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TV History: I Love Lucy

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

I Love Lucy's Modern Day Fight

by Madeline Petrovich

I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, aired from 1951 until 1957 and completely revolutionized the television sitcom industry. In the early 1950s, most television production was located in New York City, and eventually moved to Hollywood in the late 50s, for cost reasons. I Love Lucy’s production was based in Hollywood from the beginning. Additionally, the show was filmed with three cameras in front of a live studio audience, but was not broadcast live. Instead, it was filmed and then broadcast. In 1952, 78% of shows were broadcast live, but by 1961, only 17% were. Ball and Arnaz saw the potential in telefilm in the early 50s, before the rest of the television industry. I Love Lucy strayed from the typical family sitcom and instead focused on the dynamics between the two main characters and Ball’s skills as a physical comedian. In many other ways, I Love Lucy was ground-breaking. In the episode, “Equal Rights” first airing October 26, 1953, Ricky (Arnaz) tells Lucy (Ball) that they are going to run the house “where the man is the master and the woman does what she is told.” Lucy at first listens and then walks away before retorting back “equal rights means just what it says…equal rights.” The rest of the clip humorously shows how Lucy and Ethel, the two women, are inherently incapable without their husbands, but it still was revolutionary to discuss women’s rights with such a large audience.
Lucy never fit the stereotype of a typical 1950s housewife. Instead, the show highlighted Ball’s comedic performance. Lucy was unapologetically defiant. She stood up for herself after Ricky attempted to put her in her place. He actually tells her, “women should have all the rights they want, as long as they stay in their place.” Lucy is not that woman. She is characteristically unladylike. As Susan Douglas writes in her book, Where the Girls Are, about Lucille Ball and Imogen Coca of Your Show of Shows, “these women and their bodies refused to be contained in the home or limited by the prevailing orthodoxy about appropriate female comportment. Their voices mattered too; often they were loud, they weren’t afraid to yell, and they didn’t back away from verbal combat” (Douglas 50). After Ricky tells Lucy to do what she is told, she yells in his face, “Oh yeah?!” She is unafraid to disobey her husband and stand up for herself. She even tells him “I don’t know how you treat your women in Cuba, but this is the United States and I have my rights.” This was similar to other 1950s shows, set in a city with immigrants as main characters, but showing them the “American way.” Lucy does not just do what her husband Ricky wants her to do. The leading ladies in television in the early 1950s were similar to Lucy, refusing to stay in their place, contrasting the housewives that filled sitcoms in the late 1950s. Lucy is not the doting housewife; she is the center of attention. Ball’s facial expressions are the main comedic force. From yelling, “oh yeah?!” at Ricky, to asking the waiter “just a minute…we’re not washing any dishes are we?” Lucy commands the scenes.
Even though Lucy is strong and stands up for herself, she still ultimately fails. The clip ends with her and Ethel ironically, in the kitchen doing dishes. The entire clip is a game for Ricky, Lucy’s husband, and Fred, Ethel’s husband. Lucy and Ethel cannot handle themselves. The clip makes it seem that Lucy does not know how to put on a coat, how to walk out of the door, how to sit down at a restaurant, how to order food, and how to handle money. The clip makes it clear that no matter how strong Lucy is, she still has to rely on Ricky to pay for her meal. Lucy and Ethel even have to light their own cigarettes. During the original broadcast, the now iconic heart at the end of the scene would have been an advertisement for Philips Morris cigarettes, the same cigarettes Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred smoke in the episode. Lucy and Ethel light their cigarettes and then fix their makeup, prompting their husbands to shave at the restaurant, in the spirit of equal rights. The episode is progressive for the times for even discussing women’s rights, but as the clip’s ending suggests that women have to rely on their husbands for money and for food and are best doing the dishes. At the same time, it addresses the stereotypes head on, but it does not defy them. Even a woman as strong as Lucy, can be reduced down to societal expectations. As Fred tells Ethel and Lucy with a condescending manner, “What more can you want? You got the vote. You wear pants.” Fred was the voice of society. Society expected women to be happy with household chores, but women, like Lucy, wanted more.

Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.

"Equal Rights," I Love Lucy

This clip is an excerpt from the episode of I Love Lucy entitled "Equal Rights," Episode 4 of Season 3, which first aired on October 26, 1953, on CBS.

from I Love Lucy (1953)
Creator: CBS; Director: William Asher; Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Davis, Bob Carroll Jr.
Distributor: Hulu
Posted by Christine Becker