I Love Lucy is one of the most legendary and popular situation comedies of all time, maintaining its ability to charm audiences even half a century later. The show follows the life of Lucy Ricardo, a zany housewife in 1950s New York City as she attempts to break into show business, defy her husband or just keep life interesting through a series of schemes and mishaps. Showcasing the exceptional comedic talents of its star, Lucille Ball, the show has a timeless ability to entertain. In addition to its entertainment value, the show’s 1950s setting provides a rich point of cultural critique. It has been accused of reinforcing patriarchal norms and being degrading to women. In viewing the show with a contemporary perspective, these accusations have some undeniable legitimacy. Lucy and her best friend Ethel are often consumed by petty, material desires; they are frequently depicted as incompetent; their messes are usually cleaned up by their more sensible, authoritative husbands. Still, what messages in I Love Lucy speak the loudest? Do Lucy Ricardo’s never-quite-successful schemes as a housewife overshadow Lucille Ball’s professional success as a businesswoman, comedian and actress? Despite the show’s outward adherence to some of the patriarchal ideology of the times, I Love Lucy was a vehicle for Lucille Ball to empower women, both within and outside the world of the show.
To understand the enormous success of I Love Lucy, it is important to ground the show in the context of the early to mid 1950s in America. The postwar era in the late 1940s and early 1950s brought a rise in suburban living. The single-family home, the nuclear family, and a strong patriarch made up the American ideal. The man of the home was the breadwinner, and his wife made the home and raised the children. In the wake of the war, upward mobility was the goal, and that meant more leisure time, consumer goods, and predictability. There was also a simultaneous desire for community and more privacy. Not coincidentally, this era marks the introduction of television’s tremendous and irreversible effect on American living. Television was the ultimate consumer product of its time. It addressed the conflicting desire for both connection and separateness; it allowed everyone with a television a connection to the goings-on of the outside world without having to leave the home. It also meant that people suddenly formed important parasocial relationships with the characters on TV shows. TV’s ability to entertain and engage compounded upon itself with the advent of many types of shows, including the situation comedy, or sitcom. Sitcoms involve a simple comedic premise with a recurring cast of characters, generally based in one primary location. While sitcoms existed as radio shows, this visual medium allowed for a more dynamic format that led to vastly greater popularity (Edgerton 128-30).
Meanwhile, film and radio actress Lucille Ball was being presented with the opportunity to star in her own TV show based on her hit radio show, My Favorite Husband. Because of their careers, she and her husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz, had been constantly dealing with the stresses of a long distance relationship since their marriage in 1940. She saw the start of the television show as an opportunity for she and Desi to work together; she wanted Desi, rather than actor Richard Denning, to play her husband. The couple set to work convincing CBS executives, who were skeptical because of Arnaz’s Cuban heritage, that this casting could be a success with the American people. Originally the show was set to be in vaudevillian style with the stars playing slightly altered versions of themselves, but the concept was repeatedly rejected by agencies. It was only when the concept was revised to make the stars into characters leading more relatable lives that the show was picked up (Doty 8). I Love Lucy premiered on Monday, October 15, 1951; within a few months, it was bringing over sixteen million viewers a week, and its popularity only continued to increase (Edgerton 132). Lucy ran as a half hour sitcom until May 1957, and as monthly hour-long specials from November 1957 until April 1961 (“Television and Gender” 87).
I Love Lucy episodes follow a fairly consistent format; Lucy either wants something or wants to hide something, and goes about pursuing her desire in an outrageous fashion. She is almost always joined by her best friend and landlord Ethel, usually aligned in opposition against their husbands, Ricky and Fred. Recurring themes include Lucy’s desire to enter show business, division of the sexes, Lucy’s jealousy, elaborate plans (and their undoing), traditional husband/wife conflicts, and the use of trickery.
The show emerged in the prefeminist 1950s, a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers – and little else. They were not valued for their intelligence nor were they encouraged to achieve any sort of career success. Patriarchal dominance was at its most overt. The sharp increase of suburban housing, high marriage rates, the baby boom, greater importance placed on traditional gender roles, and a renewed emphasis on the value of the home all contributed to a “domestic revival” in the 1950s (“Television and Gender” 90). I Love Lucy was a product of this time, and evidence of sexist gender representation within its episodes is abundant. Many arguments have been made that the show is, overall, degrading to women and reinforces the patriarchal ideology of the 1950s.
