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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): Popular Culture

By Guillaume de Syon

Popular Culture

As part of the 2003 centennial celebration of the Wright brothers’ flight, Texas A&M University Press launched a now-defunct series on aviation, “Centennial of Flight Series,” that contained several volumes emphasizing culture.  Two of the most notable titles in the series come from Bayla Singer and A. Bowdoin van Ripper.  Singer’s Like Sex with Gods: An Unorthodox History of Flying, aside from its jolting title, is an outstanding analysis of the sociocultural conditions that accompanied the advent of flight.  Singer does a wonderful job of leaving aside the technical dimension of aviation to show the richness of a world perceiving flight and interpreting it in different terms.

A. Bowdoin van Ripper’s examination of the popular culture of aviation, Imagining Flight: Aviation and Popular Culture, is excellent for offering new venues in which to consider both the kitsch and the fascination with the field.  Supplementing van Ripper’s account are several volumes that handle song and popular prose.  Fred Erisman researches children’s books in Boys’ Books, Boys’ Dreams, and the Mystique of Flight and From Birdwomen to Skygirls: American Girls’ Aviation Stories, offering a wonderful double survey of the peculiarities of these adventure books and how these evolved into diminishing female role models by taking women out of the cockpit.  One of the icons of twentieth-century U.S. aviation was Pan American World Airways.  Larry Weirather endeavors to chart the iconography and impact of Pan American’s flying boats in The China Clipper, Pan American Airways and Popular Culture.  The result may at times overwhelm the reader with details, but it points to the variety of expressions that greeted the new age of transportation.

Cinema and the airplane have relied on each other since the first Oscar/Academy Award went to the silent movie Wings.  Most accounts of aviation movies, however, consist of enthusiasts’ accounts of a particular film, without considering any of the social contexts.  Stephen Pendo, in Aviation in the Cinema, surveys the field and offers good insights into the challenges of filming aircraft, but emphasizes pre-World War II movies.  A book that unites the two subjects more closely to analyze why the public likes to see airplanes on screen is Michael Paris’s From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun: Aviation, Nationalism and Popular Cinema.  However, in both cases, the discussion of film’s role in sustaining aviation does not dig deeply and readers may be left wanting a greater analysis of the genre.  A more recent book attempting to delve deeper into film is Rosalie Schwartz’s Flying Down to Rio: Hollywood, Tourists, and Yankee Clippers.  The book investigates air travel, tourism, and film fantasy through the prism of the 1933 movie Flying Down to Rio, which includes Pan American’s famed flying boats.

The difficulty of identifying the impact of aviation in film comes from the similarities and differences of both realms.  As philosopher Paul Virilio notes in War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, early cinema was sometimes assimilated to a flying experience because it offered viewers an aerial gaze of sorts.  Differentiating the experiences in the context of the twentieth century turns out to be very difficult especially if, as Virilio’s work suggests, the war experience is mixed into the flying and film equation.  Peter Adey, in Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects, picks up on this notion to investigate how this new aerial reality has transformed people’s understanding of airspace and, by implication, people themselves.  His work joins a growing number of studies of air travel that draw on geography and social anthropology to evaluate humanity’s changing relationship to mobility.