Does I Love Lucy Love Subordinate Women? An Investigation into a Sitcom’s Influence on 1950s Society

by Sarah Geib for Professor Henebry's Rhetoric course

The live studio audience laughs hysterically, its frantic clapping steadily increasing in the background as the flaming redhead on screen pouts her lips, tilts her head, crosses her arms, and groans loudly as she realizes her most recent mistake. Lucy’s newest scheme has blown up again and a laughing Ricky is standing next to her shaking his head, rolling his eyes.

At first glance the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy portrays the comical, prank-filled marriage of an adorable couple: Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. While on the surface it appears as if Lucy is just a goofy character who always seems to be getting into trouble, further inspection illuminates the fact that her actions and their outcomes are so much more than just clever scriptwriting. In each episode Lucy attempts to unknowingly upset the status quo by seeking stardom or going against her husband, both of which end badly at Lucy’s expense. French philosopher and feminist, Simone De Beauvoir gives the perfect analysis of the situation by noting that a typical wife is only supposed to be concerned with her marriage instead of other ambitions.1 Therefore, with De Beauvoir’s analysis and the outcome of every episode, it is clear that I Love Lucy emphasizes what a proper wife should do and how she should act, while any contradictions result in punishment. Despite outward appearances of a healthy marriage, this show actually portrays social stereotypes of gender roles with a particular emphasis on how women should behave. The gender-related undertones seen in this sitcom, along with magazine articles and advertisements of the time, not only portray how people think women should behave in 1950s America, but also serve as guidelines for such behavior.

Just as every math problem has a predictable formula, I Love Lucy follows a set recipe for the plot, gags, and outcome of each episode, all of which influence women and their behavior. In every episode, Lucy concocts some grand scheme to become famous, or plots to get her way by proving her husband wrong. The rest of the episode then revolves around the consequences of the idea, which always results in a hilarious climax as Lucy’s clever plan snags or backfires altogether. Although it may seem that Lucy is just a silly housewife, she is somehow punished in every episode for her attempts to step outside her role as the wife. Lucy’s frequent dream of having a successful show business career, or her need to win some sort of argument with her husband, not only inspire the plot for each episode, but determine the lesson that will be taught. Whenever she auditions for an acting role, some mishap occurs which leaves her not only without the job, but also without her dignity.

This exact plot is worked out as Lucy auditions without her husband’s approval for a dancing part in a play.2 Lucy makes sure she is prepared for the audition, but due to a dilation mishap at the eye doctor’s office, Lucy leaves for the audition practically blind. The final scene of the episode shows Lucy trying very hard to dance perfectly, only to stumble around the stage in oblivion, due to her inability to see. A similar outcome occurs when she attempts to gain the upper hand against her husband. This problem presents itself when Lucy decides to play Cupid for her neighbor against Ricky’s command that she do nothing of the kind.3 This episode ends with Lucy being chased by the man she is trying to set up with her neighbor, resulting in a funny scene where Lucy attempts to be as gross and romantically undesirable as possible to drive this man into the other woman’s arms. Although these outcomes appear to be harmless, the consistent conclusion has the potential to give a very powerful message. Each time Lucy strays from her role as a wife and mother, she is plagued by a series of problems which force her back where she “belongs.”

I Love Lucy is not alone in demonstrating ideas of female weakness and subordination to men; magazine advertisements of the 1950s play a large role in this as well. Besides the fact that advertisements only depict one type of woman – slender, well groomed, and beautiful – they are also only directed at married or single women. Ads targeted to married woman not only display products that these women need in their homes, but also provide a picture of what the ideal housewife looks like (often made even more ideal by purchasing the product shown). This can be seen in a Hotpoint Washing Machine advertisement from Life Magazine where the ad depicts a spotless family all sitting on a couch with an equally spotless mother standing behind them.4 This commercial is for a clothes-washing product on the surface, but the deeper message has to do with a physically and morally clean household that is only accomplished by the work of the mother. If she were not doing her duty by taking care of her kids and husband, who knows what kind of dirty disaster would arise.

Advertisements aimed at single women were no less demanding. An ad for a General Electric Sunlamp that will keep a woman “better, more attractive all winter long” emphasizes the importance of always remaining a desirable candidate for marriage.5 Behind an abnormally tan drawing of a female depicted in this advertisement, stands a male utterly in awe of her beauty. The idea that women have to remain constantly beautiful in hope of attracting and keeping a mate, is one often seen in advertisements for both married and single women during this time. Betty Friedan, a well-known feminist and author, was an early critic of this tendency in her influential book The Feminine Mystique.6 Friedan took a psychological approach to analyzing how women’s lives were impacted by gender roles. The Journal of Psychology for Monmouth College discusses the influence of media on women in an article regarding female representation in magazines. The journal discusses Betty Friedan’s argument of media: “magazines and other media most often depict women in traditional sex roles such as homemakers or models of attractiveness and in doing so have nurtured a narrow and servile image of women.”7 The advertisements identified above are perfect examples of what Friedan is saying: women are only depicted in a few ways, which consequently leads men and women alike to believe that these roles are the only ones women should fulfill.

