Some may argue with the title. Some might say that, while funny, I Love Lucy, and its star Lucille Ball, is not truly feminist. Lucy Ricardo was constantly thwarted in all her attempts to break out of the domesticated role of housewife. Her failures were gloriously embarrassing, and her desire to be a star seemed to overshadow any real talent she may or may not have had. Were we laughing with her, or at her? Was she a woman who quixotically tried and consistently failed to be more than society told her to be? And if so, what did that say, that millions of viewers tuned in every week to watch her flounder and laugh out loud at her? Even off-screen, where she and her husband helped to create the show and owned the production company, which she would later run herself, making her the first woman to run a production studio; she was still surrounded by men and some have implied that her position as head was nominal. So, was Lucy Ricardo, or Lucille Ball, really a feminist?
Here’s why I say yes. I Love Lucy was first and foremost a comedy show, with a woman as the lead, and her husband a Cuban-American, with an notable accent. The fact that they had a show at all was pretty ground-breaking for 1950s America. They even wrote in a pregnancy (which followed Ball’s real-life pregnancy), despite the fact that pregnancy was a major taboo at the time. Remember, this was the era of husbands and wives sleeping in separate beds (incidentally, the Ricardo’s began the show sleeping in two single beds pushed together – until they separated them post-pregnancy). The producer brought in a priest, a rabbi and a pastor to vet all the pregnancy episodes to make sure they weren’t offensive. They never even said the word pregnancy (they said “expecting”). This was the era the show was born in. Family shows were great, as long as they didn’t remind anyone of the sex that made them a family. Which makes me love the opening image of the show that much more. I’m pretty sure that’s a rumpled silk sheet behind that heart that says “I Love Lucy.”
The origin of the show itself is a great story. Lucille Ball had a successful radio show that was basically the concept for what would become I Love Lucy. When she was asked to take it to television, she insisted her real-life husband play her on-screen one too. Again, since this was the early 50s, the studios feared Desi Arnaz would be “too ethnic” and told them no. So, Lucy and Desi created their own version and took it on the road. People loved it, enough so to prove to the studio executives that they should allow Lucy and Desi Arnaz to play Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Six seasons later, the show was the most popular to date. For 4 of its 6 seasons it was #1 and never slipped below #3. Indeed, nearly everyone loved Lucy.
Was she a colossal failure at nearly everything she tried? Yes. Did audiences laugh out loud at her antics? Yes. Did she do things women of that day never ever did on screen? Yes. Was she main reason everyone tuned in every week? Yes. Did she, maybe just maybe, subversively remind audiences that women have desires and ambitions too? Yes she did. Was she fearless about her comedy? Definitely. Ball said it herself, about her early entertainment days. She was a model and a “Goldwyn Girl,” which required her to be beautiful, which she also did well. When something came along that called for falls and other physical forms of risk-taking, many of which insured that the actress would not look beautiful in the end, none of the other woman would do it. Ball did though, and thank goodness she did. Lucille Ball the actress was not an off-the-cuff actor either. She was known to rehearse all details of her performance for hours. She took her craft of comedy seriously, and it paid off. More people watched the episode where Little Ricky is born than watched President Eisenhower’s inaugural address – some 44 million viewers, or 72% of the television-viewing population.
The show holds up, and not all classic comedies do. I just watched some episodes over the weekend (thank you Hallmark Channel) and still laughed out loud. They never break from the formula of Lucy trying to break the rules only to fail in a crazy way, so you know the routine; and you watch it because they execute it so well. The pioneered the three-camera sitcom, still in use today, and do so with a very high level of skill. That audience laughing in the background? It was live. When Lucy and Ethel are frantically stuffing chocolates into their mouths and down their shirts and in their bags, the live audience is responding to the actors and the expertly written script. Considering again, that this was an era where women hardly ever ate at all on screen, and certainly did not shove food down their shirts, the envelope-pushing in that scene is amazing. Of course, as Kurt Andersen notes in his fabulous show about I Love Lucy, Lucy does it all while wearing pearls. Let us not forget that Ms. Ball, a brilliantly zany comedienne, was truly a class act. In fact, I think that element, of her wearing pearls while shamelessly hiding chocolate balls in her bra, says a lot about I Love Lucy. It was a show both of its time, and beyond its time. It’s these moments – Lucy stomping the grapes, or mirroring Harpo Marx – that live on in our collective memory. Sixty years after the show began, after civil rights, gay rights, and two more waves of feminism, you can still say Vitameatavegemin, and people will get the reference.
Neither Lucille Ball nor Lucy Ricardo ever gave Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan a run for the title of most influential feminist. What Ms. Ball did do though, through the antics of Lucy, was allow space for women to be funny, and to get dirty and messy and ugly doing so. Maybe it helped that Lucy was pretty in other scenes, but the fact remains that millions of viewers loved Lucy because Lucille Ball was an incredibly talented comedienne. Comedy is still largely a man’s world today, so I doubt it was easier back then. The pearls just make it look easy.
I couldn’t write this blog without including a clip from the show, so here you are…