Friday, November 4, 2011

Buckle Up


I was all set to hate the ABC show Pan Am, except for the clothes.  I am a closet sixties girl in style, and wish those styles were back (without the girdles, of course).  I thought Pan Am was going to be another Playboy Club (Playboy Club? Really?) with all the caricatures of the sixties, and a flimsy premise to show off scantily clad girls.  Either that or a Mad Men WannaBe.

But it isn’t.

The characters are fleshed out, each with his or her own backstory that makes you like them and feel sympathy for them.  The episodes are well written, well acted and are not over blown.  The scenes that have sexism in them are exposing the sexism for what it is, and it isn’t underhanded or covert.  It is right there, exposed as stupid, and ridiculous.  In one episode, Christina Ricci’s character, Maggie, is groped by a drunk passenger, who thinks he has the right to do so simply because she is nice to him.  That is, after all her job.  She responds by telling him that she “is not included in the price of your (his) ticket,” and pokes him with the carving fork, drawing blood.

The audience and the other stewardesses are on her side immediately, and we see the dilemma as they keep the story from the pilots.  Alas, the jerk wants her fired, and complains to the co-pilot, who offers him a free whiskey and tells him she will be talked to.  Unfortunately, during the sixties, the scenario that played out in the script was probably a pretty real situation, and happened more than once to more than one girl.  Due to the magic of Hollywood, however, Christina Ricci gets to have her say, and points out the sexism for what it is, and how the consequences play out when she replies to the co-pilot, “What you just did was give that jerk permission to grope someone else, and feel as if he is entitled to it.” 

There it is.  Right there.  The sexism is pointed to, named, and the consequences of his actions exposed.  The co-pilot is responsible because he colluded in the oppression inherent in those times.  It could have been stopped if he had just stuck up for Maggie.  But, due to male privilege, it does not occur to him to do so until after she says it.

Another episode, set in Berlin, shows the backstory of the French Stewardess Collette.  She was three when the Nazi’s came for her parents.  They were killed with other Jews in one of the internment camps.  She was forced to learn German and years later, still hates the Germans.  Ironically, is it her trilingualism that earns her the job with Pan Am.  This displays not sexism, but the awful racism of the times in Europe and how much backlash remained, even in those who did not want to feel that way.  She says, “I came back to Berlin to forgive.  But I found that I still hate them. And I don’t know how to stop.”

Still a third story takes place in Paris.  In this episode the Pilot searches for his lost love through a male friend in famous Parisian nightclub.  He brings along Collette to help translate for him.  She asks the maitre’d, who owns the place along with his boyfriend, for information about the lost love.  He replies that the lost love “like me, Bridget likes her boyfriends, but loves her husband more.”  Aha.  The Pilot is just a boyfriend and the sexual tables are turned.  Sexuality is now brought in, and the casual affair considered normal, but still clandestine.  We see this again in episode four, when Katie (another stewardess) is shown sleeping with a lover, and in the first scenes of episode one when Colette sleeps with a lover she does not know is married.  This is definitely a showing of how it was but how it wasn’t in the sixties.

The sixties were a time when sexism and racism were rampant. Pan Am does a good job of showing the times as they were, as well as the times as they changed.  Young women only had so many options, white or otherwise, and this show still points to the weigh-ins and girdles as silly, and mentions the guideline that Stewardess needed to be single.  Even going so far as to make an issue out of all three.

There is a Pilot of color, and Indian man named Sanjay.  We have not seen his backstory yet, although we have with the other two men in the cockpit. It will be interesting to see what they do with Sanjay, and the rest of the storylines.  The other remarkable part is when looking up the writers and the fact checkers one discovers that many of these storylines are taken from the real lives of the people who worked for Pan Am.  So the realization of sexism and racism was taking place in a very real way.  Normally when we think of the sixties and racism/sexism we think about the civil rights movement, not the upper class white privilege of PanAm.

It is important to separate the historic moment from the sensibilities of today.  You can’t show what wasn’t in the historic moment, but you can point to and expose what was. In Pan Am, sexism is pointed to, shown and discussed within the confines of the show.  This is a pretty neat trick.  Is it perfect?  No television show is the feminist paragon we would like it to be.  And so the question becomes, do we deny and turn up our noses at a historic moment that contains the things we are now fighting against, or do we recognize it for what it is, what it was and learn from our history.

Is there a difference between sexy and sexism?  HELL yes. This sexy show shows sexism to be abhorrent.