Being, Selling, and Performing Heterosexuality in the Post-WWII Airplane Cabin

The phenomenon of the flight attendant had already accumulated cultural interest in the 1930s after Ellen Church first convinced a Boeing Air Transport manager that female nurses were not only an asset to dealing with the real care needs of primitive air transport, but a way to psychologically exploit potential passengers (Barry, Femininity in Flight 11, 18). Framed as a “psychological punch,” the explicit concept to bring in a whitened and feminized cabin staff targeted the disproportionately white and middle/upper-class male passenger lists (Sheely 92). Peter Lyth explains this identity-based framing of what would eventually become the flight attendant by identifying the female flight attendant as a challenge to early timid flyers “if women aren’t afraid to fly? why should you be?” (4). The passenger transport was originally built on an exploitation of the heterosexual binary: based on the actions of women, men defined their responsive masculinity.

The post-World War II “airline stewardess” was an icon of middle-class white femininity, poise, glamour, and domesticity through the forties and fifties and into the sixties. The post-war hostess stood apart from her predecessors in her intensely feminized icon built on an image, an identity, and a script. The stewardess became a site for the reconciliation of post-war anxieties over heterosexuality.” According to Allan Berube’s “The Military and Lesbians during the McCarthy Years,” post-war society balked at the loosened norms of acceptable homosexuality. During the Second World War, U.S. military education on homosexuality “minimized the differences between women who participated in homosexual expression and ‘normal women” (Berube 761). After the war, however, heteronormativity reactivated with a vengeance under Cold War tensions and the general homosexual scare (Berube 759). Anxieties over heterosexuality were exacerbated by a particularly destabilized moment of gender expectations.

The airline stewardess through the Cold War became a site for the reconciliation of chancing gender culture with the manufactured “need” for a return to heterosexual normative social dynamics. With its unique job requirements and appropriation of the stewardess’s body, the airline stewardess became an icon, an identity, a myth, and a means of containing the contextual tensions and social insecurities of the white male clientele. By engaging and containing the dualities of power and inferiority, masculinity and femininity, agency and obedience, airlines’ manufactured product of the American stewardess served to ameliorate heterosexual anxieties, becomes a heterosexuality factory in the sense of the stewardess-image as product, and in the sense of a space for the stable practice of white heterosexuality to be acted out. This paper evaluates the identity-tensions inflicted upon and struggled against by airline stewardesses in the post-war decades. In understanding how the stewardess was made an icon and the icon continued the generative process of making stewardesses and the marketing of marriageability, the airline stewardess emerges as a nuanced object of white male desire. Rather than being hypersexualized, the airline stewardess was hyper-heterosexualized. She was constructed in the image of perfect white domesticity and could supply the desired code of behavior. Stewardesses did not, however, simply conform to a myth, but simultaneously engaged in an often-critical battle over her co-opted identity, performed the heterosexual myth, and effectively marketed heterosexual possibility. She existed to entice, to appease, and to serve as both a hyper-individualized woman, as well as a member of an aggregate stewardess labor force. The post-war airline stewardess became a site for heterosexuality.

The Icon

Standardizing the Body, Standardizing Heterosexuality

From the moment of the occupation’s conception, the idea of a correct “type” of flight stewardess was inherent, naturalized, and explicit. That employment ideology permeated stewardess job requirements, employment opportunity advertising, and stewardess training school. As the first airline stewardesses began to be shaped and shape the budding pink-collar occupation, the still-developing aviation technology of the thirties created the foundation for a legacy of corporeal control and body standardization. The 1930 planes were small and sensitive; airlines needed in-flight staff that could gracefully navigate the tight spaces without disrupting the strict weight-bearing capacities that early airplanes had to maintain. The first physical requirements airlines placed on stewardesses conformed to these logistical demands: at “about 5’4” and no more than 115 pounds” the svelte stewardess became a standard, ideal, and template (Barry, Femininity, 25). By 1957, American Airlines would describe this hypothetical woman as a “’wholesome all-American girl type’ between twenty and twenty-six years of age; between five feet, two inches and five feet, eight inches tall; of ‘proportionate weight’ not exceeding 130 pounds; single; in good health; attractive; and… [possessive of] ‘considerable personable charm as well as a high degree of intelligence and enthusiasm’” (Boris 132). Such demands on prospective employees were commonplace and made clear in calls for applications.

