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Flights of fancy: masculinity in airspace

Clipper architectural review

A symbol of domination and progress, the domesticated aeroplane interior became an openly queer space, traditionally segregated from the male-dominated cockpit

The project of flight – informally an ancient project – became a viable reality when the Wright Brothers launched their heavier-than-air Wright Flyer plane in 1903. Then began an era of technical innovation, led by demand for military advantage and the hope that air travel could provide for the consumer. Before the Second World War, commercial passenger flight was an activity limited to the very wealthy, but in the aftermath of the war, many military planes were decommissioned for civilian use, heralding the explosive years of the Jet Age. 

In recent years, as capitalism has propelled itself forward, the skies are occupied: technologies of flight jostle along congested paths. Language may suggest ‘flight’ is still freedom – the sky an unknowable expanse – but the horizon-line of the ineffable has been redrawn. States have created thresholds, erecting invisible scaffolding to ‘protect’ the permeable. Horizontal borders have leapt upwards. Airspace is zoned by market demand, policed by military power and structured on the grounds of colonial dominance. Today the heavens, through extensive human effort, are captured, divine air choked with ecocidal poison. 

‘Binaries of gender and hierarchies of race are emitted into airspace, the toxic effluvia of humanity infiltrating its expanse’

For Le Corbusier, a notable early adopter of globalised travel, 20th-century flight spawned ‘a new animal on the planet’. The aircraft became an obsession, deeply influencing his terrestrial practice. He evangelised, ‘This post-human is an animal that flies; the airline network is its “efficient nervous system”, its web covering the globe’. What used to be known as the view of God became the view of a newly subjectivised modern man; as if the aeroplane shot out of its progenerating phallus the seed of Le Corbusier’s ‘post-human’, the immaculate conception of a new state of being. 

One of the prevailing clichés of travel is that you take yourself with you. As with Le Corbusier’s post-human, it seems humanity’s relationship to the sky is overcast with the logic of the ground. Binaries of gender and hierarchies of race are emitted into airspace, the toxic effluvia of humanity infiltrating its expanse. Since its early military innovations, the ideology of flight has been connected to expressions of masculine prowess and colonial dominance. The airlines evinced these ideals through corporate message: in the immediate postwar era, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) frequently used in their advertising a character based on a white, British man travelling to colonial ‘outposts’. As author of Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation, Albert J Mills writes, the airlines deployed whiteness and masculinity as a way to sell passengers on the safety of flight, being that ‘whiteness and privileged forms of masculinity are equated with rationality, intelligence and civilisation’.

The nexus of this masculinised subject was the architecture of the plane, the cockpit the locus of control. The subject was a militarised and masculinised captain or pilot in command of the machine. The mere sight of the aeroplane’s body is still a powerful symbol evoking notions of a normative manhood. 

Walter dorwin teague 707 architectural review

Walter dorwin teague 707 architectural review

Source: Teague

Industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague began collaborating with Boeing in 1946. Here he inspects the Boeing 707 interior

But reliable men were not enough to convince civilians of the safety, or more importantly, desirability of flight. As it crossed territories, the plane itself became a divided territory. The airlines undertook a project of erecting a domesticised and feminised space, starting in the ’30s and only slowly dismantled during the ’80s, with the advent of bargain travel and the profit imperatives of neoliberalism. The cockpit and the men who flew inside were divided from the remainder of the interior, transforming the plane into a segregated space. The airline manufacturers hired teams of industrial designers to emphasise the ‘personal’ and ‘homely’ with a focus on interior design. Notable names from this period include Walter Dorwin Teague and his firm Teague Associates, which continues to work with Boeing, Uwe Schneider for Airbus, and Charles Butler, Raymond Loewy and Howard Ketcham. While unsurprising, the homogeneity of this group of designers is significant: the domestication of the skies was largely created from the imaginary of white men and based on normative ideals of Westernised homemaking.

A conservative fantasy was built: each seat effectively became a home unto itself, if the home is defined by the presence of two symbolic objects: the bed and the table. Inside the elaborate staging of domestic order, using the aeroplane’s cabin as a set-piece, the airlines employed the flight attendant as a performer of femininity. Fixed to the interior space of the cabin, she became a symbol of a domesticity that linked women to the home and female sexuality. The notionally female flight attendant was drafted in to not only ensure safe passage but also to play a litany of roles: the watchful mother, the helpful nurse, the benign yet firm authority, the glamorous sex symbol and the possible new wife.

Since the first military flights, men had also worked as flight attendants. But in line with the project of domestication, the male flight attendant was representationally relegated – either to background tasks as was the practice on UK airlines, or by some US airlines entirely removed from the job until 1970. Once the ban was lifted, men who did move through the aisles and galleys attracted attention as ‘gender misfits’ or ‘suspected homosexuals’. From these stereotypes, a confirmation bias emerged; the job of the flight attendant did eventually attract many gay men, for whom the plane offered a workplace where they could live an openly queer life and meet other gay people. In his study of gender and sexuality in the labour history of aviation, Phil Tiemeyer writes: ‘Planes – one of America’s cherished symbols of progress and modernity – acquired a gay presence, thanks especially to the stewards who worked in them. In other words, stewards made the plane queer’. 

‘Like a spectre that haunts the aisles, the air hostess and her domesticated cabin, the male captain at the helm, persist in the cultural imaginary’

However, the visible queerness of planes was ultimately underscored by the racialised hiring practices of the airlines. Tiemeyer adds that it was ‘only when white men undertook’ the work associated with domesticity (historically associated with women and people of colour in the UK and US) that the job became ‘noticeably queer’. American and European airlines ‘domesticated’ the skies, and so colonised them. They projected whiteness into the ether and commercialised that space: white masculinity was used to sell the safety of the skies and white femininity to sell its sexiness. 

Gourment air architectural review

Gourment air architectural review

Source: Archive Pl / Alamy

It might have been much more expensive and indeed more dangerous to get on a plane then, but in the ‘Golden Age’ of flying, it was deemed very glamorous. Gourmet meals were provided by good-looking hostesses, here serving an entire leg of freshly sliced ham

Airlines addressed the global nature of flight travel through token representation. They recruited what they termed internally as ‘local girls’ on selected routes from 1949 on, in a display of prurient exoticism. While women of colour from the US or UK struggled against the racism of the industry, women from countries such as Hong Kong, India and Pakistan were hired as ‘assistant stewardesses’ on routes to these countries. As subordinates to their white female colleagues, they were forced to wear ‘national dress’ by the airlines in a display of the racist fantasy of the coloniser. 

Like a spectre that haunts the aisles, the air hostess and her domesticated cabin, the male captain at the helm, persist in the cultural imaginary. In their attempt to control and comfort passengers for the sake of profit, airlines created a corporately administered public space that perpetuated the violence of hierarchy that is found on the ground. 

In the book Aircraft, Le Corbusier says ‘The aeroplane is an indictment. It indicts the city. It indicts those who control the city’. Le Corbusier’s meaning was that the aeroplane is everything a city could be, but given the benefit of hindsight, maybe the aeroplane is an indictment of everything we are not. As we enter a new condition of climate crisis, the ground we stand on and the air we breathe are made globally precarious. Society betrays itself through its objects; shaped by governments and corporations, the skyline of the possible has become remarkably short-sighted. It is not far from impossible to speculate that the future of flight may be a rarefied experience. What was at stake? Nothing less than the social space of flight.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today