« The incremental scam | Main | The New Compassionate Conservative Governor? Huck That! »

September 08, 2007

Just Plane Confused

By Deborah Newell Tornello aka litbrit

In the early 1970's, flight attendants (then referred to as "stewardesses") who worked for Southwest Airlines dressed like this:

Meanwhile, Continental Airlines' girls flight attendants skipped around teevee screens, singing:

We're here to make you happy,
We're out to make you pleased,
You're flying Continental,
Your flight will be a breeze.
We'll help to make you happy,
We'll skip to prove it's true,
On Continental Airlines
We Move Our Tails For You!
We really move our tails for you,
We make your every wish come true,
Fly Continental Airlines,
We really move our tails for you!

And at Singapore Airlines, the message was even less subtle--Singapore Girl—You're a great way to fly! The iconic Singapore Girl, also known as "Asia's Barbie", has held on despite pesky feminist complaints lo these many years, though changes, apparently, are in the works:

Despite her success, critics complain the Singapore Girl concept is sexist, outmoded and largely intended to serve male passengers' fantasies of desirable, subservient Oriental women.

The Straits Times once quoted a Qantas Airways chairman referring to the campaign as "massage parlour in the sky ads".[...]

Advertising industry experts do not expect her to be canned but merely refreshed.

"It's been incredibly successful and you don't just give up such a truly iconic symbol having spent 30 years to build it," one executive at a large international agency said.

It's interesting that so much sex gets invoked to peddle what amounts to little more than the privilege to wedge oneself into a seat--one that was miserably uncomfortable twenty years ago, and is all the more so now--in an admittedly phallic-looking sardine can; strap oneself down, and forfeit one's rights to self-determination for an indefinite length of time; and then feel oddly grateful for the half-defrosted bagel and scrambled rubber one is expected to eat with a plastic spork. The experience of air travel ceased being sexy in any way, shape, or form the moment someone realized there was money to be made by stripping the upholstery from passengers' seats, stacking them on top of alongside each other like so many tin folding chairs at a low-budget shotgun wedding, and spacing the rows with an eye toward pretending that adult humans rarely exceed four feet in height.

No, these days, the sounds, smells, and images associated with flying commercial are the very antitheses of sexiness.

This didn't stop Southwest Airlines from trying, though.  In fact, as recently as 2004, the airline marketed itself as the Match.com of the clouds:

But hark, what's that in the air? Pheromones? Cupid? No, just Southwest Airlines, which is trying to bill itself as a flying matchmaker. Is it working? At the very least, Southwest says so. With its open-seating policy, it claims, people can check each other out at the terminal and then choose to sit next to each other during the flight. It's really playing the angle up -- in-flight snacks are called "love bites," in-flight drinks are "love potions," and its stock ticker symbol is LUV.

But--oh dear--it looks like some odd changes have taken place at Southwest Airlines since those days of screw-top wine and imagined roses. Love bites have been replaced by packets of dessicated pretzel crumbs, and every bit of fun associated with (if not actually provided by) the airline has been drained in favor of...something. A bow to the fashion police? This fashionphile isn't impressed. A nod to feminists? Well, I'm one of those, too, and I think the way the airline treated miniskirt-wearing passenger Kyla Ebbert earlier this summer was insulting at best, actionable at worst.

First, they escorted her off the plane; then, after allegedly subjecting her to some sort of "we're a family airline" talk, permitted her--permitted her! A paying customer who clearly wasn't hiding any boxcutters or bottles of hair-gel on her summer-outfitted person, headed as she was for the 100+ degree heat of Tuscon--to re-board, after which humiliating experience Ms. Ebbert hid under a lovely germ-ridden polyester airline blanket for the duration of the flight. Jessica has video, as well as some truly excellent points appearing in the comment section.  A sample:

"God damn it. I am so, so, sick of women's bodies being pathologized like this. Yes, women have breasts and legs. Yes, in many cases you can tell we have them. GET THE FUCK OVER IT. It just makes me so irate that on the one hand, we're expected to flaunt our bodies, but then when we do we're punished. Was anybody else really disturbed by the part where she said she covered herself with a blanket? Because you know, since she's not "fat" or "ugly" she has to be made to feel ashamed of her body in some way."


