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TV As Containment: The Role of the Housewife

by Ashley Young

Women on TV in the 1950's and '60s are primarily represented as housewives and mothers, who are content and happy with their status as housewife. But what happens when the housewife is not content? You get a TV text like I Love Lucy, which is very much premised on Lucy's status as a housewife and her dissatisfaction with remaining inside the home. This clip comes from an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which itself is a modified version of I Love Lucy, entitled "Lucy Wants a Career." Mellencamp (1997) writes, "Containment operated through laughter might have worked to have held women in their place (66)." This clip provides an example of how comedy was used to diminish Lucy's resistance to cultural norms. But does the fact that Lucy was the star of the show potentially offer different modes of reading the text? Not only does the show have a potential feminist strain due to Lucy's resistance onscreen, but Lucille Ball also took over the male domain of physical comedy. As we move forward in TV history, the image of the housewife becomes much less rebellious. This can be seen in the images of housewives including: Samantha Stevens (Bewitched); Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch); Edith Bunker (All in the Family); Peggy Bundy (Married w/ Children); Debra Barone (Everybody Loves Raymond). Most of these housewives are complacent with their role inside the home. There's definitely a connection between the role of Lucy as a housewife and some of the more modern examples of housewives, but there is also a clear distinction. Lucy's rebellion onscreen and her agency off screen should be seen as a means of resisting institutional inequalities and patriarchal structures [on some level], and in this sense Lucy is very much distinct from other representations of housewives that followed.

TV Housewives: Does I Love Lucy have a Feminist Strain?

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Most housewives of the 1950s on TV are content and happy with their circumstances, but Lucy Ricardo is an interesting example of opposition to the norm. Is comedy used as a means of dismissing any form of subversion? Possible feminist strain?

from I Love Lucy (1959)
Creator: Dir. Jerry Thorpe
Posted by Ashley Young