I Love Lucy is often wrongly pointed to as the stereotypical portrait of a fifties household. Let me set the record straight. Before we even discuss the content of the show, it is noteworthy that I Love Lucy was one of the first television shows to feature a female lead. Lucille Ball’s role paved the way for all of the funny ladies that followed her to grace our screens. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were married in real life during the Lucy years, but even so, studio executives were skeptical about the two playing a couple on-screen. Arnaz, a Cuban-born bandleader, had very little acting experience and his Cuban accent was seen as possibly being alienating to audiences. Despite initial resistance, Ball and Arnaz’s Lucy and Ricky are still one of television’s most-loved couples. The simple fact that these two starred in an incredibly successful television show in the fifties is a triumph.
To quickly summarize every episode of I Love Lucy: Lucy (Lucille Ball) decides she wants to do something, Ricky (Desi Arnaz) tells her no and starts to yell angrily in Spanish, Lucy ignores him, Ricky does everything he can to stop her, and Lucy does what she wants anyway. While Ricky tries to embody the traditional husband who is completely in charge of his family, Lucy thwarts him at every turn. Lucy has the drive and passion to make it in show business, although maybe not the talent, which is the source of many an episode’s conflict. Ricky believes wholeheartedly that Lucy has no place outside the home, and she defiantly disagrees.
In one of my own favorite moments of Lucy’s subversiveness, she sneaks into one of Ricky’s shows and begins to sing a duet with him, and since she’s staged behind him, he’s unaware of the change. While they sing the song, Ricky moves his way back to where Lucy is standing and he asks her who is taking care of their baby, to which she turns around to show that Little Ricky came along for the ride on her back. (This scene, admittedly, does contain some extremely troubling cultural appropriation.)
In this one scene, Lucy proves she can both perform like she wants to, and she can still care for their child. Every episode of the series ends in generally the same lovey-dovey way, in that Lucy and Ricky make up, resolving their differences. Lucy may challenge the norms and boundaries of her gender, but she ultimately makes the choice in every episode that she enjoys being a mom and a wife and is happy to stay in that role. Which does not mean she stops challenging it.
Obviously, I Love Lucy is not a perfect television program. It has its problems. But for its time, Lucy was a groundbreaking figure on television. Her use of wit and physical comedy tested the limits of women on television. Lucille Ball’s own pregnancy caused concern behind the scenes because they thought they would have to cancel the show, since there had never been a pregnant character on television. The show went on, without ever using the word “pregnant.” Ball’s character had a pregnancy to mimic her own, but the entire time she was portrayed it was always, “in your condition” or “Lucy’s having a baby.”
Lucille Ball was groundbreaking in her own right, aside from Lucy, having co-founded Desilu Productions with Desi Arnaz before buying Arnaz out after their divorce. Under Ball, the company not only produced I Love Lucy, but other notable series such as Star Trek and Mission Impossible.
The woman and the character are still significant today, having paved the way for women from Kerry Washington to Mindy Kaling starring on television in their own innovative roles. Over half a century later, there are still many reasons to love Lucy.
Written by Shelby Rosten