Practically everyone’s heard of I Love Lucy, a 1950s TV show about a crazy red-headed housewife (played by Lucille Ball) who is married to a Cuban band leader (played by Desi Arnaz). I personally never watched the TV show until here recently when, disgusted by even the family TV shows of today’s era and exhausting historical romance books with feminist heroines, my good friend Sanne over at Adventures in Keeping House suggested the show to me. I have to say that I love it and it will forever on be a favorite show of mine.
For the first season and half of the second season Lucy is a childless housewife, as is her best friend Ethel Mertz (played by Vivian Vance). There is never any shame in the fact that they are housewives who have never had children. Women in those days were not “stay at home moms,” they were simply housewives. The ethic that men were to support their wives (as well as the legal obligation upon them to do so) still existed whether there were children in the marital union or not. Of course, halfway through the second season we find that Lucy is expecting. In the episode “Lucy is Enceinte” we see Lucy getting ready to go to the doctor. Ethel asks her what’s wrong, to which Lucy responds that she has gained some weight and has been feeling real tired here lately. Ethel thinks for a minute and then her eyes light up and she tells Lucy that maybe she’s going to have a baby. Of course, Lucy waves that aside and says “oh Ethel don’t be ridiculous I’ve been married for eleven years!” But when she comes back from the doctor she has a dreamy look on her face and exclaims that she’s going to have a baby. Lucy talks of how she’s always dreamed of how she would tell her husband the good news. She finally gets a chance to tell him by coming down to the club where Ricky works. Ricky receives a note on stage from a woman that she and her husband are going to have a “blessed event.” Ricky passes by all the couples and when he gets to Lucy she has a dreamy look and a smile on her face and nods her head. Ricky, of course, doesn’t get it right away and passes on to the next couple until it finally hits him and he realizes that him and his wife are the lucky couple! He then sings to her and for the audience “we’re having a baby, my baby and me.” The next few episodes continue on where Lucy is expecting but a big deal is not really made over her pregnancy. On the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” Little Ricky is finally born and the next few episodes are pretty much memories and events that happened in the past, presumably so mother and child are not shown on TV too soon after the event of birth.
Not even family movies and shows in today’s era are as respectful as what I Love Lucy was regarding Lucy’s pregnancy and the birth of Little Ricky. The word “pregnant” is never even used. The term “expecting” is used instead. There is no talk in the show about childbirth or about pregnancy or the female body. I did think the episode “Ricky Has Labor Pains” bordered a bit on the obscene side with Lucy’s “cravings” that Ricky then gets too and also the one scene where Lucy couldn’t get out of the chair without assistance but it was still nowhere near what today’s shows are like. Today even family movies that conservative parents watch with their children have indecent talk and showing of birth and pregnancy. One that comes to mind is Cheaper by the Dozen 2 in which one of Kate and Tom’s (I believe that was their names) older daughters is very heavily pregnant. Her “water” ends up breaking when she is in a canoe competing in the competition between families and it becomes some immediate emergency that, of course, requires multiple people to help (including children). Then of course she’s shown having contractions and everything in the movie as well. Another Disney show I watched a bit was Good Luck Charlie. We watched a few episodes until the mother was pregnant with a fifth child and the family started talking about “how she gets” when she’s in her third trimester. Also in one episode the mother played sick because she was exhausted from working at work and working at home even though they had a young child at home. Even Disney these days shows nothing but the career wife and mother and children being raised by nannies. The disgusting and offensive movie Knocked Up shows the perfect example of how far things have come since the days of I Love Lucy. High powered career woman decides to go out and celebrate one night, picks up man for one-night stand, discovers she’s pregnant a few weeks later (you know by puking in a trash can, because that’s how all women discover they are pregnant, you know, by getting sick then thinking they must have the flu or something) then goes and finds the lucky guy to try to explain she’s pregnant (this is a very smart move ladies, if you get pregnant by some random guy you don’t know you should probably find him and inform him about it that way he and his family can sue you for custodial rights later). Of course, dude can’t even comprehend what on earth she’s even talking about. Pregnant? What on earth do you mean? Pregnant with and idea? Oh, a baby? Huh? Seriously, man? Of course, dude has no real job except for trying to find shots of female private parts from movies until he discovers that someone else has already had that idea. Bummer! Well, that’s ok the two get together and try to make it work. She’s a career woman who doesn’t need his money anyways (so I guess that would make him the “third wheel”). Later on of course she’s heavily pregnant and highly emotional and decides to kick his broke self out of her car on the side of the road on the way to her gynecologist appointment because she’s so crazy emotional (get out you bum and find your own ride!) then when she gives birth he brings all his perverted guy friends to the hospital to crack jokes and talk about her private parts and how gynecology is their favorite hobby and shots are shown of her privates while she’s giving birth. But, it’s Ok, the story has a happy ending because they make a *relationship*. I guess us women are supposed to feel empowered and respected because society now openly talks of and displays our bodies. And, hey, even the older generations are now cool with it. I’m sure shoving childbirth, period sex and private rituals we women do in the bathroom in men’s faces will make them respect us! (Here’s the gory details boys, now give me respect!)
In Lucy there is none of this. Ricky was not by her side and holding her hand through labor. He was out being a real man and working to support his family. Lucy was never even shown in the hospital room at all. There was no “oh honey I told you antibiotics knocked out the pill” or talk of maternity leave or shots of her peeing on a stick in the bathroom or throwing up in a trashcan or talks of “so who’s the father?” There was nothing but joy and love. Mother and child were secure in a home that Ricky had provided for them. There was never any pressure on Lucy to work even when she was childless, much less so after the arrival of Little Ricky. A baby was seen as nothing but a blessing, as was pregnancy.