"This is a feminist issue, IMO, because it's a reflection of the damned if you do, damned if you don't standards in our society for women. Women are expected to be sexy, but not too sexy. Our society simultaneously sends the message to women that how attractive they are is the measure of their worth and also that if they actually want/enjoy sex (or "make" people have "sinful" thoughts) they are horrible people who deserve to be shamed. Does this woman participate in a sexist culture by working at Hooters? Definitely, IMO. But don't we all in some way or another? I really don't think it's that radical of a position to say that even women who participate in perpetuating sexism can also be the victim of sexism."


"Public drunkenness can be dangerous on a flight. Fatness? I'm assuming they wanted them to buy two tickets? A separate and more complicated issue. Strong body odor? I wish I'd been on the flight that banned the BO men. I always seem to be right in the midst of an unshowered soccer team flying between matches.


The point isn't that private businesses can't set basic standards for their customers, it's that this standard is absurd. Subjective and absurd."


I suppose it's back to the drawing boards, then, for airline companies' advertisers, standards-setters, and passengers alike. Me, I'm still fuming that Southwest charged me an Overweight Luggage fee--my suitcase was barely three pounds above the limit!--en route to Yearly Kos; meanwhile it wound up being so bloody hot in Chicago, all I really needed was a couple of tank tops, a sarong, and a pair of shorts. Yet another airline makes my personal No Fly list.

Do you suppose Aeroflot is at all passenger-friendly?

September 8, 2007 in Travel | Permalink


CNN: From Russia with (more) love:New award helps Aeroflot leave shaky image behind

Shaky doesn't begin to describe Aeroflot's past customer service. Apparently they have improved over the last couple of years. Still it is no accident you get 160,000 results from the search string 'Aeroflot horror stories'

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Sep 8, 2007 2:11:50 PM

Bruce, I was bloody kidding.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 8, 2007 2:28:34 PM

There used to be an airline called Pacific Southwest Airline (PSA) that focused on low-cost, hourly-scheduled flights from major west coast cities - in the 70s, on 727s. They were WAY bigger than Southwest Airlines in those days. I think US Air or whatever bought them out and ruined their dominance of the commuter routes (SFO/LAX etc.)

Anywho, it was sexy flying - shuttle style. The skirts on attendents were like ballet costumes, and the 'girls' talked sexy over the intercom. They specialized on getting folks two rounds of drinks served in a 60 min. flight.

But the attendents were not shrinking violets, and they weren't exploited or pushed (to my knowledge). They oozed sex and made it clear they loved it. It was not 'family flying' to Disneyland. More like a flying Mustang Ranch.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Sep 8, 2007 2:32:05 PM

Southwest's hearts-and-LUV iconography has less to do with their desire to be an Elimidate-in-the-sky and more to do with the fact that their home airport is Love Field in Dallas (the right to operate out of Love Field was the subject of some significant litigation early in Southwest's existence).

Posted by: Steve | Sep 8, 2007 2:35:20 PM

Litbrit I suspected that.

I still think it is ironic that the first story I pulled up featured Aeroflot pulling down a customer service award. In the eighties that would have been considered an oxymoron.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Sep 8, 2007 2:48:00 PM

Several criticisms:

First, Southwest and other airlines got rid of their sexy stewardess outfits due to public pressure and backlash. They were demeaning, and they recognized this. Should Southwest now forever be forbidden from enforcing the dress standards that the public wanted them to embrace in the first place?

Second, saying that the woman was a paying customer does not imply that she can get on the flight no matter what. If she had shown up naked, should Southwest have allowed her to board? Obviously the airline has the right to enforce some standards of dress. Whether their standard is appropriate or not is debatable, but they certainly can have one.

Third, after a controversy like this, both sides have an incentive to shade the facts so as to be more favorable to themselves. The photos of the woman could very well be after she stretched her clothing out to cover more. Everyone is just taking her word that she was dressed exactly like any other traveller, but that seems pretty unlikely. Otherwise, why don't we hear about these cases every day on every flight?

Fourth, the idea that she was penalized because she dared to show off her body is silly. Women show off their bodies all the time, every day in every situation. Next time you get on a plane, look around: who's wearing less clothing? Women or men? It won't even be close. The airline drew a line somewhere. Maybe it was drawn in the wrong place, but the idea that this is all because of misogyny or a hatred of women's bodies is ridiculous.

