince voters that a television character(!) becoming a single parent should be a ‘big issue’. Whoops!

    I’ve not heard of a simmilar incident (magnitude…etc) today. We’ll wait and see. It is still early in the election season.

  12. I love this show, and I really think it will get better over time as far as new viewers!

  13. But i do feel it could use some help in the real department.

  14. And the weigh-ins/girdle checks were an unpleasant reality if these women wanted to see the world. It is very much a real part of their lives, as is on the clock sexual harassment.

    The storylines show how the women manage the best they can pre-the laws being changed, while conceeding that this was not really the good old days.

    But as a Senator playfully taunts Maggie, she is not actually ‘changing’ the world by being that stewardess.

    So she shows him by burning his policy documents in a hotel bathroom. Personally, I would have just flushed them down the toilet. But this is the era when people smoked everywhere.

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