Airlines became expectant of a homogenous “raw material” in terms of their stewardesses’ bodies and appearances. They procedurally refined any potential transgressions of standard body-based ideals of “white middle-class femininity” (Barry 9). The screening process had inflexible qualifications in terms of height, weight, age, and general “attractiveness.” Applications asked if women applying had any “distracting scars, moles, large pores, noticeable blemishes, and excessive facial hair.” Interviews evaluated applicants’ initial appearance and isolated scrutiny to parts of her body (Boris 133). After selecting the body, airlines turned to disciplining the body. Stewardess training schools obligated daily exercise regimens and airline supervisors monitored stewardess’s appearances and subjected them to constant weight surveillance (Barry, Femininity, 47-48). Any deviance from the woman’s prescribed weight expectation became grounds for her termination if she did not rapidly ameliorate the issue and conform her body (Barry, Femininity, 48). Stewardesses were forced to cut their hair short—a standard above-the-shoulder measurement, wear the same shade of lipstick, apply like makeup in like ways, and dress according to company regulations (Boris 132). The stewardess’s body was built upon from the most logistical qualities of age, or height, through the more abstract attributes of “liking people.” The standardized stewardess body became a lexicon in itself for the communication norms and expectations of heterosexuality as well as constructed the standardized stewardess.

Constructing the 'Stewardess' and the Stewardess

The qualifications of age, race, and physicality significantly standardized the potential employee pool, while the normalized hyper-regulation of a stewardess’s weight and body appearance dispossessed the stewardess of her own body. Her body became not only a product of and for the airline, but it became a site for the reconstruction of the woman in the image of persistent demands for heteronormative notions of young white femininity.

To borrow anthropologist Zeynep Gursel’s notion of “indexed bodies,” the flight stewardess was meant to be at once “highly singular and indexed to a particular individual” and to “circulate as stand-ins for large numbers of bodies sharing the same condition, bodies that are metonyms for social bodies” (Gursel 18). Uniforms became an essential means of transforming the selected, disciplined pool of bodies into a collective body of iconic stand-ins for the epitomical stewardess, each woman became an allusion to the standard of white femininity she embodied and a member of an abstract aggregate of white womanhood.

The Uniform: Dual Purposes, Purposeful Dualities

Power and Powerlessness

As stewardesses’ bodies were manipulated and made both malleable and rigid, airlines relied on uniforms to locate the stewardesses’ body in the web of white male authority that acted upon her and that she, too, benefited from. The uniform located her as an image of white middle-class femininity in the broader racialized and class-based social structure of the U.S. The stewardess uniform stated her socially manufactured superiority just as it did her inferiority. The work of the uniform was spatial: it located the gendered body within the hierarchy of power, control, and agency. According to Nathan Joseph in Uniforms and Nonuniforms, the uniform outlines the relationship of power, articulating “who controls whom” in the airline industry (39) The uniform goes beyond placing the body in relation to their employees, but in relation to the airlines clientele as well. The uniform positions the curated image as the “symbolic gatekeeper” between the passengers and the airline and primes the women for generalizable iconicism (Joseph 44). While the uniform codified the stewardess’s inferiority, her position as gatekeeper, as safety official, and often figurehead of white ideals of femininity showed the double work of her uniform: a claim to power embedded in its denial.

