I love Lucy. I really do. I love everything about Lucille Ball from her bright orange hair and poofy ’50s dresses to her vitameatavegamin and her chocolate factory antics. She’s an icon of comedy, TV and Americana and deservedly so. Lucille Ball was a BAMF.
Surprisingly, my Lucy rants haven’t been met with unbridled passion and enthusiasm. In fact, most people are indifferent to Lucy, or worse. It’s a sad truth, but because she portrayed a housewife in an era when feminism and sexism were at the forefront of the culture war, Lucy has a bit of a bad rap. Here’s the thing: Lucille Ball was anything but the complacent housewife figure she portrayed.
Like most early television shows, “I Love Lucy” started on the radio and due to its popularity on the air, the switch to TV made perfect sense. Lucy’s producers urged her to follow what most shows at a the were doing: shooting live in New York.
But stubborn Lucy wanted otherwise. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, because she didn’t want to uproot her life for the purpose of a TV show, she convinced her producers to shoot in California. She insisted that her shows be recorded on film in front of a live studio audience using three cameras. In doing so, Ball legitimized Hollywood as a site for producing TV. She was at the forefront of multi-camera formats, which would eventually become the industry standard for sitcoms. Her archived episodes of “I Love Lucy” were the first shows to be syndicated and aired as reruns, making her a national sensation and creating a legacy that has lasted decades.
Not only did she make these technical revolutions to the industry, she also shook up the cultural world of TV. Every Lucy fan knows the famous thick Cuban accent yelling in sing-song, “Lucy, I’m home!” But not many have stopped to think about the implications of a multi-racial relationship in the 1950s. We take Lucy and Ricky’s TV marriage for granted. We know they were always meant to be together, but TV executives didn’t see it that way.
They were convinced that an all-American redhead and Cuban American would never make a believable TV couple and asked Lucy to cast a nice white man as her husband. Of course, Lucy wouldn’t have it; she wanted to cast her actual husband Desi Arnaz to fill the role. We all know how the story ends: The execs gave in and American audiences embraced Ricky and Lucy as a loving couple.
It’s also often overlooked that the show was produced in the height of the Red Scare and McCarthy era. Everybody in the entertainment business was at risk of being blacklisted for being communist and Lucy was no exception and was named and subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activites. What is significant, however, is that Lucy was a communist — or at least had once voted Communist, unlike many of those accused.
And while Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Miller were blacklisted due to their alleged political allegiance, McCarthy and his cronies couldn’t keep loveable Lucy away from TV. Desi Arnaz said, “The only thing Red about Lucy is her hair, and even that’s not legitimate,” and that sentiment allowed her to keep producing her shows.
Lucille Ball combated and then revolutionized industry norms, fought against racial prejudices and circumvented McCarthy. She was an unstoppable force. But she was a housewife. She did cook and clean and contribute to that Mrs. Cleaver image that ran rampant in ’50s TV. But if you look a little closer at Lucy, you’ll realize how much of a role model for women she really was.
She set a precedent for women. She was the first female to be a studio head, but her on-screen character was just as ballsy as the Lucy behind the scene. She was the first nationally recognized woman comedian and thus an inspiration. Because she was funny, loud and scheming, regular women could follow her lead. Ricky respected her in spite of (and also because of) her zany antics, even with his scolding “Lucy! You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!”
Lucy meant a lot to women. She made them laugh and let them know they could make others laugh, too. She wasn’t just another TV housewife. I love Lucy and you should too.