My friend Chasing contacted me a while back and asked whether I would be blogging about the roles of women in the new retro genre that is sweeping television. While I had many thoughts already about Mad Men, it hadn't quite occurred to me to put Pan Am and the Playboy Club into a trio of arguments or explorations until she nudged me. So, for what it's worth, I'm going to offer a triptych of blogs, starting wih the least well done IMHO, and moving forward.
I did want to catch Pan Am, and with so much going on in life, resorted to On Demand viewing. This has its benefits, including the fact that I can usually watch one or two shows on my time, when I am ready to be thoughtful. Unfortunately, I don't see this show as being particularly thoughtful itself.
If you haven't caught it, Pan Am is about the wonder of travelling the globe in the exotic world of commercial airlines in the early 1960s. Flight attendants are all female, impeccably attired, subject to personal inspection and weigh-ins, and apparently independent and strong women. The show's faults stem mostly from poorly developed characters and (so far) historical highlights that are so glamorous as to be unrealistic. For instance, two out of three episodes have shown the same crew of Pan Am stweardesses at the Bay of Pigs, and the JFK Berlin Wall speech. I just am not buying it.
But despite my own misgivings about the writers, and the fact that I will probably stop watching altogether (Christina Ricci's resemblance to Sally Fields is unnerving enough to get me to stop), I do want to comment on the times and women.
These flight attendants are a headstrong woman running away from a society past, and her sister who ran out on her wedding - after a panic attack when she realizes the commitment she's about to make. The other two are a French woman who survived Nazi occupation of her homeland, and the above-the-law Ricci, who is a take charge, JFK obsessed manipulator, who is often receiving penalties for flouting the rules.
A few regulations from the 60s seem shocking to a modern mind, and are displayed as such: there is no such thing as a married stewardess, for example, though there is a suggestion that some secret marriages take place to allow women to still work while being married. There is a regulations check-in with a chaperone-headmistress-type who is brazen enough to pull through a women's uniform and snap her girdle, to prove that the girdle is being worn (not wearing one is a dreadful offense). And there is the usual, boring sexual harrassment by the first class businessman, which is fought off by the stewardess and shrugged off or even rewarded by the male co-pilot.
These things are out of place in our modern world, and you may wonder why the harrassment didn't enrage me. Well, the short answer is this: it doesn't add anything to the conversation. We have overly simplistic women in caracatured roles, all perfectly small and beautiful, none with recently awful issues. The French one inadvertently has an affair with a married man, but we sort of expect that. The runaway bride is happier now, with her face the most recent cover of Life magazine. The red headed sister gets a second job as a CIA courier, but it just helps loosely tie in the Cold War setting. We still have no idea why she would get involved, or if they even pay her. I strongly suspect the writers of this show are not only men, but have lived in their basements all their lives. Because these women aren't real. (And yes, I just checked- both writer and producer are men. No news of what kind of interaction they've ever had with women.)
What I would like to have seen: I would like to know why these women are pursuing a career instead of marriage, in a 1963 world. What kind of education do they have? What about flying intrigued them? What does it mean to be used to, or to buck, the rules about dress and ettiquette? How come the French woman trusted the man she was sleeping with? What expectations did pilots and stewardesses at the time have of each other when flying around the world together? Was this actually a way to be empowered, or just something to do to get out of a boring life?
There is no depth in these women, or really in the story. It had potential to bring up the many issues of the women's liberation movement as something more than a fight against minor inconveniences. If I believed that these women were typical of the workers of the 1960s, I am not sure I would have any respect at all for the intelligence and hearts of our mothers and grandmothers... though thankfully, I know better.
So while this blog is mostly a complaint, I guarantee the handling of women's roles in The Playboy Club (yes, I watched it for you, dear readers) and Mad Men (wateched obsessively for myself) are much more complex, and worth a deeper look.