OT, the Feministing thread and posted video contains lots of the predictable man-hatred that makes it hard for otherwise liberal people like myself to sympathize with their causes. "This would never have happened to a man." Bullshit. If this had been a man with his shirt open or wearing too short shorts, not only would he have been removed from the flight, no one would be supporting him. There would be no editorials, TV news segments, or blog posts complaining about how mistreated he was. The whole thing would have been treated as a humor item and the man would have been an object of universal ridicule. Oh, and Jessica's comment "Oh how I love the, "I swear I'm a feminist" anti-feminist trolls. Fuck off, guys." reminds me why I don't read her blog - anyone expressing the slightest disagreement is immediately subjected to a pile-on of "troll", "misogynist", "loser who can't get any" comments.

Posted by: Biff | Sep 8, 2007 2:49:10 PM

Well, I love Southwest Airlines, so I am a bit biased here. I'll admit this recent incident seems bizarre at best, but I will strain to say, that in the videos we have seen, we haven't seen how she was actually dressed before asked to raise her top and lower her skirt.

However, what I came here to say is that form follows function and that is especially true in harsh engineering environments like aircraft struggling to safely defy gravity. While I think I can detect teh funny in your post, I think any sort of semi-serious reference to phallic shaped sardine cans is, well, just completely bogus and the sort of reference that makes some men and women throw up their hands at the claims of feminism (and Freud).

Perhaps you'll be happier with Boeing's new blended wing body aircraft. If successful, it will be more fuel efficient at the least. There are many fears that passengers, women as well as men, will not like it, as there will be few windows. But it should make for a good bomber for the military.

While I applaud Boeing and wish them the most success (since they are one of our largest manufacturers left), I think I like window seats, even if that means sitting in a phallic shaped sardine can and offending some feminists and Freudians.

Here's hoping we can find the gas, fuel, hydrogen, or whatever necessary to keep these sorts of trips available to anyone....

I am also confused (I am often confused) with how at other times, feminists will decry Hooters and how they force women to dress, and then get upset when others make that same connection.

Posted by: jerry | Sep 8, 2007 2:55:14 PM

in the golden days of flying, on eastern airlines, braniff, northwest orient and pan-am, all "stewardesses" looked like doris day.
they looked like pretty nurses, taking care of the passengers.
they seemed glamourous and efficient.
then, in the seventies, when courreges started designing mini-skirted costumes, seemed to come the change.
but that seemed to be when the change occurred in advertising in general.
....i was once told that the flight attendants on aeroflot were very large and would come down the aisle with moving tables with huge pots of soup and ladles...
filling your bowl with dollops of kasha varnishkes!
if you want to see the new direction of soft and sexy marketing, check out korean airlines.
...it is not just softly erotic, but affluence seems to be the new sexuality.
they use the exact color of blue as the tiffany shopping bag for randomly inspiring touches in their commercials and website.
...the commercials are grey, and then,appears a soft tiffany blue martini and a flawlessly beautiful flight attendant,
and then, at the end, a tiffany blue phallus!
..the calm of a blue lake
the affluence of tiffany
and subliminal eroticism.
and these are their words:
it is brilliant.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 8, 2007 2:59:18 PM

By referring to aircraft as phallic shaped in order to somehow demean them, you are doing a disservice to the thousands of very honorable men and women aerospace engineers that design, build, and test these things.

The Chief Engineer of the new 747-8 is a woman. I can imagine few people with more responsibility or a better job.

Posted by: jerry | Sep 8, 2007 3:13:07 PM

While I think I can detect teh funny in your post, I think any sort of semi-serious reference to phallic shaped sardine cans is, well, just completely bogus and the sort of reference that makes some men and women throw up their hands at the claims of feminism (and Freud).

I give up. Really. I give up.

Happy Saturday, guys.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 8, 2007 3:15:00 PM

now, you see, you've gone and ruined litbrit's day.

gosh, arent airplanes phallic shaped sardine cans?
everyone knows that.
what's wrong with that?

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 8, 2007 3:25:58 PM

jacqueline, there is nothing wrong with that, and that's my point exactly.

Posted by: jerry | Sep 8, 2007 3:57:09 PM

I'm surprised that no one is bringing up the Grandmother of all sexist airline ads - "Come on and Fly Me," the ad campaign for National Airlines in the seventies, which provoked considerable outrage from women's groups (i remember month after month of outrage in Ms.) especially when National started naming the planes for the stewardesses, so that you were, literally, flying Katie.

