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.




Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.