Tune in Tonight: ‘Fly With Me’ recalls stewardesses as activists

There are two ways to look at last summer’s “Barbie” phenomenon. Was way too much made of the film and its use of a docile, objectified plaything to make points about female empowerment? Or not enough? Its box-office success and the tidal wave of digital “ink” spilt on the phenomenon suggests the latter.

Those who enjoyed and even gave serious thought to “Barbie” might enjoy tonight’s “American Experience” (9 p.m., PBS, TV-14, check local listings) installment, “Fly With Me.”

The two-hour survey history takes a contrary look at the history of air hostesses and stewardesses, their role in the mid-20th-century imagination and their surprising, if somewhat forgotten, place in the feminist movement and the fight for gender equality, equal pay and respect.

“Fly” interviews many women who came of age from the 1950s to the 1970s, a time when stewardesses were dismissed in pop culture as either brainless, plastic waitresses or sexual playthings. The popular 1967 novel “Coffee, Tea or Me?” bore the suggestive subtitle “The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses.”

The women interviewed here have a different story. Many came from small towns and were from families that had never traveled. The allure of international flights and exposure to foreign cultures attracted a workforce of intrepid and independent women. They may have been willing to conform to the uniforms the airlines supplied and adhered to elegant standards of gracious deportment, but they were an outgoing and outspoken bunch.

So, when stewardesses spoke up and went out on strike, it should not have come as a surprise. But to the popular media, it was as if Betty Crocker had stopped shaving her legs. To some it seemed inconceivable that these pert and polite servers should demand a raise and respect. But to others, it seemed inspiring.

“Fly With Me” is directed by Sarah Colt, whose earlier “American Experience” installments include profiles of Walt Disney, Henry Ford and Billy Graham, as well as a history of the fight against polio.

Many of the stories recalled in “Fly With Me” may be a half-century old, but themes continue to reverberate. Air hostesses challenged gender expectations and engaged in unionized strikes just like their male counterparts in the steel and auto industries. To some, this “unladylike” behavior was a blow against Western civilization.

We have seen this theme arise time and again, flogged by (mostly) male pundits who grow irritable and even violent when they see their understanding of the world questioned by assertive females. In the past six months we’ve seen media mini-meltdowns about the message of “Barbie” or the nerve of a certain pop singer to attend football games.

Going back all the way to 2016, one would have thought the world was ending after a group of female comedians was cast in a “Ghostbusters” reboot. Some of the ire directed at that film was related to the so-called “GamerGate” Reddit threads, a vicious campaign of harassment aimed at women who dared to think they could create video games or protest the misogynist themes all too common in that medium.

“Fly With Me” recalls battles won in a war that seems to re-erupt with depressing frequency.


— A killer slays a would-be hero on “FBI” (8 p.m., CBS, TV-14).

— A car bombing points to a bigger threat on “Will Trent” (8 p.m., ABC, TV-14).

— Undercover behind bars in a grim locale on “FBI: International” (9 p.m., CBS, TV-14).

— On two episodes of “Quantum Leap” (NBC, TV-PG): Ben bounces into Baltimore (9 p.m.); facing the Bicentennial without brakes (10 p.m.). The second episode is the season two finale.

— A violent trip before the altar on “The Rookie” (9 p.m., ABC, TV-14).

— A mad bomber targets retired cops on “FBI: Most Wanted” (10 p.m., CBS, TV-14).

— Shaun and Lea adjust to parenthood on “The Good Doctor” (10 p.m., ABC, TV-14).


An enchanted ballet choreographed by a madman (Anton Walbrook) dooms a young dancer (Moira Shearer) in the 1948 Technicolor masterpiece “The Red Shoes” (8 p.m., TCM, TV-G).


Abby finds love in the human resources department on “Night Court” (8 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) … “Name That Tune” (8 p.m., Fox, TV-PG) … A heckuva jam on “Extended Family” (8:30 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) … Rob Lowe hosts “The Floor” (9 p.m., Fox, TV-PG).


Jimmy Fallon welcomes Keegan-Michael Key, Boy George, Billy Durney and Matt Pittman on “The Tonight Show” (11:35 p.m., NBC, r) … Jeffrey Wright and Jon Cryer visit “Late Night With Seth Meyers” (12:35 a.m., NBC, r) … Taylor Tomlinson hosts “After Midnight” (12:35 a.m., CBS).