Duality of Heteronormativity

Contextualized by the systematically-achieved demand that the stewardess’s body be diminutive and distinctly “feminized,” the flight stewardess uniform took a somewhat shocking form. The stewardess uniform’s heavy influence of military attire was a stark contrast to the hyper-feminized woman. The aesthetic action of the uniform is then one of exploitation. The masculinity of the uniform is appropriated but manipulated so as to highlight the stark femininity of the stewardess (rather than to transfer the governmental authority). In the contrast of femininity and militarism, the stewardess is othered into her normative role. It is in this iconized duality that the pressures of an empowered pink-collar population are contained and neutralized. The uniform follows this tension into the creation of an icon, an image that no longer requires a tether to reality, and can instead stand alone as an aggregate that the individual can never fully encompass.

Creating an Icon

The stewardess icon sees its most overt and impactful development in advertising. Advertisements beginning in post-war times revealed the ‘crowd-sourced’ construction of the abstract flight stewardess in the use of (allegedly) real stewardesses’ (alleged) real names. A Delta Airlines advertisement from the early seventies epitomizes this concept in asserting Delta to be “an airline run by professionals. Like Kris Conrad, stewardess. Pretty, resourceful, alert, efficient, confident, and sociable. Chosen from 25 applicants. You’ll have a nice trip because we have 2,3000 Kris Conrads!” (Whitelegg 16). The airline’s marketing strategy asserts the individuality of the flight attendant, only to generalize it, therefore locating the airline stewardess as an indexed body, a stand-in for the totality of stewardess bodies. Multiple marketing campaigns focused on this isolated individual: a National Airlines campaign touted “’Hi, I’m Cheryl’ (or Linda, Tammy, Karen, or Margie),” a United Airlines campaign shares as Sheri Woodruff went from “the former Miss Butterfingers” to a “great stewardess,” and a Delta ad reads “Lorraine Sommer, age 21, stewardess candidate”Fig. 1, 2 (Lyth 12). What these advertisements expose is the realization that these stewardesses are only granted individuality in their names, in their quantified unit, because they are (allegedly) in essence the same being, the same type of being.

In Cosmopolitan’s October 1965 issue, Gail Sheehy’s piece “The Private World of Airline Stewardesses” cheekily reveals the tension of the stewardess’s manufactured sameness with her marketed individuality:

All stewardesses have beige hair. Even when they’re brunettes.

This is explained by the fact that there is only one stewardess. For all. Airline schools won’t have it any other way. A standard USA product. All bottoms shall be encased in one-eighth inch bounce-off power net. Standard USA bottoms. All hair shall be cut off above the collar, all heels two to three inches high. Eyebrows shall be plucked up to a “sunny expression.” … Do you solemnly swear to remain frizz-free every second of your standard USA stewardess life?

Inside this stewardess cutout is a real live girl. Her name is Sherry or Nonnie or Lucinda and she comes out of a town where the only thing that happens after midnight is her mother worries. (90)

Sheehy captures the homogeneity and appropriation of identity in the creation of the stewardess icon. After attending stewardess school in 1963, one woman summarized her training with the statement “When they were finished with us we looked like a regiment of Barbie dolls” (Barry, "Lifting the Weight," 3). The reference to a Barbie doll is particularly fitting here. The Barbie doll invokes the manufactured homogeneity that the airlines produced in their stewardesses and invokes the notion of an icon of aspiration, of a racialized white ideal of femininity for women to want to be and men to want to possess.

From Icon, to Identity

The flight stewardess transformed from a mere visual icon to an identity consolidated around an epitomical image. As both icon and identity, she was simultaneously a “voice of technology” and a “highly profitable marketing commodity” (Lyth 2; Cornelius 34). She colored the aircraft with a feeling, with a coded space reliant on her iconship. She became a surface of curated potential, and it was her responsibility to uphold that. Kathleen Barry, a flight attendant historian, articulates in her article “Lifting the Weight: Flight Attendants’ Challenges to Enforced Thinness” the implications of any airline stewardesses’ appearance-based transgressions: “A pregnant flight attendant clearly belied airline-promoted fantasies of sexual availability” and “an ‘overweight’ stewardess suggested that female flight attendants’ main duty might not be to ‘look good’ after all” (5). The flight stewardess participates in a theatrical structure: she plays the role, but moments of clarity remind that she is an actress; she embodies the possibility of the narrative; she provides no barrier to fantasy; she is in a constant performance. Barry’s outlined significance of these physical transgressions evidences that it is not the image that is of primary concern, but of the fantasy that the image provides (and any counter-image exposes). The difficulty at reconciling a ‘demystified’ stewardess on the basis of a presumption of her unavailability or a lack of servility reveals that the anxiety satiated by the stewardess is one of heterosexual potential, not sexual satisfaction.

