The unlikely star of this week’s coverage of the sequester, air travel is not faring well in the press. As many news outlets have been pointing out over the past few days, the recent congressional reprieve regarding FAA budget cuts betrays not only a legislative urgency about problems affecting the middle class, but a lack of impulse or incentive to act on more pressing matters: the dwindling coffers of social service programs relied on by those below the poverty line.
It’s an odd moment, then, for the publication of a book about a time when air travel was emblematic not of American gridlock and inequity, but of our collective national superiority and grace. Enter Victoria Vantoch’s The Jet Sex, a compelling new cultural history of the American flight attendant, 1920-1975. (I should note here that the book is concerned almost exclusively with women’s employment, and Vantoch — presumably to keep in step with the eras she chronicles — primarily uses the word stewardess to refer to her subjects.)
The most intriguing contrast to our contemporary conceptualization of the airline industry comes from the chapter detailing press coverage of the historic 1968 partnership between PanAm and the Soviet airline Aeroflot. In the thick of deep distrust between the two nations, their respective air travel standard-bearers came together to open the first regular route from Moscow to New York.
This tentative camaraderie between the two airlines brought together two institutions that had been previously portrayed as largely incompatible. Vantoch takes us through the news stories about Aeroflot that predated this venture, many of which focused on the flight attendants. Specifically, American news sources took every opportunity to emphasize the lithe beauty of American flight attendants, painting their communist counterparts as chubbier, more dour, and — owing to the hardscrabble culture from which they came — less reflexively subservient toward the clientele. A Wall Street Journal reporter summed up the Aeroflot attendants as follows: “beefy and middle-aged with personalities that matched the drab decor of the passenger cabins.”
To that end, another notable facet of media coverage involved human interest stories in which an American flight attendant introduced her Soviet sisters to make-up and other trappings of capitalist beauty. Vantoch cites here a series of Chicago Daily Tribune pieces by renowned American Airlines attendant Mildred Jackson, reporting on her travels behind the Iron Curtain. Jackson delighted in showing Russian women how to apply lipstick, an activity that, as Jackson wrote, “created an immediate bond — we were females collaborating in a masculine world to acquire adornment and glamour.”
It’s striking how much this storyline is echoed today by a long-running stream of documentaries and puff pieces about Americans introducing women in the Arab world to various modes of Western beauty and leisure. The key difference in the two narratives seems to be that the Soviet women were characterized as needing to be thinned and softened from the outside in, whereas we often hear women in the Mideast painted as already sufficiently feminine and readily sexualized, but unable to fulfill their potential as women from beneath the veil. The Jet Sex made me interested in learning and thinking more about how these two prominent media stories from different eras come together and diverge.