‘Pan Am’: More Mid-Century Nostalgia

[25 September 2011]

By Renée Scolaro Mora

The Promise of You

Pan Am is the third show this season to squeeze itself into the mid-century drama niche carved out by Mad Men—after NBC’s lamentable The Playboy Club and BBCA’s Cold War drama The Hour. Set in 1963, Pan Am‘s production is highly stylized, neat, and dreamy, perfectly suited to the nostalgia it is eager to evoke.

That nostalgia this time is focused through women. Each of the four stewardesses at its center is a rebel in her own way. Maggie (Christina Ricci) quotes Hegel, lives in the Village, and bucks Pan Am policies: as the show opens, she’s been grounded for not wearing a girdle. Colette (Karine Vanasse) is exotic and flirtatious and has a thing for married men. And new girls Laura (Margot Robbie) and her sister Kate (Kelli Garner)—predictably—have a lot to learn.

Laura has just made the cover of Life magazine: beautiful and looking skyward, she’s pictured in her bright blue Pan Am uniform with the caption, “Welcome to the Jet Age.” Kate is none too pleased at first that her prettier, luckier sister has followed in her footsteps, even though, technically, Kate ushered Laura into her new life when she helped Laura run away on her wedding day six months earlier.

The imagery of Laura’s escape from a well-appointed life of domestic doom is piled on thick in flashback. Moments from walking down the aisle, Laura stands in her wedding dress holding her sister’s Pan Am hat (her something blue?) and looking longingly at Kate’s open suitcase. Her mother scolds Kate, clearly the disappointing daughter dressed in her red bridesmaid’s gown, before telling Laura to “smile through it, dear” and running off to fetch a sedative. Kate says her sister has “never made a decision in her life,” so it is simultaneously momentous and unsurprising that, though Laura decides to reject her mother’s plan for her life, she does so only to mimic a decision her sister had already made.

For her part, Kate is not satisfied with merely challenging her family’s traditional values with her career choice. She goes further when she’s tapped to aid U.S. intelligence agents. Smart, resourceful, trilingual, Kate makes a great Cold Ware operative and she’s out to prove her worth, explaining, “People have underestimated me my entire life and they’ve been wrong.”

Her comment might stand in as the motivation driving all four women. Certainly, in selecting work that takes them around the world rather than staying home, they are defying societal expectations. Further, the job description requires them to be college-educated and single. The show puts forward that at the very least, the seeds of feminism are planted when both the means and the incentive for women to be independent and self-sufficient are presented to them.

This is not to say that Pan Am ignores the obvious sexism of the era. The first scenes of the pilot episode demonstrate that the same industry that is offering, if not creating, this “feminist” space, is also keeping tight control over its image of the ideal Pan Am woman, weighing her before each flight, inspecting her uniform down to her underwear, and determining that “girls may fly until they marry or turn 32.” When Maggie must also endure a co-pilot’s lame flirtation—“Hey, let me know if you need help with that uniform inspection!”—it seems reasonable to hope that Pan Am will resist the urge to cross the line between acknowledging misogynistic behavior and fetishizing it.

As the first episode wraps up, the four women sit at a table having drinks while the pilot Dean (Mike Vogel) and the first officer Ted (Mike Mosely) sit across the across the room at a bar. Both groups are discussing the same thing: what do the Pan Am stewardesses represent? The men see them as “mutations, natural selection at work.” They are partly right except that as an ideal, these particular women were not “naturally” selected, but carefully crafted. Cut to the women, gushing over Laura’s Life magazine cover even as she dismisses it for not really “looking like” her. Kate’s critique is double-edged: “It’s not you. It’s the promise of you.” In other words, the liberated woman isn’t a reality yet, but it is perhaps within reach. And they’re quite aware of the difference.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149008-pan-am/