Pan Am, sexism and aesthetic labor

With the new TV show, Pan Am, having been picked up by ABC and BBC2, a recent Guardian article reports on the sexism that continues to face female flight attendants — something that has persisted and been encouraged by airline management, from the 1960s through to today.

The article extensively quotes sociologist Bev Skegg of Goldsmiths university and author of the book Formations of Class and Gender. The article also discusses the sociological concept of aesthetic labor, which it usefully defines as “when employees’ feelings and appearance are turned into commodities.”

The concept of aesthetic labor is a type of the more general skill of emotional labor, a concept introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild of Berkeley in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, first published in 1983, which argues that emotional labor is an important-but-unremunerated skill characteristic of interactive service work (flight attendants, wait staff, call center workers, nurses, doctors, etc.).

Hochschild defined emotional labor as the management of feeling to create positive emotions in customers. Aesthetic labor, then, is a specific kind of emotional labor — which employers seek to mobilize — aimed at producing a particular style of service and sensory experience for the customer. Demands from employers for aesthetic labor, a concept introduced by Chris Warhurst and colleagues, are particularly common in retail and hospitality work, including flight attending.

There is an extensive sociological literature on how various forms of emotional labor are central to the experience of work in interactive service contexts. In the context of airline work, male and female flight attendants experience demands to perform the right kind of aesthetic labor, although women are more likely to have these pressures compounded by latent or explicit sexism.

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