Pan Am, a show about a group of stewardesses working for a premier American airline, during the 1960s, seems to have hit a snag. While apparently designed to be seen as a positive, female focused drama that explores the emancipation of women, the show has been rather panned by feminist critics who see it as a program that romanticises history. Grace Dent, at The Guardian, suggest that it encourages the modern audience to long for a return to a time when liberation coincided with glamour, sex and excitement, when in reality the freedom the Pan Am stewardesses experience is greatly limited.
I’m not going to attempt to back up, or deny an argument when I’ve only watched ten minutes of Pan Am. I’m sure there are other ways of interpreting the program’s content. Stewardesses were taking charge of their lives by beginning a career that allowed them to support themselves financially. Their job allowed them to travel, free of supervision from parents and partners. Financial independence is very important to historical definitions of feminism. Still, there were definite downsides to taking a stewardess job and limitations to how far such a job could take a woman in her struggle for equal rights. However, as Feminist Frequency points out about Pan Am, ‘These women trade the ability to make money and travel the world with being put on display, and this is never critiqued’. Two sides and I’d love to hear what anyone who has watched the program thinks.
However, when I hear about Pan Am and its female focus I begin to think the thoughts full of suspicion. I wonder why, if production companies are so hot on creating period dramas specifically to explore women’s growing independence and activeness, we don’t have a twelve part drama series called ‘The Suffragettes’ yet. Why are there dramas about land girls, or women on the home front, but currently no major television dramas about female soldiers and pilots like those found in ‘Mare’s War’ and ‘Flygirl’? Why don’t these projects sit alongside shows like Pan Am (or Pan Am’s better done counterparts)? Surely, if one of the goals of current big historical dramas is really to explore women’s rights, creating a drama series specifically about women’s rights would be a great way to get right to the centre of the issue...
I can think of some practical reasons why these dramas aren’t being made right now. In a world influenced by sexism glamorous emancipated stewardesses seem so much easier to root for than out and out feminist picketers, or women in particular kinds of male jobs. Ideas about how comfortable viewers will feel watching and responding positively to a particular subject influence the stories that television companies produce. Explorations of a convergence between feminism and femininity speak to very current ideas about feminism. On the surface narratives about suffragettes, other organised groups of feminists, or women who work and present non-traditional appearances may seem to exclude straight romance (not true, but people have made weirder assumptions). That looks like a problem when straight romance is a big audience draw, as well as big business. Sometimes I feel like we’re all caught in a huge media conspiracy to pacify the women folk, with images of superficial ‘Girl Power’ that avoid exploring the realities of any attempt for women to gain equal rights. Maybe that’s the paranoia talking, maybe not.
I’d be interested to hear other thoughts that can expand my understanding. Right now I struggle to understand why when television producers decide to create female focused shows they never think to create dynamic, sustained depictions of some of the biggest goddamn heroines who ever lived and their equally organised, feminist counterparts from other times and places.