As for this scanty-clad story, I'm not going to say I appreciate how Southwest handled it, but let's not paint this buxom lass as a choirgirl - she's a Hooters waitress and bleached blonde and stacked, and those clothes, while not way out of today's fashion mainstream, do represent an edge most of us would, charitably call a bit much (especially when common sense tells you that her top was riding up and that skirt was riding down). I can't say I haven't thought, seeing the way some young things parade around these days, "put something on, please." I'm not a prude, I just don't think our turning stripper-wear into fashion has necessarily been a positive development, especially if we're talking about positive, empowering ways of seeing modern women.

Finally, I'd point out that Singapore is not alone among the Asian carriers in selling this "massage girl in the sky" concept of it's flight attendants. Moreover, I'd point out that the Asian carriers are, in fact, quite plush, like most international carriers. The comparison to the way domestic carriers have become Trailways in the sky misses the point that the international experience is different, and in many ways superior (I'm happy to be sandwiched into Coach class on BA and Lufthansa and SAS, for example, in a way I can't stand on American doing domestic long haul). Which is to say, I think Singapore's ads have succeeded because the product lives up to the promise - which may be why the caricature of Asian female servitude is so upsetting - that's not just an ad, it's really what they do.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 8, 2007 4:02:53 PM

they looked like pretty nurses, taking care of the passengers.

That's actually because the first female stewardesses were nurses.

The days of Sedation Class (Air Ambien?) will soon be with us, and to be honest, I can't wait.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Sep 8, 2007 4:11:52 PM

pseudonymous in nc....

wow! i didnt know they were really nurses!
that is quite interesting!
thanks for sharing that information.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 8, 2007 4:20:40 PM

Wow. Y'all really have no sense of irony or proportion, do you? No wonder litbrit gave up.

Posted by: Lisa | Sep 8, 2007 4:42:01 PM

Well, jeez, you know, if the bint works at Hooters and bleaches her hair and went out of the house with big tits, obviously she had it coming.

What were you thinking, litbrit?

Posted by: delagar | Sep 8, 2007 4:44:53 PM

Well Southwest has had some problems with the dress code, to whit a naked pilot and co-pilot http://tinyurl.com/abjq
so I guess they are over cautious.

Swiss Air never mistreated me. Of course they went bankrupt.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann | Sep 8, 2007 4:52:43 PM

Lisa translated and gender switched: "Feminists have no sense of humor!"

Posted by: jerry | Sep 8, 2007 5:02:50 PM

People coming to the defense of an airline enforcing a heretofore unknown "dresscode" on women for dressing inappropriately... Cripes, what the heck is wrong with you people?

If they were removing men who wore pleated khaki shorts with black socks and wingtips, I'd disagree with that, though at least Southwest would be enforcing policies consistently.

Posted by: Tyro | Sep 8, 2007 5:22:36 PM

Interesting Tyro. Have you been diagnosed with Restless Knee? I haven't seen a single person here defend Southwest's actions. Maybe you can find that for me.

Posted by: jerry | Sep 8, 2007 5:33:47 PM

growing up in the fifties...

planning my future,i entertained serious hopes of becoming miss america.
...in the eventuality that it didnt work out, i would have settled on becoming a "stewardess"....beautiful and worldly.
pan am was my first choice.
if i couldnt be a "stewardess", i wanted to be like ann sothern, a "secretary" in new york city, with platinum hair and polka dot dresses.

...when i was fifteen, leafing through a fashion spread on carnaby street, and wishing i looked like jean shrimpton, i found an article by gloria steinem.
the world was never quite the same after that.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 8, 2007 5:51:27 PM

It's a minor point, but as it happens the linked article about the Singapore Girl is very old and in fact the Singapore Girl is not going anywhere.

Posted by: dbeach | Sep 8, 2007 6:28:01 PM

dbeach, January '07 makes it "very old"? Also, your link doesn't work.

Posted by: treacle | Sep 8, 2007 6:37:54 PM

From my hazy memories of law school, flight attendant jobs were the basis of many of the most interesting employment discrimination cases. First, of course, men wanted the job too. Once they were in, it became harder to enforce the extremely tight (heh) weight restrictions, because you couldn't require the women to be emaciated but not the men. Then there was age discrimination suits (I may have these out of order). And finally, a large percentage of male flight attendants were at one time gay (I don't know what the story is now). Pilots, who tended to be from the military, didn't always have a wholesome amount of respect for them.

Posted by: Emma Anne | Sep 8, 2007 6:46:41 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.