Pan Am


A view of the new TV series Pan Am – by guest blogger Liz C. Chassey

It seems that the TV industry is just as willing as ever to disregard women’s history for the sake of ratings. The most recent offender is ABC’s new show Pan Am. Despite the show’s accurate costumes and sets it neglects to include an accurate account of women in the airline industry in the 1960s.

Real flight attendants in the real 1960s faced sexual discrimination on a regular basis. The job of a flight attendant was touted as a way for young women to see the world but the job duties included fluffing the pillows and lighting the cigars of male passengers, often while wearing skimpy outfits.

Stewardesses were constantly subjected to physical inspections i.e. weighed and measured to ensure that they remained within a certain weight range. If one of them was found to be over the weight limit they were expected to steadily lose weight or be fired writes Kathleen Morgan Barry in Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants.[1] She also recounts that many flight attendants felt they were clones of each other and were expected to fit the model of the perfect woman at all times. In addition, stewardesses would be fired if they got married or were found to be secretly married.

As Gail Collins writes in her book When Everything Changed,[2] when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was formed in order to defend people who faced discrimination at work, first opened office the staff expected to be fighting racial discrimination. However, stewardesses were the first to come knocking. The airlines fought the push for equality in courts and in Congress with logical fallacies such as “businessmen would be discouraged from flying if the women handing them their coffee and checking their seatbelts were not young and attractive,” writes Collins. However, the flight attendants fought harder. They struggled to prove that not only young, attractive women could be flight attendants; men could do the job, as well. They strove to remove the word “stewardess” from the airlines’ vocabulary. Finally, in 1973, a bit of progress was made; a court decision eliminated the rules on appearance.

The Pilot of Pan Am, which aired on Sunday, September 25 at 10 pm, does not do justice to the struggles of the flight attendants during the women’s movement. There are certainly moments of promise; at the beginning, one of the principle characters is shown being weighed and inspected as real 1960s stewardesses were. However, no more than a mousy “Is that necessary?” is said in protest by anyone on the show. Another stewardess leaves the office of what is presumed to be a counter-culture protest group to fly last minute. But as soon as she boards the plane, she fits herself nicely into the role that is expected of her.

Perhaps the biggest let down of Pan Am is the avoidance of the sexual discrimination that real 60s stewardesses faced. The pilot’s end shot is the four principal stewardesses walking through an airport in the same outfit with the same walk and the same empty smile. One of them looks back at a small girl and smiles at her as if to say, “this can be you someday.” Yes, little one, someday you will have to fight fiercely for rights that should be innate in an equal work place.

Will future episodes of Pan Am include respect for women’s history, the women’s movement, and women in general? TV does not need another show founded on sexism.


[1] Barry, Kathleen Morgan. Femininity in Flight: a History of Flight Attendants. Duke University Press, 2007.

[2] Collins, Gail. When Everything Changed. New York: Back Bay Books, 2010.

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