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Why 'Pan Am' Should Fly With Feminists

Memo to my fellow feminist TV viewers: Don’t be distracted by the girdle and grooming checks. ABC’s Pan Am has the potential to become one of primetime’s most empowering shows for women. Critics did the show a favor Sunday morning at TCA, firing away at a panel of producers and cast about whether the show sets women back by sending the message that we need to serve drinks, look cute and have our fannies patted to get what we want. The panel jumped on the opportunity to address what series star Christina Ricci calls “misconceptions” about the life of a Pan Am stewardess.

The questions were fair enough, given the “coffee, tea or me” perception of 1960s stewardesses (which by the way is perpetuated by men, Executive Producer Nancy Hult Ganis, a Pan Am stewardess from 1968-76, pointed out after the panel). But if the show is executed anything like the panel’s answers indicate, Pan Am will feature far more ass kicking than butt pinching.

“In reality, the job allowed women to have freedom they weren’t given in a regular role at that time. Yes, they had to pass through girdle checks and grooming checks,” Ricci said. “But they were allowed to travel and see the world and be in charge of their lives in a way women weren’t regularly in charge of their lives.”

One of the characters engages in espionage for the government, and Exec Producer Jack Orman (ER) says his research confirms the state and the airline had a “cozy” relationship. Being a global airline with a multilingual staff made Pan Am a perfectly positioned partner for the government during the Cold War.

Ganis says the airline’s government ties indeed were real. She declined to detail any personal experience with espionage, but she would say: “I was a witness to history. I was in seven revolutions.” Pan Am did an air lift in Israel at the dawn of the Six Day War before anyone in the U.S. knew about it, she says.

She applied for her job with Pan Am after spotting an advertisement in college that promised: “Our stewardesses know their way around the world better than most people know their way around the block.”

When asked whether she experienced sexism on the job, Ganis says, “Not at all.” The airline was looking for educated people who “could think on their feet” and “be resourceful” in the face of the unexpected that came their way while traveling the globe, she says. Ganis calls the Pan Am stewardesses a “quasi diplomatic corps,” aiding in things like currency exchange and travel planning. Pan Am stewardesses were “treated as hostesses of a dinner party,” Ganis says. “We would become friends with our passengers, we would know them by name.”

Exec Producer Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) says Pan Am could easily be titled The Best Years of Our Lives. The characters, he says, are “having an incredible adventure.”

ABC Entertainment Group Paul Lee said Sunday morning that “empowered women is definitely a theme of the network.” If what the producers and cast had to say about Pan Am is not enough to convince you the show fits that bill, there’s more: Feminism literally flew with Pan Am during its most vocal days. Two of the biggest women in the feminist movement were Pan Am stewardesses, Ganis says: Former NOW President Patricia Ireland and Kristina Kiehl, who co-founded Voters for Choice with Gloria Steinem in 1979.

And perhaps the show couldn’t come at a better time. Steinem herself made an appearance at TCA last month to support her HBO doc. She said she hopes viewers will watch HBO’s Gloria: In Her Own Words premiering Aug. 15 and think, “We’ve come this far. Now where do we want to go?”

I suggest we go watch Pan Am. And maybe learn some things from the show’s depiction of working women in the 60s. According to Ganis, Pan Am stewardesses stuck together in a way women don’t today. “I am still close friends with my friends from those days. We are still looking out for each other,” she says. “And I don’t think girls today have the same thing.”