Alexander Doty argues that, because of the delicate but critical task of making Arnaz’s Cuban character Ricky sympathetic to a predominantly white audience, “whatever wit, poise, and accomplishment she possessed were winnowed out of Ball’s housewife role as Lucy, while linguistic incompetence, broad physical humor, and ineptitude were highlighted, allowing Arnaz’s Ricky to become a long-suffering, tolerant [paternal] figure” (9). He calls this “the beginning of the infantilization” of Lucy, and claims that many episodes are “almost brutally insistent on reinforcing this ‘woman-as-child’ cultural code” (9). He believes that this infantilization was a condition of Ball’s rise to stardom (16). In a book entitled Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience, Andrea L. Press separates television eras into prefeminist, feminist, and postfeminist. I Love Lucy fits into the prefeminist category. Women in prefeminist television shows are generally not portrayed as mature or independent. Instead, their identity is tightly interwoven with others in their families, particularly their husbands. They are also consistently placed in the private or domestic realm and almost never go forth into the public, male world of work. She frames Lucy’s comedic failures at the end of each episode as a process of “domestication,” and claims that the show’s value structure suggests that she is put back where she belongs, “relieved that Ricky welcomes her back and that she is spared the fully disastrous consequences of her mischief” (29).
In watching episodes of the show, the sexism and degradation towards women asserted by these scholars and others is evident. In an episode called “Lucy Thinks Ricky is Trying to Murder Her” (5 November 1951), Lucy gets so caught up in a murder mystery she is reading that she becomes convinced Ricky is plotting to murder her. At one point, Ricky slips sleeping powder into a drink for Lucy at Fred’s suggestion because she is “acting crazy.” Throughout the episode, messages about female simplicity and male dominance are reinforced. When everything is cleared up, Lucy is relieved to find out he only put sleeping powder (not poison) in her glass, embracing him as though it is the right of her husband to drug her. The pervading message of the episode is that reading books is dangerous for the fragile mind of a woman.
Other episodes are similarly troubling; “Be a Pal” (October 22, 1951) revolves around Lucy trying to recapture Ricky’s interest, following the advice of a book (written by a man) who suggests that when husbands aren’t showing their wives much attention, it is the fault of the wives for not putting enough effort into their appearance or doing other things wrong. In “Ricky’s Screen Test” (November 15, 1954), Lucy almost ruins Ricky’s chances of being cast in a Hollywood film because of her desire to steal the show herself. Lucy cannot or will not listen to the exasperated pleas of Ricky or the director of the screen test to stop turning around and making a show for the camera, despite the fact that the outcome of this screen test affects her chances of going to Hollywood just as much as Ricky’s. Lucy is frequently a victim of her own jealousy, such as in “Lucy is Envious” (March 29, 1954) when Lucy and Ethel are forced to perform a ridiculous stunt to fund the $500 they each accidentally pledged for charity. They refuse to back out of the pledge because it is so important to Lucy that the woman collecting the money, a school friend of Lucy’s who is extremely wealthy, continues to believe in Lucy’s success (which is really Ricky’s success, or perhaps Lucy’s success in finding a good husband). Ricky can’t understand it and tells her to be happy with what she has, pushing Lucy to be honest about her financial situation. Lucy merely waits for Ricky to leave the room to tell lies about being rich. The message here concerns Lucy’s shallow fixation on appearances and material wealth, contrasted with her husband’s more enlightened attitude.
Applied directly to episodes of the show, accusations of I Love Lucy reinforcing a patriarchal ideology seem difficult to refute. Lucy and Ethel are clearly depicted as the more foolish pair, with Ricky and Fred either being smart enough to stay out of the shenanigans the girls create, or, frequently, resolving the issue for them. Subscribing to this perspective is not difficult.
There is an alternative way to read the show, however. In an article about Lucy and its commodification, Lori Landay asserts that the show struck such a powerful chord with viewers because of the way it, particularly its main character, “dramatized and personified cultural conflicts about gender, marriage, and commodification” (“Millions ‘Love Lucy’” 26). The power of ideals represented on television persists today, even after decades of experience suggesting that these ideals are nothing more than fantasy; imagine the power of influence of the first ideal family life represented on television. These picture-perfect TV families depicted 1950s domesticity with none of the underlying conflict felt by many women at the time. I Love Lucy, on the other hand, portrayed a domesticity that was challenged by the woman of the house in her refusal to settle for the life of a housewife (“Television in the Home” 12-13). The show’s creators carefully balanced society’s perspectives on domesticity with their own, creating a television couple that lived by society’s accepted standards but which, in reality, was only possible through the rejection of those standards. Lucy was received so well because it challenged the strict gender roles of the domestic ideal, creating a televisual reality that more closely represented peoples’ day to day experiences. This is not to suggest that Lucy’s objective was to critique gender roles, just that it made use of comedy to this end. Sitcoms on American television are important points from which to reflect upon and develop ideas about culture. A unique power they possess is that they don’t need to recreate our reality, they need only create a reality the audience likes (“Television and Gender” 91). In this way, audiences can test out new social ideas from a safe distance, and may become accepting of perspectives they otherwise would not have considered, simply because they’re packaged in a way they like so much.
