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Air Traffic Control and Gender Performativity

Michelle Bennett



Eng. 257

Gender and Technology

NOTE: Please click on the link below for the SNL “Fran and Freba” skit I refer to in my paper:

Fran and Freba


There are numerous ideas surrounding the presence of women in a technological career field. Some scientists and theorists believe that a female presence in the technological field is negative, either because they believe women are biologically ill-equipped for such a career, or because they believe women are required to surrender their femininity in order to attain career success and advancement. The former concern is somewhat affirmed by Larry Cahill in his scientific article, “His Brain, Her Brain.” The latter concern is addressed directly by women, as illustrated by a poll done by the National Air Traffic Control Association. However, the analysis of a skit performed on NBC’s Saturday Night Live may convey attitudes contrary to the aforementioned beliefs. This multilayered skit suggests the possibility for the presence of a hyper-feminine woman in what is commonly considered a technological, and therefore somewhat masculinized, workplace.

The career field of air traffic controller is characterized by its heavy reliance upon and interaction with technological equipment, as well as the necessity for concentration, good memory, intelligence, and decisiveness, because of the stressful nature of the work:

The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of several aircraft and their passengers can be exhausting. Unlike tower controllers, radar controllers also have the extra stress of having to work in semi-darkness, never seeing the actual aircraft they control except as a small “bleep” on the radarscope. Controllers who work in flight service stations work in offices close to the communications and computer equipment. (BLS)


One could extrapolate from this information that many who subscribe to the stereotypes about women, mainly their inability to handle stress and their being prone to anxiety disorders, may believe that women are ill suited for such a career. Cahill writes about studies done on rats and stress, the conclusions of which he connects to humans:

…a brief exposure to a series of one-second tail shocks enhanced performance of a learned task and increased the density of dendritic connections to other neurons in male rats yet impaired performance and decreased connection density in female rats. Findings such as these have interesting social implications. The more we discover about how brain mechanisms of learning differ between the sexes, the more we may need to consider how optimal learning environments potentially differ for boys and girls.


Following Cahill’s thought process, it could be concluded that a female air traffic controller would be less adept at functioning and at such crucial tasks as decision making than a male air traffic controller. Such conclusions as this have led to the exclusion, to some degree, of women from careers like air traffic control. It is perhaps in response to these thoughts that many women who enter a career in a technological field sometimes feel they must disguise or replace their femininity with a masculine persona. This perception correlates somewhat to the description of liberal feminism that Keith Grint and Rosalind Gill provide in their text, The Gender-Technology Relation; “…liberal feminists have been preoccupied with the challenges which women will have to make, and have left masculinity unchallenged. The male is treated as the norm, and women are supposed to adopt masculine ways of relating to technology” (Gill & Grint, 7). Certain women in the air traffic control profession affirm the presence of a new, perhaps tougher, kind of woman. A survey conducted by the National Air Traffic Control Association found that the popular attitude was this: “Everyone agreed they are not intimidated working primarily with men. ‘The women who become controllers are not your average female [sic]. Most of them can hold their ground and are not bothered by being in the minority,’ commented one woman” (Ninety-Nines). This speculation of a different kind of woman who can “hold her ground,” of a deviation from “your average female,” affirms the concept brought forward by liberal feminism, that in order to interact with technology, a woman must masculinize herself. Many believe that a feminine woman working in a technological field is impossible because by rejecting technology, a woman is “doing femininity” (Gill & Grint, 11). Cynthia Cockburn is quoted in Gill and Grint’s text as supposing “For a woman to enter into the technological field…may be to forsake her very sense of femininity” (16). These perspectives render “successful” femininity, or the successful coexistence of femininity and technology, impossible, because of the nature of “doing femininity,” of performing one’s femininity by rejecting technology.