The flight stewardess icon thrives on conversion of “heterosexuality” into discrete physical and behavioral traits. The performative dynamic to the airline stewardess imbued her visual icon with an essence and a womanhood defined by femininity and domesticity. She was a mother, a lover, a caretaker. She was the perfect image of heteronormative, heterosexual, racialized, and class-based standards of female personhood. More importantly, that image ‘indicated’ her character as a woman in her gendered roles. By situating the image of the stewardess within a nuanced setting of the airplane, passengers and general consumers were able to situate her identity and her environment into an allusion toward action—toward a code of how such a woman can (or should) participate in such a space.

In reviving the parallel to theater, the airplane is re-set as home. The space is situated as a space of natural (white) femininity and of predictable (white) gendered codes of behavior. Drew Whitelegg identifies the “home theme” as the relationship within which the airline stewardess engages with the space of the aircraft (13). A supervisor explains “the stew sets her own atmosphere in the cabin…the airplane is your home, and these are your guests” (Moles 310). A pilot orates, “I want you to think of the cabin as the living room in your very own home. At home, wouldn’t you go out of your way to make friends feel at ease and have a good time? Well, it’s the same on the L1011” (Whitelegg 13). Not only is the airplane framed as a domestic home-space, but the stewardess is placed in relation to such a space as homemaker, as pure domestic femininity. These statements do so by placing her not in relation to the space, but in relation to those that enter that space, those to whom she has a responsibility to entertain, oblige, and please. Translated into the airplane, the stewardess is seen as serving the clients rather than the airline itself—she becomes a hostess and homemaker in relation to the passengers she serves.

The Other Consumers: Women

The post-war airline industry became a factory for creating the stewardess icon. The homogenization process, beginning with her application, through stewardess school, and into the airplane workplace, crystalized itself in the marketing of flying through the use of stewardesses, as well as the marketing of employment to potential stewardesses. Women didn’t just aspire to look like the airline stewardess, but to be her. Eileen Boris explains that “many individuals came to the occupation precisely because they wished to look like a stewardess” and advertisements duplicitously target potential passengers and potential stewardesses (138). As exampled by the United Airlines advertisement Fig. 3, the airline stewardess was marketed as a consumable product, but also as an attainable identity with a checklist and an active subscription to the stewardess standards. The possibility to be made into this form of perfection was an allure for women that reconsolidated as an allure for white professional men—the general passenger population during the mid 20th century (Sheely 92). In the highly-fantasized role that the flight stewardess occupies, the anxieties and aspirations of the controlling party—white businessmen—are exemplified. However, the heterosexual temptation constructed around and by the stewardess was a reproducing issue dependent on the ritual heterosexuality performed on airlines. The rapid departure of stewardesses from the occupation in pursuit of marriage led the industry into the duality of containing women as they (seemingly) liberated and provided opportunities for them. The airlines needed women to want to work for them without impeding the male desire.

Driving Heterosexuality

Heterosexuality as Motivation

The prospect of marriage was central to the success of the post-war airline stewardess. It framed her employment as a training in femininity, not as a form of masculinely-connotated labor. Kathleen Barry even destabilizes the notion of the stewardesses as a laborer: “it was that their mystique of glamorous femininity made them unrecognizable as workers of any kind” (Barry, Femininity, 3). The labor of stewardesses was made invisible by the success of the icon: women were just being good women, “good” defined as accommodating a white standard of domestic femininity. The emphasis on the prospect of and potential of marriage in the case of the stewardess is thus complicated. The high turnover rate allowed for the naturalization of this constant perfect of femininity and womanhood as it allowed youth to be a mainstay in the stewardess job description: whether it was the explicit age range or the marriage ban, stewardesses imaged possibility.

