Friday, October 28, 2011

Barbies and Kens. Or Back to the Sixties.

Television shows seem to love the sixties and seventies right now, with the retro-sexism and all the vintage trimmings. Those shows can be informative and interesting, but sometimes they are not quite so retro as we might think.

Take the new retro drama about Pan Am (a defunct airline):
Much excitement ahead of Pan Am, the latest retro drama to follow in the wake of Mad Men. It is to be screened on BBC2 next month fresh from its US airing, and the channel is promising to fly us "back to 1963 and the dawn of a glamorous new era of luxury air travel". Glamorous – and incredibly sexist.

It is not hard to find evidence of what life was like for female flight attendants at the time. One, Trudy Baker, even wrote a memoir at the close of the decade – charmingly entitled Coffee, Tea or Me? – in which she recalled being sexually molested by a passenger during an emergency landing. After complaining to her superviser she was told: "You know, Trudy, we can't have an unhappy, unsmiling stewardess serving our valued travellers, can we?"

This response might seem as archaic as the uniforms, but scrape the surface and the trolley-dolly caricature is still prevalent, thanks in no small part to the aggressively sexualised marketing and recruitment methods used by a broad range of airlines. In August, a would-be flight attendant who applied to Garuda Indonesia told a local newspaper that she and her fellow candidates had been subjected to a "health examination" by a male doctor that involved having their breasts "fondled". According to a Garuda official, the "hand examination on breast" was necessary to detect implants, which "can have health issues when air pressure falls during flights". It is not a practice common to other airlines.

In July this year, Thai airline Nok Air posted a recruitment advert for "beautiful girls with nice personalities" to fill its cabin crew positions; those over 25 were deemed too old. Last month, a report in the Times of India accused Air India of following a similar recruitment policy. And brand new airline Thai Smile (operated by Thai Airways) is currently recruiting a 100-strong cabin crew of women under 24, ready for its launch in 2012.

"The reason for this is simply competition," explains Bev Skegg, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths and author of Formations of Class and Gender. "Airlines want to appear more high-end than their competitors to add value to their service," she says. "To do this, they market their product as luxurious and desirable," with youth and beauty effectively transmitting that message. Witness the Air New Zealand TV advertising campaign of 2009 in which cabin crew were photographed wearing nothing but body paint; or the Southwest Airlines planes emblazoned with murals of bikini-clad supermodel Bar Rafaeli. Virgin Atlantic has famously run £6m advertising campaigns featuring its "red hotties" and there is an annual "Girls of Ryanair" pinup calendar.

The reason for the title of this post has to do with the publicity shot of the crew:

They all look like white Barbie and Ken dolls. The former probably was the hiring rule in the sixties' Pan Am, though I doubt men were required to look like the Ken dolls.

What's fascinating about all this is, of course, the identification of a glamorous and luxurious trip as one offering eye-candy for heterosexual men only. I have read that same competition argument applied to those olden times.

Times have changed, of course, because articles like the one I link to here are published, and unpleasant people like myself keep asking questions about the need for soft pron in air travel.