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I still love Lucy. The I Love Lucy Show is one of the few sitcoms from my childhood that can still make me laugh out loud. As a devoted member of the I Love Lucy Fan Club for years, my disappointment now is that I no longer have the equipment to play the videos I stockpiled.
So imagine my dismay when a student in the writing course I was teaching, a woman my age, soundly objected to my using an image of Lucy and Ethel on a flyer promoting an upcoming reading of our work. In summary, she declared that she thought Lucille Ball ridiculous, incompatible with her own feminist spirit, and did not think we should be represented by her.
To me, Lucy represents having the courage to perform your art without fear of judgment and rejection. Even in the height of my bra-burning feminist days (which yet may lie ahead for me, judging by how things are going), I never felt that Lucille Ball was counter to the cause. In fact, I considered her a forerunner. And as I watched the I Love Lucy Christmas Special on television recently, I remembered why.
Lucille Ball had a tough childhood – tough as in being chained to a tree in her yard like a dog. She lived in poverty with her unwilling grandparents after her mother’s remarriage. Yet she always knew she’d be an entertainer someday. Her beautiful face and figure worked to her advantage, and she went to acting school in New York City at 16, where she was told she was wasting her time due to her unbearable shyness. She refused to quit.
A blonde by birth, she died her hair the iconic red to advance her career. She fell head over heels and married a Cuban – an interracial marriage quite unheard of in those days. Lucy and Desi Arnaz formed a production company, Desilu, breaking racial and gender barriers from the start. Denied funding for the I Love Lucy pilot because of Arnaz’s Hispanic heritage, Lucy and Arnaz fronted the money to launch the show that bore her name. And Lucy was the star. Although the times demanded twin beds on television even for married couples, Hispanic “Ricky Ricardo” appeared in our living rooms as the husband of the red-headed All-American Lucy – she insisted. We even heard him speak and sing Spanish on American television in the 1950’s. Babalu!
Lucy was the first pregnant woman to play a pregnant woman on television. (The word couldn’t even be used, so they substituted the Spanish word enceinte.) More households were tuned into Lucy giving birth than watched the 1953 Eisenhower inauguration. This beautiful and shapely woman, who had done modeling and movies prior, appeared before us with chocolate covering her face, starch in her hair, and icicles dripping from every body part. She out-harpoed Harpo Marx. Her comedic timing (and Arnaz’s) was unparalleled in sitcoms before and since they debuted as a comedy team.
She not only wore pants (also barrier-breaking); as a perfectionist, she “wore the pants” in their business partnership. Although Arnaz was very talented (he originated multi-camera filming), his infidelities were legendary, causing her much public embarrassment. Yet she was a professional who knew the show must go on. Despite her personal heartache, she continued to make America laugh.
She weathered a potential firestorm in 1953 when it was revealed that in 1936 she had registered to vote as a member of the Communist Party, as instructed by her Socialist grandfather. When her testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee was released, the outpouring of support for Lucy was overwhelming. In a press conference, she expressed her belief that truth always wins out.
Desilu also produced series like The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible prior to the couple’s second divorce. (She had taken him back once.) Lucy then bought Arnaz out, becoming the first woman to head up a television production company. In her next sitcom, The Lucy Show, she played a single mom and career woman – not a far fetch from who she had become in real life.
Even those who accept her status as an enterprising trailblazer may still consider her slapstick an insult to women’s competence. But I believe she reflected women’s lives at the time. Yes, she was manipulative and scheming in her attempts to get what she wanted. That’s how women had to do it in the 1950’s – their only recourse was to cajole and outsmart the men who unreasonably stood in their way. (Why couldn’t Lucy go to the club, anyway?)
Degrading and unhealthy for everyone, to be sure. And she rubbed our noses in it every week.
We never discussed it, but I’m sure that’s why my highly-liberated mother also loved Lucy. Lucy outed that bizarre sexist game of cat and mouse – memorably demonstrating why it was ridiculous for both genders. She created caricatures of men and women trying to function within the confines of an unreasonable gender divide. While she’s making a fool of herself making chocolate, Ricky’s home unable to perform basic household chores like ironing. She gets to swoon over handsome leading men, and sometimes perform with them, by working around her show business husband. She takes the initiative to hire an English tutor for him. She takes risks and often gets what she wants, albeit the hard way. And she has a female best friend to confide in and scheme with.
In 1971, Lucille Ball became the first woman to receive the International Radio and Television Society’s Gold Medal. After she died, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This prestigious award was in addition to numerous other awards including five Emmys and induction into the Television Hall of Fame.
I’m not claiming her as a feminist – she doesn’t need me to do that. As she told us, truth wins out.
Yes, this feminist still loves Lucy. Images of her stomping grapes and over-sampling Vitameatavegamin make me smile, even as I recall what Lucille Ball personally transcended to make us laugh with her rather than at her.
— Patricia A. Nugent writing for Vox Populi