Forging Heterosexuality-Potential

The emphasis on marriage in the stewardess icon begins in the selection process: airlines required stewardesses to be unmarried and childless (Barry 3). Yet, as much as they prohibited marriage, they promoted stewardesses’ marriageability to entice travelers as well as potential female employees. As Kathleen Barry explains, women were drawn to the stewardess occupation partially by the prospect of meeting eligible (white middle/upper-class) men. The phenomenon of marital motivation inspired the characterization of the post-war stewardess as “brides-in-training” and much of her stewardess schooling satisfied those traits (Barry 3). As previously discussed, stewardesses were taught and held to a standard of white femininity and domesticity that equated her success as an employee with her success as a potential wife and mother.

In the Feb 1969 University of Pennsylvania Law Review, the discussion titled “Marital Restrictions on Stewardesses: Is this any way to run an airline?” exposes how this maintenance of heterosexuality was made rational. The piece centers around Eulalie De Blois’s marriage and her consequential termination five months later. After arguing in state court that she deserved unemployment pay but losing because of her decision to get married and therefore relinquish her claim to the occupation, the state court posited two defenses for the marriage ban on airline stewardesses: a threat of pregnancy and a threat to the stewardess’s marriage itself. According to the court, the socialized travel of stewardesses could “jeopardize the marriage” (617). This second threat to the marriage points to the stewardess’s purpose being to serve heterosexuality, to both provide it and provide for it, and to never challenge or degrade its integrity. By simultaneously being quasi-actors and held to a standard of reality and truth, the identity of the individual and the identity of the abstract stewardess became potentially entrenched in one another

Marketing Marriage

An American Airlines advertisement from 1965 captures the way bride-able stewardesses attracted white male passengers and provided a clear image of aspiration for women Fig. 4. The advertisement, a messy doodle of a flight attendant (uniformed, of course) literally swept off her feet. The attention-grabbing text reads, “People keep stealing our stewardesses.” In the four columns at the bottom of the page, the advertisement follows the “natural” arc of stewardess. The advertisement first outlines the quick turnover of stewardesses before marrying (two years). Advertisements often reference the turnover, evidence of the cause and effect it seems. The advertisement then turns to the attributes that appear to make her a potential wife: an unabating smile and an attention to her responsibility for dinner. Yet the advertisement clarifies that it’s not these attributes, nor her beauty (which is emphasized as still important), but instead implies the naturalness of flirtation— “So if there’s one thing [airlines] look for, its girls who like people. And you can’t do that and then tell them not to like people too much. All you can do is put a new wing on your stewardess college to keep up with the demand.” This advertisement consistently frames marriage as an action inflicted upon the airline stewardess—she is scooped away by the passenger, “stolen.” Marriage appears a symptom of stewardship and is capitalized upon in mainstream advertising.

A United Airlines advertisement titled “Old Maid.” begins with “That’s what the other United Air Lines stewardesses call her. Because she’s been flying for almost three years now. (The average tenure of a United stewardess is only 21 months before she gets married)” Fig. 5. David Trevor’s 1954 newspaper article titled “Every Girl’s Dream Job” reads, “No wonder there is generally a shortage of suitable people. In spite of the large number of applicants. And no wonder that there are always plenty of vacancies—for the marriage rate among hostesses is very high, and understandably so” (12). In this statement, Trevor makes clear that there is potential for women to be employed by the airlines—they can be a stewardess; there is availability. Trevor further clarifies that this availability is due, not to lack of other people who dream of attaining the role nor a problem with the workplace, but the success of the employees: women are getting married…to men! What success. Trevor (along with other mainstream media voices) thus frame stewardess-ship as something possible, but uncertain, imbued with a sense of chosen-ness and a natural destiny of heteronormative feminine and domestic success.

