Friday, September 27, 2013

America Loves I Love Lucy: Dear Feminists, What’s Not To Love?

By Hillary Miller – TV Criticism 2013  

During the 1920's, the advent of first wave feminism was in full force. Women's right to vote became an important historical moment that generated a hurdling snowball effect: initiating change for women’s rights and motivating future generations to continually fight. However, second wave feminism did not reach full momentum until the 1970's. So then what happened in the time in between? What did society think of women during this time? With this generational shift of the post-industrial period and the exposition of new technology such as television and new appliances, new outlooks shifted new ways of living. [4] Yet, because of the pressures of stability and domestic life values constantly being reinforced after the war, the 1950's left women still subordinate to their male counterparts. And, one medium in particular, television, displayed and reflected this identity of women. Further establishing their norms and expectations during the 1950's to Americans through the coming of age of sitcom comedies. For that reason, analyzing a show such as I Love Lucy, helps explain what representations were enabling and/or restraining to women during the 1950's; and, how these female representations effected the second wave feminist movement in the 1970's and for future family comedy sitcoms.  

To introduce, I Love Lucy stars Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo and Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo; and they portray a typical 1950's married couple. Lucy stays at home attending to housewife duties while Ricky leaves to work as a successful bandleader (And they were actually a married couple in real life when the show was airing. Talk about stressful!) The show also stars Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz and William Frawley as Fred Mertz, both Lucy and Ricky’s married landlords and friends. The basic storyline for every episode follows the life of Lucy wanting to be more fulfilled by her trapped domestic housewife duties and dreaming to one day to be in showbiz, like Ricky. Yet, Ricky tries to stop Lucy from her dreams at all possible and at the conclusion of each episode, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred stop her failed attempts. From this, each resolution concludes that Lucy is merely fit for domestic life and show business is not for her, a restraining factor to her independent dreams. However, on the surface of the show, Ricky’s identity is the major patriarchal authoritative figure disciplining Lucy by controlling her money, her time, and her decisions, while Lucy’s identity remains a reiteration of the obedient housewife. And there are many striking examples that illustrate how Ricky disciplines Lucy when she gets into trouble. [5] Even in one episode, “The Black Wig,” where Ricky even goes as far as explaining why Lucy cannot get an “Italian haircut” (short hairstyle on a woman). Ricky explains and says, “All people in the world are divided into two groups…men and women.” Lucy laughs and he explains further, “Now, men have short hair, and women have long hair. That’s the difference between them […] I don’t want my son to be confused, he should know whether he should call you mother or father.” She then walks away and exclaims back, “Oh men…you make me sick!” [5] By this, Lucy is simply allowing the offensive line against a woman to get through, because Ricky says what he thinks and there is no changing that. Although, Lucy is not a woman to let Ricky get to her so she has the last line to anything he says and makes that distinctly apparent.  