Such was the case with Lucy; the public not only accepted this defiance, they celebrated it. Lucy embodied the character of the “trickster.” “A trickster is a subversive, paradoxical fantasy figure who does what we cannot or dare not by moving between social spaces, roles, and categories that the culture has deemed oppositional.” Lucy pointed out the power relations between men and women, making it a participant in the proto-feminist mentality that was building in American culture at the time. Lucy’s attempts to escape the private, domestic realm and gain autonomy usually failed and became sources of amusement, but hints of equality in the Ricardo marriage shone through. Combined with audiences’ knowledge of the stars’ real life marriage and creative partnership, the possibility of a truly different and equal kind of marriage further called into question the “ideal” marriage of the time (“Millions ‘Love Lucy’” 26-7).
Andrea L. Press’s discussion of prefeminism and I Love Lucy pays special attention to the unique bond between Lucy and Ethel. She suggests that the show can be read as the story of the deep friendship of two women as they both deal with the oppression of the patriarchy of middle class living. They lack power and are confined to the private realm by their husbands, who wish to keep them there for their own security. The basis of conflict between the genders is the women’s struggle to break free and the men’s struggle to maintain control over them; in their constant scheming and plotting, Lucy and Ethel are creating a subculture of resistance. Their alliance has the potential to vicariously satisfy the desires of the women watching the show, who may wish to more actively resist the patriarchy in their own lives (Press 29-30).
In an article more generally about women’s subversive humor at this time, Nancy Walker contends that women’s humor about life in the domestic sphere indicates increasing resentment towards the expectations of society. This humor was not directly the call to action that led to the feminist movement of the 1960s, but it provided an outlet for women frustrated by the apparent futility of their lives (113).
Lucy Ricardo was a woman who, like so many of her female fans, was struggling against the confines of the domestic sphere. She had aspirations beyond the dull life of housework, and too much spirit to be the dutiful wife and mother so idealized in the 1950s. She was often talked to like a child. She worried about money, and her image, and making her husband happy. Sometimes. She loved her husband but also had to sneak around him because he wouldn’t let her do everything she wanted to do – and she had to do it. Women in the 1950s needed a woman who shared their problems to identify and rebel with. What use would a woman completely free of those problems be to them?
Lucille Ball represented a tangible alternative to the lifestyle that so many women felt trapped by. Already a movie and radio star, Ball co-founded Desilu Productions with her husband in 1948 and started I Love Lucy when she was forty years old. She was truly the star; every episode revolved around her, showcasing her talents as a physical comedian, actress, and occasionally vaudeville performer (Edgerton 132). It was at her insistence and diligence that Desi was cast as Ricky in spite of network executives’ worries about the public’s reaction to his Cuban heritage. Rather than letting pregnancy get in the way of her career, she made it work in her, and the show’s favor. She was the first openly pregnant woman ever to perform on television, and she and Arnaz refused to hide her pregnancy on the show, instead using her food cravings and their hopes and worries as new parents as sources of comedy. She was an example of a pregnant woman who continued to work, and was shown to be capable despite her physical limitations (“Television and Gender” 94-95).
It was the combination of Lucy and Lucille that made such an empowering example for women. The public’s knowledge of Ball and Arnaz’s marriage and creative partnership outside of the show lessened the gap (sometimes artificially so) between the identities of their on and off screen characters. Lucy was a woman whose life seemed almost in reach, and, by extension, Lucille’s life became more grounded in reality. Together, Lucy and Lucille showed women what was possible in their lives by being sympathetic to their struggles but also suggesting that they are capable of overcoming those struggles.