A Myth of Marriage?

While stewardesses appeared in the form and possibility of heterosexuality, counterarticulations of stewardess marriages complicate the causal relationship so ingrained in pop culture. Gail Sheehy’s 1965 Cosmo article “The Private World of Airline Stewardesses takes center stage in understanding the reality of the stewardess-marriage complex. Sheehy concedes “Marriage is about 75 percent certain. Eastern Airlines clocks the fastest average—from sky to altar in less than two years. the other lines average tow and a half years.” Standing against the “national average of one in four,” Sheehy captures the success of stewardess’s marriage, “Only one out of forty-seven of them end in divorce.” Sheely speculates, however at the “real secret behind the ironclad marriages stewardess make:”

Whom do stewardesses marry after all?

Everyone knows a Cinderella story. A once-upon-a-time Ann Jones, who moved out of a Miami apartment she shared with other stewardesses, and turned up in Palm Beach marrying the heir to a one-hundred-million-dollar estate.

The plainer truth, however, is repeated like a litany by girls from coast-to coast: “We marry the boy back home.” (92)

So, who is being sold a myth? Are the stewardesses the ones drawn by marketing into a conversion factory, or is it the men who must be supplied the myth? Sheely debunks the myth of the airplane as a place for courtship, and further breaks down the illusion by her statement that “Stewardesses estimate up to one third of their ranks are undercover wives.” Sheely tells the story of “Clea” who has been “secretly married for six months” and sneaks phone calls in the night and of the supposed secret marriage record holder, a “Miami girl with twelve years and three months” (93). So, the airline becomes a place of myth making, but also a place of myth participation—creating a layer of awareness at the incubatory nature of the airline, but rearticulating the power and presence of the airline in its actual influence and regulation on stewardesses.

The University of Pennsylvania Law Review also questions the legitimacy of the marriage ban by pointing out that “a substantial number of stewardesses, like Mrs. Cooper, continued their careers successfully after secretly marrying, causing no apparent detriment to the airlines.” Married stewardesses alluded to their numbers after a renewed contract “suggested” that they would not be let go, and they disclosed their marital status, only for the courts to affirm her termination (619). Stewardesses are revealed in their complex negotiations of true agency and aspiration, and an occupation that prescribes agency and aspiration as a performance.

Deregulated Subjects

In “The Deregulated Lesbian: Affective Labor in Postwar Pulp,” Joanna Fax introduced the economic term ‘deregulation’ as a structure for reading literary representations of characters, especially female wage-earning characters. She expands on the characterization of “’deregulated subjects’ as cultural rebels able to gain ‘success within the system,’” into what she calls an “ideology of obstruction.” According to Fax, this “ideology of obstruction” is the counter-read of the “cultural rebel” characterization. An application of the “deregulated subject” to the flight attendant exemplifies the innate negotiations over image and identity. In such narratives, the heterocentric mainstream flight attendant is denied her typical characterization of simply “hypersexualized.” The deregulated stewardess subject demonstrates the structure within which she was able to reimagine herself; it demonstrates the borders of identity transgression and reposits the centrality of the stewardess icon.

Fax explains the climate of lesbian-themed pulp fiction: “Up to [the 1950s], the majority of pulp authors had been heterosexual men marketing their fiction mostly to other men for shock value.” As Fax continues, the 1950s marked a shift as lesbian authors introduced “insurgent rewritings” (99). One nuance of female-stated femininity and sexuality that emerged from these narratives was the decentering of marriage/motherhood as heterosexual. Female characters could and would strive for the “affective magnitude” of such ideals and thus they “[articulate]…the suggestion that marriage and motherhood are on the verge of needing heterosexuality to a far lesser extent than heterosexuality continues to need them” (100). Heterosexuality was therefore a script that the men could engage in to ameliorate their own anxieties at a degraded gender structure, but they could also engage these women within said structure—manufacturing the complicity of a heterosexual relationship or interaction.

