Are we there yet?

28 October 2011:

November will see the premiere of Pan Am on BBC2. It is a soft-focus drama series, bought from America, about the adventures of a group of Pan Am stewardesses in the 1960s. It is all big hair and pouting, with a preposterous photogenic-stewardess-as-CIA-operative subplot, to distract the viewer from the fact that Pan Am is all about big hair and pouting, a reductive and submissive fantasy, with working women as eye candy and, explicitly in the first episode, as sex aid. Even so, they are represented as empowered, because they are beautiful, and get on and off aeroplanes […] I mention this as last week, at the Fawcett Society’s annual AGM, I pondered why the feminist movement seems so comprehensively to have stalled.

The Guardian, “I blame the media for ignoring feminism in favour of makeup”

29 November 2011:

Word comes today that Pan Am, ABC’s big, gaudy Mad Men of the skies, has been canceled had its episode order reduced, which does not bode well for its second season prospects. Please put your tray tables up, because this thing looks to be coming in for a landing.

The Atlantic Wire, “Pan Am Proves It: Mad Men Knockoffs Just Don’t Work”

Hurrah, the low-flying lady-hating of Pan Am has been rejected by the public and curtailed by the network! Which, if the Guardian writer is correct in using a bit of retronaut telly as emblematic of all our gender woes from the pay gap to parliamentary under-representation, means the rest of the troubles she cites should also cease in short order.

Except they won’t, because Pan Am is neither all that important nor all that bad. (Change.org is actually quoting the TV show in support of a petition against Ryanair’s sexist advertising, so it’s only fair to say that it must have at least a sliver of feminist feeling.) I’m all for what Caitlin Moran calls “broken windows feminism”, but we fix the broken windows because they’re shitty and dangerous, not from a superstitious belief that remedying symptoms can eradicate underlying causes. (Freakonomics, incidentally, has an alternative explanation for why broken windows may have seemed to work in New York, and it’s an interesting one for feminists.)

There’s the danger that picking small targets doesn’t solve big problems – it just makes your cause look small. Pan Am is a small target. A legitimate source of annoyance, maybe, but the occasion for a throwaway rant rather than the starting point for a breakdown of bigger social calamities. But I worry that feminism has a habit of circling round these small targets, especially when they have a tempting smack of sex about them – witness the way Muff March ultimately dodged calling attention to some truly horrific cases of surgical malpractice against women who have sought genital surgeries, and became instead veered into opposing porn.

Porn is a small target, because it’s easy to be against it, and easy to identify it as something done by men, to women. Start talking about the way surgery is promoted and the environment in which patients consent to it, though, and suddenly it’s all much harder. Women are choosing these surgeries – and they’re being promoted by women, through women’s magazines. That’s difficult to talk about, but ultimately a great deal more likely to get women to question their own attitudes to their bodies than simply blaming pornography.

There’s a feedback effect, too: if every article on feminism is accompanied by a cute picture of a trolley dolly (yes, I know) or a sexy-but-sad lapdancer, feminism becomes increasingly defined by those small patches of culture. And that means we’re missing out on having other important conversations, about how childcare and parental leave could be arranged better, perhaps, or about how to overcome the subtle stifling work of gender stereotypes. Pan Am being axed hasn’t brought us to any kind of feminist destination. There’s a pernicious shallowness in suggesting it was ever part of the problem.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; promotional photo of Pan Am cast used for commentary