     However, the skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, entitled “Fran and Freba,” plays with the concept of successful femininity and female gender performance of two female air traffic controllers in a male-dominated workplace. There are various levels of performance in the skit, the most obvious being that it is a skit being performed by hired actors. The star power of Neil Patrick Harris as Freba draws attention to this level of performance, as he is widely known. His presence in the skit rouses an unusual kind of enjoyment, because the audience sees him in a role that presumably deviates from his typical gender association. His homosexuality is popularly known, but he often plays roles in film or television of men who are sex-crazed womanizers. However, in this skit we see him assume the hyper-feminine role of Freba, a southern air traffic controller who gossips, primps, and watches her diet. By creating this hyper-feminine figure, the skit plays with the idea previously suggested by the NACTA survey, that women must be somehow tougher or more masculine than the feminine stereotype in order to be respected.

Men are said to be brought closer together through their shared proficiency in technology; ” ‘It is evident that men identify with technology and through their identification with technology form bonds with one another'” (qtd. in Gill & Grint, 11). The same seems to be true for Fran and Freba in the skit, because although they are exaggeratedly feminine in their mannerisms, to the point where their nails sometimes hinder them from carrying out quotidian tasks like opening a soda can, they effortlessly do their jobs successfully, even saving a commercial plane from crashing. They maintain a sense of calm throughout, a trait not typically attributed to the female gender, as we have seen suggested in Cahill’s article.

While it is evident that many women feel incompetent or disrespected in the workplace unless they abandon their femininity for more “masculine” traits, NBC’s Saturday Night Live skit perhaps idealistically suggests the harmonious coexistence between femininity and technological proficiency. The comedy in the skit perhaps lies on some level in the perceived impossibility of this suggestion.


Works Cited

Cahill, Larry. “His Brain, Her Brain.” Scientific American. 24 February 2009.

“Fran and Freba.” Saturday Night Live. Season 34 Episode 12. NBC. 10 January 2009.

Gill, Rosalind and Grint, Keith. “Introduction.” The Gender-Technology Relation: Contemporary Theory and Research. Bristol: Taylor & Francis, 1995. 1-28.

The Ninety-Nines: Women &ATC. The Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots. 24 February 2009.

Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Dept. of Labor. 24 February 2009. <>


One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 16, 2009

    You’ve done something very ambitious and complicated here: weaving together Cahill’s work on the difference between male and female brains both w/ research done on female air traffic controllers’ self-perception about gender performance, and a comedic skit about the same. You’ve covered a lot of territory, and raised a lot of questions for me.

    First: given the very expanded definition of “technology” we have been using in this class, as anything “artful” or “skillfully made,” I’m puzzed by your use of the phrase “technological career field.” What is that?

    Second: how do you understand the relationship between humor and thinking beyond “what is” to what “might be”?

    I can imagine (at least three) possibilities:
    * Humor is conservative: it enables us to live in situations we find unacceptable, reconciles us to the painful, unacceptable, or tragic aspect of our condition. According to Gershon Legman, jokes defuse (and so perpetuate) highly charged situations; the laughter of relief can make such situations endurable.
    * Humor is revolutionary, in line with Leonore Tiefer’s examination of political humor, which has a social awareness and a clear social purpose: that of social change. Satire, in her terms, is a form of resistance against oppression, and offers the hope of an alternative. Humor inverts reality, rather than helping us accept it, by calling attention to the incongruous.
    * Humor can function to open up a space for newness–new thoughts, new behaviors–by surprising the hearer of a joke into examining her previous conceptions. This notion builds on Tiefer’s analysis; but according to Sarah Friedman (BMC ’03, who articulated it) what is important here is the audience’s willingness to receive a joke, to be in a mindset to play….

    Third: which of these possibilities does the Saturday Night Live skit play with? Which do you play with, in your analysis? You conclude by saying that the skit “perhaps idealistically suggests the harmonious coexistence between femininity and technological proficiency,” but also that its comedy may lie “in the perceived impossibility of this suggestion.” So what political work is the skit—and are you—doing, in using humor?

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