“Invasion of the Airline Stewardesses” by Erika Ritter (Canada)

From its first appearance in English literature (in the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Dream of the Rood”) to the present, the dream vision has been the traditional vehicle by which an ordinary person becomes the bearer of important news—often a warning of some future event—to others.   In Invasion of the Airline Stewardesses  Erika Ritter infuses this vehicle with her own parodic wit, poking fun at the popularity of the film on which the piece is based, at airline jargon, and perhaps even at her own irritable reaction to that jargon.  But her “haunting airborne dream” can also be seen as a serious dream vision, albeit “specially designed [for our] listening pleasure.”  Although she refuses to preach, Ritter seems to be genuinely concerned about the invasion of jargon and meaningless phrases into our language, and has chosen a memorable confection to let us know of that concern—a confection that both entertains and persuades.

  1. Read Alden Nowlan’s “A Matter of Etiquette” from Between Tears and Laughter. Nowlan makes the point that while the kind of language we might use when addressing the Queen is very different from the kind of language we might use when digging a sewer, each has its own “prescribed sentences” that are accompanied by “formalized gestures.”  Many cartoons are based on a situation in which a certain kind of discourse is used in a totally inappropriate context.  See any copy of The New Yorker or any of Gary Larson’s Far Side collections.
  2. Construct responses with other students to the question, “How are you?” in the following situations:
  • in the school corridor, your principal asks….
  • in his/her office, your doctor asks…
  • at breakfast, your mother asks…
  • after a regular practice at school, your coach asks…
  • on the sidewalk after school, your best friend asks…

Think of additional situations and responses.

Erika Ritter, 1948—

Although Ritter’s education and much of her writing is as a playwright, she is becoming increasingly known as a humorist.  Her recent collection of short writings “Ritter in Residence” was a commercial success and her short stories have earned her a reputation as one of Canada’s funniest women writers.  Born in Regina, Ritter attended McGill University for her degree in English literature and then attended the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama.  Starting in 1970 she taught drama at Loyola College in Montreal but turned her attention to writing in 1973.  Her first play, A Visitor from Charleston,  received poor reviews, but two of her later efforts, The Splits and Automatic Pilot,  were commended for their witty dialogue and vibrant characters:  the latter play won the Chalmers Award in 1980.  Ritter has also written for television and radio, and has published many short stories in magazines.

Exploring the Text

  1. After you have read this piece, respond to it in your journal.  You may wish to take some of the following questions into consideration:
    • What impression of this piece did you have when you read the first five paragraphs?  Did it feel like a story?  If not, explain why.
    • When you were half way through, did you have any idea of where the story was going?
    • Do you enjoy Ritter’s style?  If you do, describe the passages you enjoyed most.  If you don’t, explain why.  Have you read any other works that had a similar tone?  Explain.
  2. Describe the dominant tone of this piece—or is there more than one tone?  Explain.  What do you think was Ritter’s aim in writing it?  Evaluate her success in achieving her aims.
  3. Ritter satirizes the “kind of meaningless adjective-noun” phrase so much admired by commercial airlines. Working with at least two other people reread this piece, collecting as many examples as you can of such jargon.  Airline staff, of course, are not the only people who use meaningless, ambiguous phrases:  so do some psychologists, some educators, some business people, characters on some television shows, and many advertisers.  Join up with a few other students so there are four or five groups in the class.  Work with your group to collect examples of such phrases over a one-week period.  Arrange your findings in an eye-catching bulletin-board display.  Make certain you do not give viewers the idea that these are admirable phrases!

Personal Response

Imagine that your mind is being invaded by a flight attendant but the transformation is not complete.  You don’t quite know what is happening but you know you are not always in control of what comes out of your mouth or of what you write.  Assume you are writing to a close friend to describe a recent game, part, or trip.  Write the letter.  Before you begin, decide whether you are aiming for comedy, pathos, or horror.


Watch the 1978 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers . Watch special effects—music, camera techniques, sound effects, juxtaposition of scenes, etc.—are used to create horror? Rewrite one of the scenes from Ritter’s piece to create an atmosphere of horror, script it, and then try the results on videotape or audiotape.


The profession of flight attendant is not, of course, the only one that has its own peculiar language; every job does.  Working with four other students, create a situation in which a number of people with different jobs/professions might be talking in a group:  a traffic accident, a community meeting, a home and school meeting, etc.  Be very specific about the nature of the situation.  Each of the group members should privately select a profession and take a day or two to think about and/or research the kind of language people in that profession use.  When the group next convenes, get into role and discuss the chosen situation with the others.  Remember, you have an opinion to express but you also have to respond to the others in-role.  Try not to stereotype.  After the exercise, see if the others in the group can guess your role.  Did you feel you were convincing in your role?  When did you find it most challenging?

“Invasion of the Airline Stewardess” and “Fairy Tale” Essay

In Invasion of the Airline Stewardess, Ritter remarks on a group of employees, almost exclusively female, who are at once denatured, defined, and curiously empowered by the ersatz language they speak.  In Fairy Tale, Elliott portrays a writer who builds a world, a family, asocial life, that runs exactly the way she wants it to; but not for long, for even her characters rebel, leave, fade out.  Compare what Ritter and Elliott seem to be saying about women, words, and power.  Do you think either story (or both) would work as well if the stewardesses were stewards, or the “good woman” were a “good man”? Explain.