       Essentially, underneath the surface level of Lucy's identity remains a very complex character. She positions herself on (and off) the show as a fighting woman going against the patriarchal patterns set before her by her predecessors. It is strongly apparent she is different and wants to be different than the other housewives during this era, such as Jean Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963). As explained by Feminist Andrea Press, “[…] in pre-feminist television women were rarely shown to be mature, independent individuals, yet some characters, such as Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy, offered a subtext of resistance.”[1] And there are episodes that show these progressive attempts and Lucy's acts of resistance that should be taken into consideration. Especially with the scriptwriting, because it was known that the writers would famously ask “What does Lucy want this week? What does she want to do and who’s going to keep her from it getting it and what’s she going to get into?”[2] Which led to famous episodes, such as the one that took on a feminist viewpoint of why couldn’t a woman do a man’s job? Thus, the episode “Job Switching” aired where Lucy and Ethel try to prove a point to Ricky and Fred after Ricky states, “There’s two different kinds of people in this world, they are the earners and the spenders, formerly known as husbands and wives.” [5] While Ricky is merely depreciating Lucy and Ethel’s positions, they both offer to go job-hunting while Ricky and Fred stay home and cook dinner. An innovative idea Lucy wanted and a potential enabling factor to show that women can do a man’s job and vice versa. But, as a situation comedy would have it, both end disastrously. Lucy and Ethel are fired from a chocolate candy factory job for being too slow and Ricky and Fred make over four pounds of rice and spill it all over the kitchen floor. From this episode’s resolution, the meaning-making process is that both husbands and wives are not typically meant for their spouses’ jobs and remain dependent on each other’s gendered roles in order to get through life together. However, the mere fact that Lucy fought to try to prove her point is enabling factor on its own and should be recognized.
     Yet, one striking question that is continually asked remains: if they have a typical 1950's marriage and traditional patriarchal relationship, what makes this sitcom still funny to this day? Likewise, how are viewers still laughing at the storylines in modern times, where we are more advanced in equality among the sexes? (Supposedly…) To answer briefly, a universal situation comedy allows Lucy to be the frontrunner where she is given some agency in her antics and mishaps without offending too many viewers on politically sensitive subjects. Basically, the humor derived from the situation comedy is when, “the comedian, and all of his or her kind…provide a situation which allows each of us a bit of transcendence; [that is] designed to make sport of those situations, events, and taboos that lie heaviest upon us…”[1] Lucy is the transcendence factor; she is the funny one getting into mishaps and tough situations, while Ricky remains the stern character and the one getting her out of them. With Lucy, her personal agency is conflicted with Ricky’s own motives to keep Lucy at home. However, she still has the power to fight back with Ricky and tries to prove her points by always taking the situations in her own hands. This is how Lucy maintains her enabling representation throughout the show. For Lucy, it becomes impossible for her to get anywhere in the end since she has to be saved by Ricky for the resolution to occur. Which, nevertheless, places Lucy back in her subordinate position she had at the beginning. However, the humor is derivative from Lucy’s opposing actions of how an obedient housewife should act. And for Lucy, negating the obedient housewife image bestows her more power to take part in the jokes and create jokes for herself; So Lucy is laughing at herself, while we are laughing with her. (All the more power to you, Lucy!)  

Without a doubt, the I Love Lucy series is one of the first ever situation comedies that took over American households. In the beginning, the show received recognition by Life magazine by making the cover as “TV’s First Family.” [3] Then fast forward to the show’s six-year season span, it won five out of its twenty-three Emmy award nominations. And, had a Nielsen rating of number one for four out of its six seasons. [4] It’s safe to say millions of families could not wait to watch segments of Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred. And, it is not hard to understand why I Love Lucy was so successful. Keeping a safe distance from political and controversial topics, and continuing with the situation comedy let Americans enjoy the era they were living in; even though equality over men and women was more of a joke to be laughed at. However, Lucy showed that females could take power in producing their own jokes by not following the rules of patriarchy so stringently. (Progressive, right?) Then with the turn of the feminist movements throughout the 1970's sitcoms, with shows airing such as All in the Family (1971-1979) were slowly progressing towards recognizing the female voice. These shows started addressing the issues of women’s rights and feminism that I Love Lucy paved the way for by fighting against patriarchal views. Even though Lucy and television women to follow were still pinned as the joke, they were still making progress in fighting to make their voice heard. Yet, the idea of television is that as many shows have tried, “Television [merely] allows for the expression of a feminist critique, but represses feminisms’ potential for radical social change.”[1] And, by knowing that social change takes more than a television sitcom, I Love Lucy was still successful for pushing limitations placed before its time. Ultimately, Lucy was entertaining, charming, and fought against patriarchal views in order to prove she could be different in her own right. And for that, we thank you, Lucy. 

[1] Spangler, Lynn C. (2003). "Chapter 1: Life with Television." Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger.
[2] Stempel, T. (1992). Storytellers to the Nation. New York, NY: Continuum.
[3] “TV’s First Family,” (1953). Life magazine, April 6, 1953. Cover. New York: Time, Inc.,
[4] “Creation of the Television Code of 1952.” History Matters.
            [5] Extra Clips:
“Job Switching” I Love Lucy. Season 2. Episode 1. 9-15-52.
“The Black Wig” I Love Lucy. Season 3. Episode 26. 4-19-54.
Ricky disciplining Lucy  
(Warning: not the best quality)

1 comment:

  1. I really liked your inclusion of the history of the feminism movement to illustrate the time period of this show. It showed a lot of good background information, and it tells how feminist ideology and sexism presented during this sitcom.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.