As a married woman Lucy’s job was to take care of the home and a child being introduced into the union didn’t pose any threats to the ordering of their daily lives. Children being born out of wedlock wasn’t acceptable and there are no showings of unwed fathers or mothers on the show, nor was there divorce or illegitimacy. All the women she comes into contact with and all the women she is friends with are housewives who care for their homes and children. Of course, Lucy is always begging Ricky to let her into show-business to which Ricky responds that he wants a wife who will take care of the home and be a mother to his children.
Of course, even in those days society was still feminist in many ways. Lucy is often in the show doing things that put Ricky’s career in jeopardy either because she is jealous of one of the showgirls and is scared Ricky is unfaithful or because she wants in the show so badly she is willing to do anything. Even after Little Ricky is born she worms her way into one of his shows with Little Ricky on her back. In the episode “Equal Rights” Ricky is tired of her being late and declares that he is going to run the home like they do in Cuba, with the man as master of the home. Lucy obediently goes to the bedroom to get her coat then comes back out and “stands up for herself” (with Ethel cheering her on from across the room) and the girls declare they want to be treated just like men. Ricky says fine and treats her just the same as he would another man. Lucy and Ethel end up washing dishes in the restaurant because they had no money to pay for the food (they were expecting their husbands to pay), Ricky and Fred end up pushing the girls out of the way to sit down first and talking over them to order their food first and Ricky even commits an unforgivable breech of etiquette and shaves at the table! Of course, the difference between then and now is that their husbands never did abandon them, as Ricky and Fred were waiting to pick them up and bring them home when they were done. Also Lucy was able in the show to go out and buy a business in more than one episode without her husband’s knowledge or consent. Of course, she always fails at it when she tries to go into business. In one episode the men tell Lucy and Ethel that housework is easy and the women respond by telling Fred and Ricky that being the breadwinner is easy. They switch jobs and Lucy and Ethel find they are no good at bringing home the bacon and Fred and Ricky find they are no good at frying it up. So, all in all, traditional gender roles are still promoted in the show.
Often times Lucy (who can’t ever be on time, keep up with anything, manage money, display much logical thinking in various arenas nor sing, act or dance) will get herself into trouble. Instead of going to her husband and telling him the truth or getting his help she instead messes things up even worse by taking things into her own hands. A few times her schemes even land her right across Ricky’s knee, an obviously politically incorrect display of male dominance now completely written out of all TV shows, movies and even historical novels. (Just something as simple as Disney prettying up Princess Merida from the movie “Brave” these days causes boycotts from parents today who want their girls to be independent). A couple of times in the show she even manages to get Ricky fired due to her interference in his affairs. Even though she is only trying to help her husband, her interference still undermines his career and often makes things worse. Of course, she often does find a way to make everything better in the end and sometimes her schemes to insert herself into show-business actually work out for the good of Ricky’s career. When they travel to Hollywood Lucy is offered a one-year contract. It is what she has always wanted yet in the end she turns it down so that she can go back home and be with her family. She does still attempt at times to get into show-business afterwards, but not nearly so severe as in the early days of I Love Lucy.
Of course, it is Lucy’s illogical thinking and ridiculous schemes that propel the show forward and make it so hilarious and entertaining. I haven’t seen the comedies that Desi and Lucille put out after the show ended, but I Love Lucy definitely gets an A+ rating in my book. Much has changed in our culture and most of it has not been for the better. Though some things were worse in the 1950s, in the area of gender relations there is no comparison between now and then. In the show Lucy never does get a career. Another thing to note is how sexually exploited women are today compared to then. Lucille Ball was already forty years old whenever I Love Lucy began (of course she is portrayed as being in her 30s, although she claims to have stopped having birthdays at 29). Today women in movies are mere sex objects whose youth is sucked up and young women are considered old hags by about the time they hit the ripe age of 25. There is such a cult of youth in our culture today that is reflected in the media.
Interesting as well is how advanced society was even in the 1950s. Even in those days the middle class housewives had many of the conveniences we do today. In one episode Lucy and Ethel didn’t even have a clue how to make bread or churn butter.
Also, Lucy and the other housewives always tried to look pretty everyday. Sure, there were some scenes were Lucy still had her nightclothes on looking half out of it in the morning, but for the most part women strived to look good and act like ladies. In one episode Ricky even commented that Lucy thinks she’s naked (or was it niked) without lipstick on and in one episode Ethel was saying how she couldn’t get on the subway wearing jeans. Of course, Lucy belonged to the middle class. The amount of money that she threw around on the show for clothes, redecorating the house, going to get her hair done every couple of weeks, and fixing all the problems she caused with her schemes would be considered outrageous by most even in 2014 dollars. But it is nice to see a time when women actually strove to look good and take care of themselves and a time when men were in charge. Also nice is that Ricky most often wears a suit.
By now all of the main characters of the show (save for, I believe, the man who played Little Ricky) are all deceased. In fact, many were deceased before I was ever even born. Also deceased are the old ways. The saddest thing of all is the thought that the prosperity and much stabler gender relations of the past depicted in the shows and movies of yesteryear may never come back. But at least we may catch a glimpse of better times through the entertainment of old.