Hero in a girl job

11 August 2010

I’ve been watching with a certain delight as the news stories evolve about Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who lost it after being assaulted by a passenger.  (See here for quick rundown of the facts.)  It started as one of those ha-ha stories — “Flight attendant goes beserk!” — and has adjusted as journalists began to realize that the public supported and even celebrated the man who said fuck you to the job that treated him so badly, then literally jettisoned himself out of it.  I think this is one of those stories where gender matters:  Slater has become a hero to many who similarly hold girl jobs but are afraid to jettison because of the economy.  By girl job, I mean positions presumed to be “women’s jobs” that require a lot of labor for very little reward or glory, often requiring tedious direct contact with the public.  This isn’t a story about a nut (“Do you salute or shun Steven Slater?” wonders one clueless reporter); nor is it a story about flight attendants versus passengers (even though, DAMN, there are a lot of jackasses amongst us).  This is about someone getting mad as hell and just not taking it anymore — and then sliding down that awesome inflatable slide.

Being a flight attendant used to be okay; the pay was good enough to make up for the indignities of making smiley faces at people, using non-words like “de-plane,” and having Saturday Night Live mock you.  They still had a teeny bit of glamor left over from the old days, and as a result of Southwest Airlines they got to make more jokes on the intercom.  But salaries stagnated and then got worse as airlines converted these workers into full-fledged girls with powerless or nonexistent unions.  Meanwhile, the airlines also treated its passengers like shit.  Psychologists study this stuff (doesn’t the phrase rats in a cage ring familiar?) so airlines know perfectly well that tensions are higher than ever, as they’ve crammed cabins full of passengers who don’t really fit into those seats AND took away our sugary peanuts.  This isn’t about one particularly bad airline; just go to Untied.com to see how bad United and Continental are, for instance.  Airline executives are perfectly happy to let flight attendants take it on the chin — first because their salaries have gone down, and second because passengers see them as the airlines’ representatives, AKA punching bags.

I say gender matters, and by that I don’t mean biological sex.  Many journalists (hi, Hanna Rosin!) think this stuff can be boiled down to men versus women, but I think most of us — men AND women — are pissed off that we’re being treated like girls. Millions of Americans want even just the degree of workplace respect they enjoyed ten years ago.  (Ahhh, the Clinton years….)  Instead, everyone I know is telling me tales of workplace life that make the film “Office Space” sound like a weak-willed documentary.  “You just have to suck it up, because you don’t want to lose your job,” we rationalize.  Meanwhile, JetBlue’s CEO, David Barger, saw his compensation go up 67% in 2009 to $1.5 million.  Remember 2009?  When U.S. unemployment went up to 10%?

So this isn’t a story about the airline industry in particular; this is about all of us who’ve seen our jobs stagnate and become shittier.  That’s why there are all those Facebook fan clubs for Steven Slater and, brilliantly, an animated re-creation of events from a TV station in Hong Kong.  Mr. Slater:  get thee to an agent ASAP, and reap whatever harvest you can from this moment of glory, as you became our go-to Man in a nation of girls.


3 Responses to “Hero in a girl job”

  1. Hattie Says:

    Gotten a little behind on your blog, but think this latest posting is, as they used to say, right on. I always wondered why any time I did a service for someone I seemed to lose status in their eyes. I guess it is a weak (ie feminine) position. Whenever someone serves me, I always try to be as courteous as possible and tip where appropriate.

    • didion Says:

      Hattie! For weeks now I’ve been mulling over something you said here a while back, and I’m still working up a longer, contemplative piece. About women, modesty, ambition, the workplace…. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to thank you for provoking a lot of thought. A finished piece soon, I hope.

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