ESTRANGEMENT FROM SEXUAL IDENTITY
Regardless of gender, the job poses problems of identity. What is my work role and what is “me”? How can I do deep acting without “feeling phony” and losing self-esteem? How can I redefine the job as “illusion making” without becoming cynical? (See Chapter Six.)
But there are other psychological issues a flight attendant faces if she is a woman. In response to her relative lack of power and her exposure to the “doctrine of feelings,” she may seek to improve her position by making use of two traditionally “feminine” qualities —those of the supportive mother and those of the sexually desirable mate. Thus, some women are motherly; they support and enhance the well-being and status of others. But in being motherly, they may also act motherly and may sometimes experience themselves using the motherly act to win regard from others. In the same way, some women are sexually attractive and may act in ways that are sexually alluring. For example, one flight attendant who played the sexual queen—swaying slowly down the aisle with exquisitely understated suggestiveness—described herself as using her sexual attractiveness to secure interest and favors from male passengers. In each case, the woman is using a feminine quality for private purposes. But it is also true, for the flight attendant, that both “motherly” behavior and a “sexy” look and manner are partly an achievement of corporate engineering—a result of the company’s emphasis on the weight and (former) age requirements, grooming classes, and letters from passengers regarding the looks and demeanor of flight attendants. In its training and supervisory roles, the company may play the part of the protective duenna. But in its commercial role as an advertiser of sexy and glamorous service, it acts more like a backstage matchmaker. Some early United Airlines ads said, “And she might even make a good wife.” The company, of course, has always maintained that it does not meddle in personal affairs.
Thus the two ways in which women traditionally try to improve their lot—by using their motherly capacity to enhance the status and well-being of others, and by using their sexual attractiveness—have come under company management. Most flight attendants I spoke with agreed that companies used and attached profit to these qualities.
What is the result? On the status-enhancement side, some women feel estranged from the role of woman they play for the company. On the sexual side, Melanie Matthews, a sex therapist who had treated some fifty flight attendants for “loss of sexual interest” and “preorgasmic problems,” had this to say:
The patients I have treated who have been flight attendants tend to fit a certain pattern. They tend to have been “good” girls when they were young—nurturing and considerate to others. Then the company gets them while they are young and uses those qualities further. These women don’t ever get the chance to decide who they are, and this shows up in their sexual life. They play the part of the ultra-female, of someone who takes an interest in others, and they don’t get the chance to explore the other sides of their character and to discover their own needs, sexual or otherwise. Some of them have been so fixed on pleasing others that while they don’t dislike men, they don’t actively like them either. It’s not so much that they are preorgasmic as that they are prerelational in this one sense. They hold onto their orgasmic potential as one of the few parts of themselves that someone else doesn’t possess.
Freud generally found sexual stories beneath social ones, but there are also social stories beneath sexual ones. The social story here concerns young women who want to please (and who work for companies that capitalize on this characteristic) while they also want to keep a part of themselves independent of this desire. Their sexual problems could be considered a prepolitical form of protest against the overextension and overuse of their traditional femininity. This form of protest, this holding onto something so intimate as “mine,” suggests that vast territories of the self may have been relinquished as “not mine.” The self we define as “real” is pushed further and further into a corner as more and more of its expressions are sensed as artifice.
Estrangement from aspects of oneself are, in one light, a means of defense. On the job, the acceptance of a division between the “real” self and the self in a company uniform is often a way to avoid stress, a wise realization, a saving grace. But this solution also poses serious problems. For in dividing up our sense of self, in order to save the “real” self from unwelcome intrusions, we necessarily relinquish a healthy sense of wholeness. We come to accept as normal the tension we feel between our “real” and our “on-stage” selves.
More women than men go into public-contact work and especially into work in which status enhancement is the essential social-psychological task. In some jobs, such as that of the flight attendant, women may perform this task by playing the Woman. Such women are more vulnerable, on this account, to feeling estranged from their capacity to perform and enjoy two traditional feminine roles—offering status enhancement and sexual attractiveness to others. These capacities are now under corporate as well as personal management.
Perhaps this realization accounts for the laughter at a joke I heard surreptitiously passed around the Delta Training Office, as if for an audience of insiders. It went like this: A male passenger came across a woman flight attendant seated in the galley, legs apart, elbows on knees, her chin resting in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other – held between thumb and forefinger. “Why are you holding your cigarette like that?” the man asked. Without looking up or smiling, the woman took another puff and said, “If I had balls, I’d be driving this plane.” Inside the feminine uniform and feminine “act” was a would-be man. It was an estrangement joke, a poignant behind-the-scenes protest at a commercial logic that standardizes and trivializes the dignity of women.