STEWARDESSES & POPULAR CULTURE
The news media, novelists, and filmmakers have been fascinated with flight attendants since the first “sky girls”
began looking after passengers in 1930. Below are some highlights from the many newspaper and magazine
features, and novels and films, since the 1930s that created a rich legacy of popular stereotypes of flight
attendants, some flattering and some not so flattering.
1933: An icon is born
America had a new icon of femininity, declared the Toledo Sunday Times: the airline stewardess “goes to work 5,000
feet above the earth, rushing through space at a rate of three miles a minute. She has been eulogized, glorified,
publicized, and fictionalized during her comparatively short existence. She has become the envy of stenographers in
New York and farmers’ daughters in Iowa. She seems to be on the way to becoming to American girlhood what
policemen, pilots, and cowboys are to American boyhood.”
1936: A "Superior Race" Aloft
An article in Literary Digest from 1936, titled “Flying Supermen and Superwomen,” noted that airlines were just as exacting in selecting their
stewardesses as they were in hiring pilots. Would intermarriage between the two groups, the article breathlessly asked, yield “a race of superior
1943: What more could you want?
No wonder stewardesses received such favorable attention from the press and the public. As a female writer for Independent Woman admiringly
concluded, they exuded "the skill of a Nightingale, the charm of a Powers model and the kitchen wisdom of a Fanny Farmer"—an ideal blend of
traditional and modern femininity.
1955: Playboy’s “Miss December”
United stewardess Barbara Cameron posed for Playboy Magazine as “Miss December” in 1955. She appeared again exactly three years later as the
"The Girl Next Door” in the line-up of “most popular playmates” marking the magazine’s fifth anniversary. A notable departure from the usually very
respectable stewardess mystique of the postwar era, it foreshadowed the reputation for promiscuity that female flight attendants would acquire,
through little effort of their own, by the 1970s.
1958: “Glamor Girls of the Air”
When American Airlines opened a new stewardess training facility, Life Magazine marked the occasion with a tribute to flight attendants, “Glamor Girls
of the Air: For Lucky Ones Being Hostess is the Mostest,” which perfectly captured the postwar vision of stewardesses as cosmopolitan brides-in-
training. On Life’s cover were two brightly smiling stewardesses, and inside were trainees preparing for “one of the most coveted careers open to young
American women today.” “The job they want does not pay extraordinarily well, only $255 to $355 a month. The life is irregular and the opportunities for
promotion are small. But the chance to fly, to see the world and meet all sorts of interesting people—mostly the kind of men who can afford to travel by
plane—gives the job real glamor.”
1965: A showgirl or jet-propelled waitress?
The jet age, with its crowded, speedier flights and more motley passenger population, posed a new challenge to stewardesses’ glamour image. It was
with the advent of jets that travelers and pundits (and occasionally flight attendants themselves) began to speak of the stewardess as merely a
glorified waitress and flying itself began losing its cosmopolitan allure. Nonetheless, a female reporter for the Des Moines Register wittily suggested
how durable stewardesses’ image was in “Meet the Girl Who Wears Those Silver Wings and a Big Smile”: “The airline stewardess, 1965, has one of the
most frustrating jobs in the world. Male passengers expect her to look like a Las Vegas showgirl, and are angry when she doesn’t. Female passengers
are angry when she does, and are fond of calling her a ‘flying waitress.’ Bachelors say she’s not as glamorous as she used to be, yet would trade their
collection of James Bond paperbacks for a date with her.”
1979: “No More Stewardesses—We’re Flight Attendants”
When feminist writer Louise Kapp Howe profiled stewardesses in the traditional women’s magazine Redbook, she portrayed them as exemplary women,
as reporters long had. But unlike countless earlier profiles of stewardesses that mused over their romantic exploits, unusual lives of travel, and
attractiveness, Howe presented flight attendants as symbols of women’s new assertiveness in the workplace. In a report aptly titled, “No More
Stewardesses—We’re Flight Attendants,” Howe wrote, “The women whom the airlines have tried to portray as docile, flighty sex bunnies, whose weight
and hair styles they still seek to control, have become the least docile and most independent of all female occupational groups.” As Howe and others
made clear in the national media, “stewardesses” had become “flight attendants” in the feminist 1970s and began to muster more respect as workers
(and militant ones at that).
1993: The New Face of Labor
With federal deregulation of airline fares and routes in 1978, price slashing, start-ups, rapid expansion and mergers wracked an industry long
accustomed to a set number of players and a stable, lucrative playing field. One notable side effect of the economic and labor relations turmoil on the
deregulated airlines was that the news media, for its part, began to pay attention to flight attendants as unionized workers with great potential for
militance, rather than as staple subjects for “human interest” stories. When American Airlines flight attendants carried out a highly successful 11-day
strike in 1993, nearly shutting down the nation’s largest carrier at the time, both Time and U.S. News & World Report portrayed them as the “new face
of Labor.” In flight attendants they saw representatives of the feminization of the workforce and growth of service work, and workers whose potential
militance might revamp the labor movement for the postindustrial age. Long gone was Fanny Farmer, replaced by a pink-collar Norma Rae.
