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ABC's Pan Am and the Infantilism of American Culture: Are We Ready to Grow Up?

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Pan Am, the new mega-dollar drama from ABC aired last night, and of course, as a devotee of Mad Men, I watched it in hopes that it would transport me (as Mad Men always does) to an era I actually might have enjoyed. staff Staff Profiles Desktops & Documents lola.rephann My Documents website BLOGS Hubspot Blogs Faculty images Pan Am ABC Poster resized 600Both series are set in the early 1960s, a time of cocktail dresses,  Eames furniture, Bobby Darin, sexism (I may not have enjoyed that), and a promise of a Space Age, Jetson-esque future.  Indeed, Pan Am had many of these elements (the marvelously recreated interior of the original Pan Am terminal was a masterpiece of CGI, as was the replacement of the words "Met Life" with "Pan Am" on the now-iconic building), and yet – as I was watching it – something was missing. 

Accurately recreating the epoch (there was only one hairdo in the episode that screamed "anachronism" to a professor of fashion history), I couldn’t quite put my finger on why Pan Am failed so miserably in its intent to mainstream Mad Men, and why (I concluded as the episode ended) I shan’t be watching it again.

And then it occurred to me why, as a cultural analyst and forecaster, I am so fascinated by Mad Men, and was ultimately left so bored by Pan AmMad Men is about adults; Pan Am is not. Pan Am is about young, squeaky clean ingénues, neat and fresh-faced as they dream of foreign travel. It is about suave and handsome young pilots, all joshing each other in the cock pit like so many good natured college boys. It was as perfect and as wholesome as a Magnolia cupcake, and as sanitized and "child friendly" as the life of the average adult in America today.

There was not one cigarette to be seen in Pan Am, an anachronism unto itself, as everybody smoked in the 1960s. And there was hardly any drinking (the only character who asked for a martini was the caddish character involved in an extra-marital affair with a stewardess). But why wasn’t there? In an era when smoking and drinking were de rigueur, why (when Mad Men embraces these elements to the point of celebrating them) did Pan Am pretend that they didn’t exist?

The same goes for sex. Remembering that the characters in Pan Am are adults, why was the only hinted-at coupling between a deceitful married man and the French stewardess (note: the character is not American) he had lied to by saying he was single?  The message? That sex and martinis are only for "bad boys," and that everyone else in the Early 1960s was a celibate, non-smoking teetotaler.

Mad Men is probably as guilty at over-playing the drinking, sex, and smoking (especially the sex; not everyone in 1963 was as handsome as "Don Draper"!) as Pan Am is guilty of ignoring them, and the fact that the former is on AMC (a cable channel with less censorship than Pan Am’s ABC) probably has something to do with it. Yet I feel there is a more interesting and overarching story behind ABC’s desire to sanitize the Sixties, and I think it has everything to do with what I’ve termed an infantilism of American culture in the post 9/11 climate.

The trauma that America experienced with 9 /11 cannot be overstated, the result being a cultural obsession with the concepts of "safety" and "security."  This is understandable. Yet with it has came something very strange; a need to feel "protected" seems to have instilled a desire to return to an almost "childlike" state.  We are continually told that "40 is the new 30" and that "30 is the new 20"; if we follow this through, then what is the "new 20"? Ten?!

In fashion, women in their forties dress like women in their twenties, and the old joke about middle-age being "ten years older than you are" is starting to be true (my seventy year old father refuses to call himself "middle aged," and cannot understand why I – at 46 – do).

Cocktails are now frowned upon, and if consumed, must have childlike ingredients and monikers that make them look like ice cream sundaes by way of shifting the focus from the fact that they contain alcohol; Chocolatinis, Marshmallowtinis, M&Mtinis are all the rage, and consumed without question in company. Yet order a regular vodka martini, and eyebrows are raised. Basically, it’s okay if your booze looks like dessert, but order a scotch on the rocks, and 12 step programs are suggested.

Yet the strongest evidence for the infantilism of American culture must surely be the phenomenon of The Cupcake! A cake traditionally served to children at birthday parties and provided at elementary school bake sales, cupcakes have become an adult obsession; there are currently no less than four cable television shows devoted to cupcakes, the line outside of Magnolia risible in length when one remembers that cupcakes were traditionally intended for kids (and not for well-paid and well-dressed adults holding onto each other for ballast in their six inch Jimmy Choo heels).

It is hard to imagine Don Draper lining up to buy a cupcake – and yet the popularity of Mad Men (and its retail tie-ins with Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers) is just one of the indicators to suggest that we, as a culture, are ready to once again embrace the idea of adulthood as a pleasant and desirable state.  Emotionally dysfunctional and not always very nice, the characters in Mad Men are united by one factor; they are adults. They dress as adults, speak like adults, and enjoy adult pursuits. I think this is why we like watching them, and why – in fashion – apparel is becoming far less "chick" and far more "chic," the slow return to modesty and minimalism suggesting that women are starting to want womenswear once again (as opposed to modified juniorwear in larger sizes).

Perhaps the fact that mainstream television, by way of ABC’s Pan Am and NBC’s ill-received Playboy Club, which debuted last week, have jumped on the Mad Men bandwagon by developing series set in an "adult era" is the most obvious sign that we’re ready to enjoy being grown-ups again, although – in the case of Pan Am – we’re only pretending to be grown-ups. Like children playing dress-up in their parents’ adult clothing, Pan Am’s sweet and chirpy clean-cut innocence says more about America in 2011 than the jet-set, adult days of the early 1960s.

-- Amanda Hallay

Amanda Hallay is Clinical Assistant Professor of Fashion Merchandising at LIM College.

Her book Vintage Cocktails: Retro Recipes for the Home Mixologist (Skyhorse Publishing) will be published on November 1 and is available on pre-order from

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