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February 21, 2011

Cathay Pacific: Selling Feminine Passivity

This Cathay Pacific ad, which appeared in the U.K., presents Karina Yau, a flight attendant, to customers as the perfect caretaking woman — one who just wants to listen to you, not talk. Notice also the passive stance — arms pulled into the body, her face turned away and eyes averted, hand fiddling with her coat sleeve. The text reads:

Karina went from fashion model to flight attendant — and still doesn’t think that life has had any real ups and downs. You can meet her and other members of the Cathay Pacific team at www.cathaypacific.co.uk. And while you’re there, check out our great fares to over 110 destinations worldwide. If you see Karina on your next flight, you might recommend a favourite book — she loves to read.

A post on the Cathay Pacific blog about Yau describes her as “modest.” At Cathay’s website you can “meet the team who go the extra mile to make you feel special.” It includes photos and bios of some employees, and I found Yau’s. The text they chose to highlight reinforces the emotion work she engages in for customers — “of course” she “smiled and apologised immediately.”

The ad and the features present customers with the promise of more than just a flight attendant who will do her job well. This flight attendant is the ideal of femininity: she’s beautiful (a former model), she’s submissive (apologizes immediately!), and she’s interested in you — your thoughts, your taste in books — whoever you are.

I wonder to what degree this draws on a specifically racialized femininity — the stereotypical depiction of Asian women as particularly submissive and docile. But since this ad ran in the U.K., I don’t know if that stereotype is as relevant. Readers, what say you?

–Gwen Sharp

Cross-posted from:

  • Malika

    I wonder if anyone else sees her hand gesture as an insinuation of undressing. Maybe it’s just me.

  • Withnails

    Those photos look like they could be posted on a Massage Parlor website. Especially the one of her on the chair.

  • Vvoter

    Sure, the ad draws heavily on a culturally contingent version of femininity. So what? Advertising ethics have long been held up to humanistic critical methodologies, but the only thing that has changed (from my perspective) as a result of this critical attention is a more refined attention to stereotyping within the ad industry – one that perhaps reveals an increased sensitivity to the rhetorical/commercial saliency of stereotypes themselves. Show us one advertisement that does not rely on stereotypes. In visual advertising, stereotyping is the whole point.

    And regarding non-Occidental varieties of femininity, let’s not assume that (what may strike Western readers as) signs of passivity necessarily imply a deficiency in terms of empowerment. Cultural-psychological models of individuation/social agency vary widely.

    This post reads like a worn-out Western-hegemonic cultural critique that reveals either an ignorance of or a disregard for the legitimacy of any mode of gender performance that falls outside the purview of Westernized feminism.

    • Malika

      If the ad were aimed at a “non-Occidental” audience, I might have agreed with you.

    • Vvoter

      I’m trying to understand how the target audience determines your receptivity… What I’m hearing you say is that this ad is targeted to Westerners who might find the exoticism of passive Asian femininity appealing. And this might imply that the reciprocity between ad makers and commodity consumers relies on a manipulative sort of Othering that should be discouraged.

      Ok. I’m down with that. My contention, however, is with the lack of novelty or insight in the author’s point of emphasis. Pointing out the usage of cultural and gender stereotypes in advertisements is uninteresting on many levels.

  • Withnails

    I don’t understand the discussion. It’s very obvious what they’re selling. They’re selling the hint that maybe, if it’s a late-night flight and everyone else is asleep in business class, their stewardesses will give you a happy ending under the blanket.

    “I just like to listen more than talk”

    They’ll listen to you ask for a tug job, and they won’t say no.

  • tinwoman

    Terrible ads, basically we are back to the 6os and selling plane tickets with the promise that attractive, short-skirted stewardesses are willing to double as prostitutes (a meme that flight attendants still have to contend with–one of their biggest occupational complaints is having to fend off advances from passengers).

    Vvoter, way to overanalyze. The ad is very retro, very damaging, and I love it that the bag has put it up here.

  • tinwoman

    I would add, also, that websites for brothels often have such “get to know your hooker” features, with similar photos and suggestions of all the ways she will…um….bend over backwards to please you, with just a faint whiff of a suggestion that she actually has a personality (but not too much of one). “Karlie loves to stay active and keep fit, and her favorite thing about herself is that she’s a natural blonde…. Zzzzzzzzzzzz..” You get the picture.

    Hence the boring nature of the “blog entry” She’s had no real ups and downs, no big dramas, blah blah blah, boring, loves to read but has never developed any taste in books and takes suggestions from others. This is intentional. She is, after all, a slate onto which fantasies are to be projected and as such, must be all but blank.

  • momly

    Shoot, Americans have Hooters Airlines!!

    At least we are more forthright about what we sell.

  • Withnails

    I’ll just say that the pose in the photo – her pulling on her cuff – accentuates both of her hands.

    What kind of job would she have to do with her hands….?

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