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Novels & Films
Air Hostess (1933)
Cited by scholars as the first feature film to include a stewardess as a main character. B-movie romance adventure from Columbia Pictures, starring
Evalyn Knapp and James Murray as a stewardess and pilot (who else?) in love.
Jane, Stewardess of the Airlines (1934)
Ruthe S. Wheeler’s novel offered a stewardess heroine of unstinting bravery and exceptional adventurousness just a few years after women had
debuted in passenger service. Jane and her fellow hostesses suffer several airborne travails, including passenger appendicitis, food poisoning, and
airborne crime, as well as several crashes. On flights that repeatedly place passengers’ and their own safety in jeopardy, the plucky stewardesses prove
themselves worthy in the face of various crises—but none more so than Jane. Among other feats, she helps pull an injured pilot from a plane wreck
about to ignite, foils an attack by air bandits, and then lands a job as stunt pilot for a Hollywood film scene—a scene recreating the same airborne
robbery attempt that hostess Jane herself had thwarted. Stunt piloting provides the setting for yet another crash, which Jane survives unscathed and
which handily affords the filmmaker ideal dramatic footage for his aviation epic. Few authors after Wheeler would create a stewardess character of
such crisis-tested bravery or whose technological mastery of flying rivaled, even exceeded, that of male pilots, the usual subject of aviation hero-
Flight Angels (1940)
Warner Brothers-First National production, featuring Virginia Bruce, Dennis Morgan, Ralph Bellamy, and Jane Wyman. Follows an ambitious test pilot
afflicted with failing eyesight and the stewardess he loves, with other pilot-stewardess couples in supporting roles.
Silver Wings for Vicki (1947)
The first of the “Vicki Barr Flight Stewardess” series of mystery novels for girls published in the late 1940s and 1950s, in which stewardess Vicki
competed with the popular Nancy Drew for young, female readers’ admiration. Dust jackets from the series opined of Vicki, “Charming, bright and hard
working, her career as an air stewardess brings her glamorous friends, exciting adventures, loyal roommates and dates with a handsome young pilot
and an up-and-coming reporter.”
Three Guys Named Mike (1951)
A feature film showcase for postwar stewardess glamour: Jane Wyman stars as Marcy, the quirky but charming stewardess who finds herself choosing
among the three worthy suitors of the title, and stumbling into fame as an advertising icon along the way. An MGM production, with the cooperation of
American Airlines; also starring Van Johnson, Howard Keel, and Barry Sullivan. A must-see among stewardess movies.
Another MGM feature film, Julie smashed the Three Guys Named Mike mold with a horrific view of marriage gone wrong: the stewardess heroine
manages to survive the murderous wrath of her psychotically possessive husband (this fictional airline apparently had no marriage ban, as almost every
real airline did at the time). Still, the lead role was played by fresh-faced star Doris Day, whose own wholesome glamour-girl image fit well with the
usually lighthearted stewardess mystique.
Carol Trent, Air Stewardess (1956)
Jeanne Judson’s otherwise unremarkable novel included a male flight attendant character, veteran steward Ted Barlow, as the heroine’s flying partner
and mentor. Judson thus acknowledged what few other popular culture artifacts of the postwar era ever bothered to—that there were men working in
cabin service then, as there indeed have always been since the occupation’s birth in the late 1920s. Like Ted, the male minority (5 to 15%) of flight
attendants before the 1970s tended to stay longer than their female colleagues (after all, they did not face the marriage ban or age ceilings) and often
specialized in overseas flying.
Edge of Twilight (1959)
Paula Christian’s novel of stewardess Val McGregor’s awakening to same-sex desire notably brought stewardess glamour and lesbian pulp fiction
together for the first time.
Boeing, Boeing (1965)
An American lothario in Paris (Tony Curtis) successfully strings along three European stewardess fiancées, thanks to their perfectly divergent flight
assignments, until the arrival of an old friend (Jerry Lewis) and new airline schedules throw a wrench in the works. Its notable tagline: “The Big Comedy
Coffee, Tea or Me? (1967)
Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses was the first and most successful entry in what became a popular genre of
“swinging” stewardess literature. It was not, as promoted, the memoirs of stewardesses Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, but a novel ghostwritten by
Donald Bain (as a 2003 reprint acknowledged) and promoted by two flight attendants who posed as Baker and Jones. The book was marketed
nonetheless as “authentic,” as well as “wacky” and “naughty.” It eventually sold more than one million copies and was followed by three more romps,
The Coffee, Tea or Me Girls’ Round-the-World Diary (1970), The Coffee, Tea or Me Girls Lay It on the Line (1972), and The Coffee, Tea or Me Girls Get
Away From it All (1974). A film adaptation of the original Coffee, Tea or Me? appeared on television in 1973, with Karen Valentine starring as a
stewardess with two husbands, one on each coast. Compared to imitators, Coffee, Tea or Me? offered a relatively tame “insider” view of the
occupation. The novel devoted plenty of pages to stewardesses’ work culture along with romance, and left sexual activity to the reader’s imagination.
