First Class Gender Confusion
Cross-dressing flight attendants confirm the role of the stewardess is enduringly feminine.
In a move likely to please their biggest sponsor, Delta, JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic, and Alaska Airlines are now permitting male flight attendants to don a dress, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Female attendants, too, can wear the male uniform rather than the female one, provided, in Delta’s case at least, that attendants of both sexes wear “properly matched garments and accessories.”
Absolutely no one is surprised. The American Civil Liberties Union had been badgering Alaska Airlines to drop gendered dress codes for flight attendants for two years, knowing that once enough of the smaller carriers fell the larger ones would have to make concessions. There’s not much in popular culture that remains untouched by woke gender ideology, and airlines have long been at the front of the LGBT movement. But the reflection of one Mr. Tyler Curry to the Journal, that wearing a dress “makes [him] feel more confident,” that it makes him stand up straighter, should give us pause.
What is happening here goes beyond corporate incentives and woke capital. Men are choosing to wear dresses and identify as female for a variety of reasons, not least of which is serious mental illness; but what they reveal when they do is something even conservatives have struggled to reckon with: the inherently gendered nature of reality. It is a reality that goes deeper than biological sex.
It is hard to imagine a better microcosm for the transgender movement than what has happened to the flight attendant. In 1971, Southwest Airlines made its memorable debut with hostesses in bright orange hot pants and white go-go boots, branding itself “the love airline.” The subtext was inherently sexual, but the uniforms, though suggestive, were not tasteless.
Coming on the tail end of what we now refer to as the golden era of air travel, in the ’70s and ’80s a trip by plane still meant, among other things, a traveler would be attended by a well-dressed woman. A flight attendant was more than a warm body handing out peanuts; she was a glamorous style icon, and even a feminist success story, representing freedom from traditional sexual mores. And she was wildly successful. As it turns out, passengers liked being served by pretty women. (And still do: A litany of movies and TV shows have been written with lovers’ eyes toward Pan Am.)
Fifty-two years later, in dull gray slacks and polos, Southwest flight attendants’ appearance today is only marginally better than the khaki shorts and white socks of the early 2000s—the era of utility unsexed fashion, turning to shapeless office wear as airlines sought to eliminate sexism in a workplace where men and women increasingly mixed. Once a de facto female job, the role of stewardess began slowly to include more men after a 1971 court case ruled Pan American World Airways could not discriminate against males in hiring.
We are still feeling the effects today. Shapelessness subsumed both the so-called “sexy stewardess,” and the sleekly suited male that accompanied her; not only was she no longer sexy, she was barely recognizable as a woman. Meanwhile, he came to look slovenly and unkempt. In 2001, Delta’s male and female suits were practically indistinguishable from one another. Both were ugly.
Such androgyny is the epitome of egalitarianism. Indeed, many airlines that have declined to allow male flight attendants to wear dresses have instead chosen something “unisex” for this very reason. Far from being a solution to the problem of men in lipstick, however, such approaches might be worse, as they pretend alternately that sex does not exist and that it is inconsequential if it does.
We know, of course, that sex is extraordinarily consequential. Beauty is inherently gendered, found in masculinity and femininity as such, not in shapeless suits and white tube socks.
The men in dresses know this too. They long to be perceived as beautiful; that is why they are playing dress up.
Our imagination is still captivated by the alluring stewardess, but our politics have told us we are not allowed to enjoy such things, or at least not without a heavy dose of sexist guilt. So instead of long-legged women in hot pants, we get Mr. Tyler Curry, a sturdy looking white male, in a tight sheath dress and neck scarf, stamp of rainbow approval included. The Journal reports that passengers tell Curry, “you look amazing,” and “wonder how he manages to walk in heels for as long as he does.”
“Amazing” is a good word to tell us what this is not; it is not beautiful. A man in a woman’s dress, no matter what he does to his facial hair and shoulders, is still a man in a woman’s dress. But those who do not feel seasick at the sight force their eyes to call it something that it is not, and they are able to trick themselves by meditating on the form of woman that the clothing suggests or desires.
Get daily emails in your inbox
There is something referenced in the dress that our eye desperately wants to be present to us—pieces of beauty, a silhouette that was made to please the eye. In other words, some ghost of feminine beauty remains in the dress, though the female body and soul have been devoured and replaced. This ghost is what gives Curry confidence where the frumpy androgynous uniform could never.
When Pan Am sought to defend its decision to not hire male flight attendants, the LA Times reported it argued that, “on the one hand, real men would prove too masculine to provide the nurturing, maternal essence of flight attending. On the other hand, the men who could excel at the job would be effeminate and therefore unacceptable.” The circuit court in Florida actually agreed with them, as did many newspaper columnists at the time, who took potshots at the idea of a “male stewardess.”
Pan Am may have been on to something. At any rate, it seems, airline passengers have not been given the slip. We’ve not taken the female out of the role of flight attendant; we’ve just stuck a male in her shoes.