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Review of ABC's 'Pan Am'

Does 'Pan Am' Emphasize Female Empowerment or Perpetuate Stereotypes?

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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Talk about timing. Pan Am, ABC's look back at the airline industry in the early 1960s, is a snapshot of a golden age when air travel was more exciting than excruciating, and stewardesses were more trailblazers than beverage cart pushers. Granted, flying at that time was something only 10% of the population could afford, and Pan Am stewardesses were college educated, at least bi- and often multi-lingual, and many had medical backgrounds. Yet the series doesn't aspire to dig as deeply as a feminist going undercover in a girdle and jaunty flight cap or Gloria Steinem posing as a Playboy Bunny might.

Blue Suits, Girdles and Grace

It's not showing us anything we don't already know about women's lives in the years just before second wave feminism (i.e. the women's movement) erupted. Instead, Pan Am is an upbeat hour of high flying fun that delivers just enough of a positive message about female empowerment to wipe out any lingering bad taste of the swinging "coffee, tea or me" stereotype that stewardesses endured for many years.

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

The obvious star of Pan Am is sharp-witted Maggie (Christina Ricci), whose Greenwich Village apartment and writer boyfriend are so retro hip they could fast-forward 50 years and still fit in. If not for the manual typewriter and rotary phone on his desk, he'd pass as a t-shirted slacker gaming on his laptop. We quickly learn that although she's in trouble for her own slacker behavior -- not wearing a girdle to work -- she's the only one who can get to the airport in time for a shift on Pan Am's newest transatlantic plane, the clipper Majestic. Boyfriend needles her as she gets ready, prompting her to inquire, "When was the last time you got out of the Village?" His smug response, "I don't need to see the world to change it," is her cue to yell, "Well, I do" before slamming out the door.

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

There's Collette (Karine Vanasse) whose dalliance with a married man is excused by one of her co-workers because she is 'French' (code for 'not uptight like us Americans who spring from Puritan stock.') The passion she unleashes in her rendezvous with Mr. 'I Didn't Mention I Had a Wife and Kid?' at a hotel in Rome is only equalled by her unswerving 'grace of the Pan Am stewardess' when his wife and child board her flight and Mrs. Cheated Upon plays some serious head games with Collette.

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

Although the pilot episode never references Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique published in February of that year, each woman's back story illustrates Friedan's premise that women had been sold a bill of goods over the idea that happiness equals hearth, home and children -- and that we could recover our identities by embracing meaningful work.

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.

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