Saturday, February 19, 2011

I Love Lucy: In Rare Praise of its Lady Parts

I was raised on I Love Lucy.  I know all about how it revolutionized the way television was filmed, and how it was the first modern sitcom.  I know about how it was shocking that Lucy McGillicuddy would be married to a Cuban, and how it was too scandalous to say the word "pregnant" on TV and so they had to say "enceinte" instead.  And most of all, I know that it is a damn funny television show, even today.

All of these things are kind of embedded into my brain about the legacy of the show, and for the most part, they are the headlining characteristics that move it into iconic territory.

But it occurred to me, recently, that "I Love Lucy" is not often praised in the realm of feminism.  Why is this?  The fact of the matter is that "I Love Lucy" put a kickass female lead on our screens before we even knew what a kickass female lead was.

It's true that television has been kinder than movies when it comes to female main characters.  We're spoiled by Mary Tyler Moore and Liz Lemon and Buffy Summers and Murphy Brown and countless other leading ladies who have carved out a niche for themselves in feminist television history.  But Lucy Ricardo was the first, and it seems like she rarely gets credit for that.  

Let's take a look: the basic premise of "I Love Lucy" is Lucy, herself.  She is the main character - all of the action revolves around her.  Yes, she is a housewife, but the show is not about the home she keeps - rather, it's about the ways in which she tries to break out of it and into show business.  She has hare-brained schemes and she makes a fool of herself.  She dresses up like men, statues, clowns, Superman, sexy women, toothless women - you name it, she's imitated it.  While she is often the subject of folly, she's never the butt of any jokes.  She wisecracks as well as slapsticks.  

She is a loving wife, and although her relationship is not perfect, her husband loves her.  She has a healthy female friendship.  Hell, a national television event was made of her becoming a mother.  But she is not just those things.  She has opinions, and holds just as much influence in her marriage as Ricky does.  She successfully embodied all of the realistic spheres of a women's life without making any overt statements, one way or the other, about a "woman's place," or making her seem two-dimensional as a character.

Some might argue that the show repeatedly denies Lucy entrance into show business or the workplace, and in doing so, puts for the message that she should stay at home to be a housewife.  However, I find this to be a somewhat unforgiving interpretation.  A character doesn't have to be progressive or outwardly feminist in order for the show to have a positive role model for women.  These days, it seems that the fight against gender roles manifests itself in direct rebellion - we see a lot of female characters who fight physically, or speak out against sexism, or who simply make decisions with a far more progressive point of view.  Don't get me wrong; I love all of those characters.  But most of them are a product of their times, in the years during and following women's liberation, where female roles are reacting to what was traditionally expected of them.

By the same token, we could expect that Lucy Ricardo would be a complete product of her own times - a housewife, a homemaker, with wants and desires limited by the walls of her family life.  But the fact of the matter is that Lucy is not.  She is presented to us as being ambitious, and hard-working, and she usually manages to find a way to achieve her goals despite the obstacles.  Even if she's still making dinner for Ricky at the end of the episode, the idea that she has hopes and dreams bigger than homemaking - and even manages to accomplish some of them from time to time - is enough for me.

Besides, where would the comedy come from if we just let Lucy run free at Ricky's club?  That's no fun at all.  The basic premise of the show is that Lucy's ambitions often cannot be tamed, and at the end of the day, Ricky still loves her.  I'm pretty sure that's a solid pro-lady message right there.

It does seem, though, that this message in particular gets lost amidst the praise for Lucille Ball being a fearless and comedic force, and Desi Arnaz being a genius of television business and production.  But perhaps that's the true feminism of "I Love Lucy."  Lucy Ricardo defies her own context by being a well-rounded female character - a housewife at that - who is allowed to make mistakes, and be smart, and goofy, and loveable - and everyone just goes with it.  Because she's funny as hell.  No one says, "Lucille Ball is funny, for a woman," or, "Lucy Ricardo is funny - for a housewife."

"I Love Lucy" stands today as one of the most hilarious television shows ever, and it just happens to have a great female lead.  Of course, for the purpose of this piece, I do want to shed some light on the fact that Lucy Ricardo is indeed a positive portrayal of a strong female role, largely because no one else seems to.  But the idea that "I Love Lucy" is remembered for its main character being a comedic genius, and not for its main character being a woman, just reinforces my love for the show, and Lucille Ball.  Defying the standards of feminism is actually a pretty feminist thing to do.  

Originally, I was going to call this article "Lucille Ballsy," but decided against it because it sounded crass.  But now I'm thinking that perhaps it would have in fact been the best way to honor the sheer awesomeness of one of the funniest comedians - not comediennes - we've ever known.

1 comment:

  1. I was also raised watching I Love Lucy, and own the entire series on DVD. It never gets old! Your post really resonated with me. Thank you for sharing!


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