Perhaps we can render an archaic term useful by recognizing a distinction between flight attendants and stewardesses. Flight attendants are airborne professionals charged with keeping passengers safe; stewardesses are unearthly beings. The former make sure that, buckled up, you are properly restrained; the latter, being creations of saucy marketing campaigns and creatures of sordid fantasies, are symbols of liberty teetering into libertinism.
Like flight attendants, stewardesses cruise at 30,000 feet, but with the difference that they are further getting cruised in the minds of business travelers. Early flight attendants were registered nurses; contemporary stewardesses—if, indeed, the word is to have any contemporary meaning—still have a nurturing Florence Nightingale glow to their legend. For the record, the male analog of the stewardess is not a steward but, more antiquated yet, a cabin boy. According to Come Fly With Us!: A Global History of the Airline Hostess, Britain’s Daimler Airways originated that term to describe “alert, good-looking youngsters” who checked passengers in and lent them moral support. In any case, any person responding to any of the above description ought to be able to find you some Bloody Mary mix.
This attempt to find the correct place for a politically incorrect term is occasioned by the recent debut of Fly Girls (The CW, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET), a reality soap concerning five young women who fly the groovy skies of Virgin America. In a piece in the New York Observer, four of them “agreed that they wish they could still be called stewardesses.” Those would be button-nosed Mandalay, glossy Louise, tough-but-sensitive Farrah, and tediously unpleasant, uh-uh-no-she-didn’t Nikole. (Headstrong Tasha dissented, but only because she found the word old-fashioned as opposed to demeaning.) This is to say that the Fly Girls’ collective self-image is of a piece with the show’s retro viewpoint. It harkens back to a time when a stewardess was an airline’s best marketing tool—and also, more problematically, to an era when she would receive many a pat on the rear from superiors checking for her mandated girdles.
Regardless of your sexual politics, you will need to stow your aesthetic judgment in the overhead compartment to enjoy Fly Girls, which parades the usual nonsense. The flight attendants/stewardesses/”in-flight teammates” are alleged to share a house in Marina del Rey, Calif., which cannot possibly be the case: Tasha has part-time custody of her son, so who’s looking after him? Can Nikole really afford to pay a dogwalker the fortune required to care for her sniveling bitches? The Fly Girls’ trumped-up arguments are processed beefs. Their romantic travails are as inconsequential as the shabby guys they’re trysting with. The show fails to exploit the comedy-of-errors potential inherent to flight-attendant narratives, the coming-and-going-and-getting-laid-over farcical possibilities explored by classic texts from Boeing Boeing to Three’s a Crowd. Nonetheless, I have developed a slight fondness for Fly Girl Mandalay, or Mandy. She elicits a certain feeling of protectiveness, partly because of her saucer-eyed innocence, partly because she is so very bad at reading her lines that it’s kind of touching.
If the CW were serious about giving us some flying frivolity, it would greenlight a new adaptation of Coffee, Tea, or Me?, the 1967 best-seller in which two stews dished about the glamour and the tedium of their jobs and occasionally delivered travel tips both useful (“Just the simple act of taking a walk can be an enjoyable experience in San Francisco”) and delusional (“Boston is a nice city”). The authoresses depicted themselves as foxy anthropologists of the airways who’ve developed inner radar systems: “To keep long flights from becoming boring, we use the radar to guess the marital status of each male passenger, his nationality and profession, on the basis of the kind of approach he makes to us.” That’s the stuff—a vision of the stewardess as an aloof, amused angel giggling at the follies of mortals. Further, the scenarios described in Coffee, Tea, or Me? would have been reality-show gold. Here, the ladies acquaint us with their roommates in a Manhattan penthouse: “One alcoholic, one dieter, one borrower, one compulsive liar, one pet lover, one overall bitch with a nervous curl of her lip, and the two of us.” Where Fly Girls goes in for a lot of drama about Nikole’s contrived connivances, the roommate meltdown in Coffee, Tea, or Me? involves someone eating someone else’s yogurt—just the kind of mundane detail to make a reality show soar.