Mini Object Lesson: Gender in Flight

Playmobil airline lavatory (Christopher Schaberg)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If you are feeling consternation about recent gender trouble in public restrooms, you might look to the heavens for relief. Not for divine intervention, though. Rather, gaze at those airliners cruising by, 35,000 feet above, contrails dissipating in the ether. They’ve got this issue figured out.

On first blush, airplanes seem like the most egregious sites for the recognition and policing of identities—terrorists being the obvious specter. Air travel can bring out people’s worst bullying and nationalistic tendencies, and class-based structures rule the cramped spaces of flight. Unfair stereotypes are still associated with flight attendants, and there remains a persistent patriarchy among pilots. Gender politics have by no means disappeared up in the sky.

Still, airplanes prove that some gender battles have already been settled. For instance, airline lavatories are unvaryingly non-gendered, and they work just fine, flight after mundane flight.

Furthermore, gender does not determine whether a person can fly a plane or pass out pretzels. When it comes to your pilot, skills and training are far more important than what body parts they appear to have under their uniform, or what gender identity they adopt. Likewise with flight attendants: Travelers have long since learned to care less about whether they present as male or female. More important: whether they are snarky or sincere, miserly or generous, negligent or professional.

Airplanes are metal tubes of pragmatism. Let’s just get from here to there, please, and without incident. When a flight attendant asks passengers sitting in an exit row whether they are willing and able to help in the event of an emergency, this has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with linguistic fluency, mental wherewithal, and physical ability. When it comes to facilitating an efficient evacuation, gender is not a critical factor—a fact all travelers accept every time they take a commercial flight. Then think of your seat-mate. It matters less if they seem to be a man or woman than if they are an armrest hog, an endless talker, or if they are emitting an overpowering fragrance.

There are differences that matter on an airplane, differences that make gender little more than an incidental marker—and one that is mostly a matter of surface display. Genders can intrigue, astonish, perplex … or simply fade into the background. Airplanes are performance spaces where, for the most part, gender just exists without incident. (Though occasionally bizarre limits are transgressed and enforced, even amidst the clouds.)

Gender is usually less pressing and more profuse than its current hype would suggest. Airplanes prove that when it comes to people, there are almost always more differences than just two, and that being attuned to this more is what actually allows people to travel together—and to live together—in the first place.

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