Doty says, “The grand, and somewhat troubling, irony behind the series’ conflation of the infantile and the female through its characterization of Lucy through her various ‘lacks’ is that Ball became an empowered subject/comedy star as the result of her skillful and entertaining depiction of Lucy’s disenfranchisement as an object of humor” (10). Walker, however, says of self-deprecating female comedy in the postwar era: “The overt message embodies acceptance of the role society has assigned; daily life is presented as an elaborate game with the woman as the perpetually amused loser – defeated, smiling, by a world that constantly demands more than she can handle. Yet beneath the façade of the humor is a serious challenge to societal expectations” (112-3). What message did the show’s run ultimately communicate: that women are foolish and incompetent when they try to venture beyond the private sphere as demonstrated by Lucy Ricardo, or that women can be talented, self-sufficient individuals with hugely successful careers and families as demonstrated by Lucille Ball? In trying to reconcile the overt problems with gender representation in Lucy, it is important to consider the show in relation to the culture at the time. The sexism is hard to watch and is certainly not a positive thing, but we cannot put the responsibility of the cultural climate of the time on I Love Lucy. It merely used that cultural climate as its backdrop. While discussing the representational failures of this and other shows is important so that we can identify the messages embedded in the media we watch, we also need to stay cognizant of the fact that television is a slave to its audience. The only messages that can get across to viewers are either ones they want to hear, or ones packaged in such a way that captivates the viewer. If they don’t like the message, the show gets canceled. A comedy about a woman in equal partnership with her husband who is strong, intelligent, and independent could not have succeeded in the 1950s. As positive as that message is, it would not have reached anyone because it would be too foreign for audiences at the time.
Gender representation on sitcoms has certainly drastically changed on a surface level since I Love Lucy’s time on air, but upon closer examination it seems that the patriarchal ideology remains intact. An analysis of the “mismatched couple” premise so common in sitcoms of the last decade or so, in which the husband is fat and ugly and the wife is hot and smart, draws this conclusion. Where Ricky once would have called Lucy stupid, there is a hot wife telling her fat husband that he’s being an idiot. This role reversal, at least in the area of intelligence and behavior, might seem to indicate a more positive representation of women, but the shows employing this dynamic ultimately reinforce an idea that has not evolved since its more overt days on I Love Lucy (Walsh, Fürsich, Jefferson 124). This ideology is so normalized in our culture that we often don’t notice it. The analysis focuses on two “mismatched couple” shows, King of Queens and According to Jim. In these shows, blatantly sexist comments are made but are countered by some sort of witty or ironic response from a female character, indicating that these comments are not meant to be taken seriously. The problem is that this process implicitly reinforces male dominance by making it normal or even humorous (126). Furthermore, despite the husband’s ineptitude, the wife always, ultimately, submits to his dominant behavior (130). These shows appear to, and may even believe they have advanced beyond the gender representation patterns of the 1950s, but have only sublimated the issue, making it more difficult to identify. By doing this, they remove the possibility of women within the world of the show rebelling against the ideology. While representing women as simple and foolish such as on I Love Lucy isn’t helpful, neither is trying to distract them from the real issue by giving them the appearance of power. Issues of gender representation are far from being resolved, but can at least be helped by the portrayal of a woman dealing with the same problems as her viewers.
I used to watch I Love Lucy on Nick at Nite when I was a kid and I’ve loved it ever since. Before this paper, I hadn’t seen an episode in at least ten years, but in that time I was surprised to hear criticisms of the show for its sexism. I didn’t remember any of that. I see it now, very clearly, but even still stand by my assertion that its overall effect on women was empowering. I believe that messages, no matter how right they are, cannot be communicated effectively when forced. I Love Lucy was a product of its time. That is exactly why it succeeded. The fact that people loved it made their minds that much more open to the ideas it presented, and I believe many of those messages were positive. To me, most of the negative aspects of the show concerning gender representation were necessary to let the positive aspects into the minds of the audience. My own interest is in using film to educate people about cultures and ideas different from their own, and I recognize that engaging my audience either through entertainment or their emotions is the most effective way to influence their perspective. I am constantly trying to learn how best to communicate to people. For this reason, I see I Love Lucy’s balancing act as a valuable example from which to learn. They appealed to such a broad audience, which meant two things: first, that they communicated to a lot of people; second, that their ideas were diluted enough that they remained palatable to most. I struggle with the idea of this trade off, unsure where I believe more weight should go. Of course, I Love Lucy had a much different agenda than I will in my future films, but it is a concrete example to analyze, whether or not it ever had that intention.
I Love Lucy is not a perfect show, but in the context of the culture at large at the time of its production, it displays many progressive qualities having to do with gender representation. Lucy’s constant defiance of Ricky was made acceptable by its entertainment value and the reassertion of male dominance at the conclusion of every episode, but the audience knew Lucy would defy him again in the next episode. This conflict spoke to the tensions widely felt around the newly developed model of domesticity in postwar America. In total opposition to societal gender expectations, Lucille Ball was not only the life force of the show, but also a producer and outstanding physical comedian. The combination of the “Lucy” and “Lucille” personas made her a sympathetic and truly empowering example for women. Lucy/Lucille’s influence persists today in how we view gender representations, how women see themselves, and how we educate others.