ABC-TV’s new series Pan Am is generating a high level of buzz. Entertainment shows preceding the premiere featured not only clips of the show, but also interviews with former stewardesses, infamous author Donald Bain (Coffee, Tea, or Me), and others from the generation characterized as the “swinging 60s.” What these previews suggest is an amalgamated, nostalgized view of an era when – as they say – people knew how to dress, knew how to travel, knew how to treat the service providers. Many Americans of a certain age can sympathize with the source of the nostalgia, given the demeaning experience that commercial air travel has become these days. However, this is nostalgia for specific class and race experiences that many could not share. The nostalgia of Pan Am positions the 1950s and 1960s as an era of domestic “innocence” – when women could still be women and men could still be men. This is painted as an era when lines and lives were more clearly drawn, etching in gender roles as clearly as racial roles.
The innocence does not extend to the international scene. Pan Am situates itself within the Cold War era of espionage, political intrigue, and the airline’s (and some of its personnel’s) role within these. What the show does not depict are the incipient seeds of domestic social change. With black-white race relations simmering not far from the surface, with ethnic revitalization movements waiting in the wings, with feminist movements just underway, the “swinging 60s” of Pan Am skirts the deep national contradictions of the era. Here were working women in that very modern of industries that relied upon them playing traditional hostess roles, even while traveling the world. This included women of Asian ancestry who I wrote about in my book Airborne Dreams. While stewardesses were getting their hair coiffed and girdles checked, other women were beginning to reject those very bodily accoutrements as symbols of patriarchal control. Indeed, the so-called swinging era was riddled with numerous contradictions and ironies if we take off the spectacles of nostalgia.
I was fortunate enough to watch the premiere of ABC-TV’s Pan Am with a group of people (147 strong) whose ties to the era and this television show are extra special – the Pan Am Association – Aloha Chapter in Honolulu, Hawaii. Gathered at the Hawaii Yacht Club for the occasion (some in uniform!), they relished those spectacles of nostalgia affording them yet one more occasion to shout out, “Pan Am lives!” “Gone but not forgotten!” They scrutinized ABC-TV’s show for inaccuracies (color of uniform, length of stewardess’s hair, use of a Jetway during that period). They cheered at depictions of bygone icons – the Pan Am building in New York with its rooftop helipad, even the pilfering of fancy food and drink in First Class by stewardesses (one overheard comment: “Now it’s getting real!”). Pan Am reassures them all that at least for one television season on Sunday nights, their display of loyalty to the airline of a past era – “the best years of their lives!” – may be shared by viewers nationwide.