Captain, Dear

Mary Higgins Clark writes a story invoking the centrality of heterosexuality, not necessarily sexuality, to the stewardess identity. Clark’s story was published in the January 1961 issue of Chatelaine magazine with the title “Captain, Dear, come home with me” and describes the stewardess character as she plays into the age-old containment scheme of denouncing prescribed social behavior, only to return to it anew on her own terms, thus reinvigorating the sanctity of the norm. A Canadian publication, Chatelaine was characterized by its attention to realistic women readership and a feminist edge. As the first female editor-in-chief, Doris Anderson comments on the magazine’s personality during her tenure from 1957-1977, “‘In fact, now that I look back on the 1960s, I feel Chatelaine was a kind of closet feminist magazine. We had to be. We had a circulation of over a million women – the equivalent of 16 million in the U.S. (the top women’s magazine there was Ladies’ Home Journal, with a circulation of 7 million). Chatelaine had to appeal to all women in Canada. We also were frequently reminded through letters, of our middle-class, traditional audience…” (Korinek loc. 1393). Clark’s story exemplifies this difficulty at reconciling challenges to the gendered society with a hyper-gendered employment structure of the stewardess.

The story’s main character Penny, a flight stewardess, is initially portrayed in her relationship to Brad Sherwood, a “dashing pilot.” Although framed as platonic, Penny expresses their friendship in terms of her service to Brad and her request for a favor in return. Significantly, the first favor that Penny lists was her feigned betrothal to Brad to rid him of a “little mademoiselle (23).” The pointed favor of “acting heterosexuality” is essential to the tension of transgression in the story. Penny’s other exampled favor was her favor of domesticity—cleaning Brad’s apartment for him (40).

In exchange, Penny asks Brad to accompany her home for her sister’s wedding, pretend to be her fiancé, and effectively release the heteronormative pressures of her family. As Penny and Brad pretend to be romantically committed, Penny has a flirtation with Keith, a single man at the wedding who was going to be forced onto Penny had she attended sans Brad. After kissing Keith, Penny realizes that she had, all along, loved Brad. This prettily-tied-bow is foretold especially in the physical representations and interactions between Penny and Brad. Penny comments on how Brad is “towers over her” and goes through striking detail as to how Keith’s shortness compared to Brad affects her shoe choice: “She paused over her selection of shoes. With Brad, she automatically wore her highest heels but Keith was not too tall and she settled on a pair of thin black suedes with two-inch heels” (46). Penny’s pointed modification of appearance underscores the relationship between image and marriageability for her as a woman and amplified by her occupation as a stewardess. Brad even explicitly exerts power over Penny’s body and behavior toward a heterosexual end when he tells Penny, “…go to sleep. Your family will think I’m no good for you if you arrive with those circles under your eyes” (40). Brad reveals the importance of the image to the performance heterosexuality and the way that they are mutually constructed.

While Penny’s initial resistance to and evasion of her heterosexualization seems to complicate the icon made in her image (and that she made her image in), the overall arc of her narrative marks a return to “normality.” An expression of liberation contained by a ‘happy ending’ like those found in (reformed) pre-Hays Code films like Baby Girl. Clark concludes her story with Penny’s remark to Brad, “Now, now, captain dear. You said yourself that happiness is where I hang my wash,” simultaneously invoking domesticity and referencing back to Penny’s labor of domesticity (50). While digressing from the mainstream depiction of flight stewardesses as brides-in-training who are eagerly in search of a male partner by framing Penny as resistance, Clark reaffirms the overall message: the naturalness of heterosexuality constructed on the stewardess identity.