Paperbacks and films that followed about “swinging” stewardesses would feature more naughtiness and less authenticity.
The Stewardesses 3-D (1969)
The most successful of the many semi-pornographic and soft- and hard-core porn films to feature the supposedly swinging hostesses of the Mile High
Club. The filmmakers describe it as the most profitable 3-D film in history, with long runs initially in San Francisco and New York and then wider release
of a re-edited version in 1971. Similar fare, without the 3-D flourishes, appeared soon after in the evocatively titled Swinging Stewardesses, Naughty
Stewardesses, and Blazing Stewardesses.
How to Make a Good Airline Stewardess (1972)
The cover of Cornelius Wohl’s cheeky, lavishly illustrated compendium of stew-hunting advice proclaimed, “First Coffee, Tea or Me? — Now this expert
guide to the luscious stews of every airline you’re likely to fly.” Bill Wenzel, a veteran illustrator of Esquire Magazine, rendered thirty-seven “typical”
stewardesses from various airlines in both their uniforms and completely unclothed. Merely one of the more lascivious paperbacks (most by a handful
of male authors) to capitalize on the success of Coffee, Tea, or Me? in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Airport 1975 (1974)
Sequel to the highly successful Airport (1970), the first, path-breaking example of the disaster films of the 1970s. The original had a prominent flight
attendant character, but in the sequel, a stewardess actually finds herself piloting a plane in crisis after its cockpit crew are killed—at least until the Air
Force can rescue the remaining crew and passengers.
Stewardess With the Moustache! (1980)
Title VII meets Coffee, Tea or Me: a puerile novel recounting the heterosexual adventures of a male flight attendant, who is among the very first men to
be employed as cabin crew by his fictive airline. This swinging steward character heralded the new era of a more diverse flight attendant workforce in
his own prurient and, in retrospect, ironic way. The growing number of male flight attendants who entered the occupation after discriminatory
employment rules favoring young, single women were dropped in the late 1960s eventually were widely presumed to be mostly gay and often
stereotyped as effeminate. But for a macho moment in the 1970s, as this novel captured, some men apparently imagined the job as an ideal way to
surround oneself with attractive, available women. (Think Three’s Company on the airlines.)
Stewardess School (1986)
An oh-so-eighties B comedy starring, among others, Judy Landers and Don Most (better known for playing Ralph Malph on sitcom Happy Days), which
follows misfits through flight attendant training.
Jackie Brown (1997)
1970s blaxploitation film star Pam Grier made a celebrated comeback as a forty-something flight attendant in this third Quentin Tarantino film, based
on an Elmore Leonard novel. The eponymous heroine has been smuggling guns on the job and must choose between helping her arms-dealer boss and
View From the Top (2003)
Gwyneth Paltrow stars (apparently reluctantly) as ambitious flight attendant Donna, who wants to escape from her small town roots and into first-class,
international flight duty. Several obstacles threaten Donna’s ascent, especially a backstabbing friend (Christina Applegate) and an earthbound beau
(Mark Ruffalo). Mike Myers and Candice Bergen provide more star power in cameos as airline personnel. For those well versed in the history of flight
attendant uniforms, the costumes’ attempts to channel retro vibes from the 1960s to project classiness and 1980s-style flash to suggest trashiness lend
the movie an odd, ahistorical quality. Along with the more prestigious Catch Me If You Can released in 2002, it indicates that nostalgia for flight
attendant glamour was in no way dampened by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and perhaps even thrived as Americans confronted the grim
new realities of post-9/11 flying.
Pan Am (2011)
ABC´s hour-long TV drama attempted to capture the glamour of stewardesses´ and pilots´ lives of travel and romance while working for the world´s
most illustrious airline of the time, Pan American. The crews occasionally did a bit of work on camera, but mainly the workplace served as a backdrop
for stewardess and pilot bonding, romantic tensions, and geopolitical intrigue. With the help of Nancy Hult Ganis, a former Pan Am flight attendant from
1968 to 1976, the producers tried to ensure at least some historical veracity in employment rules, uniforms, and other workplace details, as well as the
early 1960´s cultural and political context. The show proved more popular overseas than in the United States and ABC shelved it in 2012 after 14
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