Blue Suits, Girdles and Grace
Pan Am takes off in a brighter, more optimistic time -- a shiny, fearless version of New York circa 1963, three years before ground was broken on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and months before President John F. Kennedy's assassination. As the show opens, the camera pans the runways of what was still referred to as Idlewild Airport, Pan Am jets gliding across the tarmac under dawn skies tinged with pink and blue.
From a bird's eye view inside the terminal, we see that the movements of the blue-suited Pan Am stewardesses below mimic the planes; they too glide purposefully across the open space. Back at ground level, a severe-looking woman weighs in each stewardess and barks, "Are you wearing your girdle?" Exclaiming over a LIFE magazine cover story that alludes to "the international beauty and grace" of the Pan Am stewardess are several women whose lives we'll be able to summarize at the end of the episode thanks to expository flashbacks which conveniently pop up at appropriate moments.
Maggie and Kate
We learn in the first five minutes that red-headed Kate (Kelli Garner)is dabbling in espionage; she's quickly given an assignment from a 'stranger' she meets in the terminal who buys her gum and tells her to swipe a passport from a suspicious passenger on her upcoming flight. Her improbable flashback -- involving a chance meeting in a foreign cafe with a man who recruits her as a spy -- is perhaps the weakest storyline of the four female leads. Yet it gives her the chance later on to utter her pre-feminist 'line in the sand' pronouncement: "People have underestimated me my entire life...and they've been wrong."
Collette and Laura
And finally we learn that Laura (Margot Robbie), the fresh-faced stewardess on the cover of LIFE, is actually Kate's sister. She's the requisite rookie, embarrassed to be made 'famous' as the iconic Pan Am stewardess because she's only been on the job three weeks. Her flashback reveals a hysterical bride whose pre-wedding jitters are ignored by her overbearing mother. When her jet-setting sibling returns home and tells her not to let Mom make all the decisions, Laura and Kate pull a combination Runaway Bride/Thelma and Louise stunt and take off for the friendly skies.
Yet these airborne career women still had to fly below the glass ceiling. One coworker's comment on Laura's LIFE magazine appearance is telling: "With a face like that, you'll find a husband in a couple of months." Laura's reply, "No, I'm not looking for a husband," alludes to a double standard that Pan Am had in place at the time: marriage, while acceptable for male employees, was a career-killer for women. Married stewardesses lost their jobs.
The Domestic Ties That Bind
The women's roles are not all uniformly strong, but the writers and producers can still iron that out over time. (One executive producer, Nancy Holt Ganis, was an iconic Pan Am stewardess in the 1960s.) You'd have to be flying blind to not see how earnestly the show communicates that these women are smart. Again and again we’re reminded that they have college degrees, are at least bilingual, and personify grace under pressure. In flashbacks we see one or the other effortlessly shift from English to Spanish, French, and Italian as well as corral a frenzied crowd of passengers boarding a plane during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Although well-qualified, the job requirements didn't always showcase their skills. In clips of interviews with real former Pan Am stewardesses at the ABC website, one woman mentions that the airline stressed four key points: don't discuss politics or religion, serve the meat entree at 5 pm, and garnish each plate with fresh parsley.