Vicki Barr

In “Configuring Identity and Flights of Fancy in the Vicki Barr, Flight Stewardess Series,” Michael G. Cornelius analyzes the stewardess character of girls’ literature: Vicki Barr. With a 16-book run between 1947 and 1964, the popular series provided a twist on Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton, the “traditional girl sleuths” of literature. While Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton navigated the often-at-odds identities of “girls” and “detectives,” Vicki Barr was also a career-girl; she was an airline stewardess (35). The complication of a female character by introduction of a career-identity mimics feminist progress, but by invoking the stewardess, an iconized and feminized career, the book series demonstrates its ability to express and contain female empowerment by placing the stewardess identity at Vicki’s core.

Cornelius describes Vicki as having a “constitutive relationship to flying” in which each of her identities—stewardess, detective, and girl—grounds itself (35). Vicki’s character continues to accrue around her love for flying, thus creating the appearance that Vicki-as-stewardess is her most central, and most intimate essence. The Vicki Barr books evidence the stewardess as central by the ways Vicki ritualistically rearticulates her identity as stewardess. For example, the first book contains a relatively accurate depiction of a stewardess job ad which spurs the series. The description includes the normal requirements regarding age, relationship status, education, experience, weight, height, and is bookended by the introduction: “To girls who would like to travel to meet people—to adventure,” and the concluding remarks “Above all, do you get along well with people? Do you sparkle?” (38). The preconditions and body-discipline established in this advertisement establish a stable, elemental core to Vicki’s identity in the image of the stewardess. Vicki’s perfect recall of the ad “years after” first reading it reaffirms the importance of the stewardess ‘ingredient list’ (38).

Vicki’s relationship to her uniform continues to centralize her stewardess identity. In scenes focusing on the temptation of shopping and fashion, Vicki rejects the possibility of ever “[exchanging] her proud blue uniform—emblem of adventure—for anything she saw” (38). Cornelius argues that Vicki proves this in her refusal to wear anything but the uniform unless she is at home—where even still the uniform is made constantly ready and available (40). Vicki’s uniform thus becomes essential to cultivating herself within the stewardess “identity myth.” As Cornelius explains, the uniform was a visible marker to designate the world to which Vicki belonged and place her identity within that realm. The “identity myth” is the narrative associated to the iconized image of the stewardess and is “used to address identity desires and anxieties” (39). By playing on the icon of the stewardess, the Vicki Barr series is able to invoke a career girl sleuth who can seem to aspire to inspire, but in reality, limit and contain redefinitions of female social/economic roles.

By placing Vicki into the role of stewardess, Vicki is immediately denied the “hegemonic girlhood” central to Nancy Drew. In place, “Vicki’s career ensures a professional relationship with a potentially oppressive patriarchal system…” (37). By engaging body classification and definition in the character creation of Vicki Barr, the series is able to use the deeply-rooted patriarchal locating of the airline stewardess as a means to temper Vicki’s character expansion and complication.


The post-war flight attendant was constantly engaged in narrative. Her image became a persona through the narrative of advertisements and pop culture that revealed the negotiations concealed as to the status of pink-collar occupations in male industries. By creating a site for the performance of heterosexuality, the aircraft became a place for mutually constructed heteronormativity in which passengers could engage stewardesses in a stable simulation of “pre-war normality.” These airlines could not, however, solely objectify women to attract dominantly male passengers, but were forced to engage with the duality of stewardess’s power/powerlessness in order to continue to attract the women that supported the industry. By rendering the airline stewardess as an image divorced from that of a laborer, binding her to the hope of marriage, and articulating career aspirations in terms of the family and domesticity, the airline industry fostered a rhetoric to interpret burgeoning career-womenism as a non-threat, as a natural consequence of the heterosexual dynamic.


Figure 1

United Airlines advertisement featuring female flight attendant

Figure 2

Delta Airlines advertisment featuring female flight attendant

Figure 3

United Airlines advertisement featuring female flight attendant

Figure 4

American Airlines advertisement featuring female flight attendant

Figure 5

United Airlines advertisement featuring female flight attendant

Works Cited

  1. Barry, Kathleen M. “Lifting the Weight: Flight Attendants’ Challenges to Enforced Thinness.” Iris, iss. 39, 1999, pp. 50+.
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