Although Lucy’s treatment in the sitcom says something about the culture of the time and the prevalence of gender stereotypes in society, it must be asked whether the show truly perpetuates these ideals. A brief glance at the show and its content would suggest that I Love Lucy does in fact at least demonstrate women in a subordinate role compared with their male counterparts. But greater evidence for this argument can be witnessed in magazine advertisements of the time that are specifically tailored to the show and actors in it.

Lucille Ball, the actress who played Lucy, appeared in numerous ads not only because of her association with I Love Lucy, but also because of her star status. In these ads, Lucille is depicted as the actress she is, who still knows the importance of looking good and being the perfect housewife.8 Although these types of commercials did appear in magazines, more often than not it was the character of Lucy, and not the actress Lucille Ball, who was used to sell something. By using Lucy, and Ricky for that matter, companies were guilty of blatantly using these characters from the hit sitcom to promote their products, more than the subconscious values of gender roles. In these ads, women are urged to buy a particular nursery set to mimic the one they see on TV,9 or to buy the same bed and dresser set that Lucy and Ricky share.10 The Philip Morris Cigarette Company, the sponsors of the show, was one of the most common companies to use I Love Lucy propaganda to sell their product. This type of endorsement was not only seen in print ads, but also in the TV show’s original title sequence.11 So in this case it’s less about Lucille Ball portraying the perfect wife stereotype than about Lucy Ricardo promoting a product. But to take this a step further, this second and more prevalent set of advertisements demonstrates something interesting: that ads are more concerned with selling a product than maintaining the status quo. By offering products that a powerful social figure and TV character would use, companies reveal that they are less worried about the possibility of empowering women and more worried about selling a product.

Yet, despite the new development that capitalism might have won over social norms, I Love Lucy does depict certain sexist tendencies that cannot be ignored. Lucy almost appears trapped by her role as a wife and mother in the show, something visually confirmed by the fact that she is almost always confined to her apartment. This concept of being trapped is also made abundantly clear in the show when Lucy strives for something more and is always pushed back to where she started. French philosopher and feminist, Simone De Beauvoir, discusses this idea in her book The Second Sex. She asserts, “the wife has no other task [in marriage] save the one of maintaining and caring for life.”12 Not only is Lucy in charge of Ricky’s house and son, but she also takes his last name, therefore assuming the responsibility to act as a good wife and loving mother, with any other activities coming in second.13 When activities have the potential to upset this balance, they are beaten down. De Beauvoir furthers her claim that the wife has no control over her life by stating that a married woman “goes beyond herself toward the group only through her husband as a mouth piece.”14 This is also seen in the show by the way Lucy acts: as the sidekick to her husband.

In social situations, Lucy is depicted as a wife who lets her husband run the show, only to display her real personality when she is alone with her married friend Ethel. Lucy also rarely gets the chance to call the shots in her marriage because Ricky overrides her voice with his own. And Lucy allows this to happen because she asks her husband permission to do things, instead of making the choice herself. By giving away her power in such a way, she almost makes Ricky like her parent, a trait of the perfect subordinate wife. In fact, the only time Lucy uses her own voice is when she goes behind Ricky’s back, and even then she is separated from him by assuming her maiden name, Lucille McGillicuddy. The use of this ridiculous-sounding maiden name furthers the idea that Lucy, and women in general, only have a voice when they are unmarried because a good wife would never challenge her husband by exerting her own opinion. Lucy’s actions, whether directly intended or not, comment on how society during this time positioned wives and their proper roles in marriage and life.

Despite the print and visual evidence that has been discussed, there is so much more to be considered when assessing this show’s role in influencing society. The magazine that published the advertisements previously discussed also published a multi-page article on Lucille Ball and her outstanding career. This article titled, “Beauty into Buffoon” discusses Ball’s versatility as an actress with special emphasis on her numerous acting achievements across genres. In fact, the article even assumes a disapproving tone when it discusses Ball’s talent as being “almost completely ignored” for “slapstick pratfalls” that were a signature style for I Love Lucy.15 The article also reminds readers that Ball is not only an actress, but a businesswoman too, as she co-owns Desilu Productions, the company that made I Love Lucy possible.16 Verification of Ball’s influence is actually acknowledged within the show by an event that seems to weaken her. As mentioned before, Lucy uses her maiden name whenever she wants to express her opinion, something that is mirrored in real life by Lucille Ball who never took her husband’s name.

Further evidence within the show demonstrates that more is happening than meets the eye. Even though Lucy is often left disappointed by her schemes, she is never left completely powerless. Lucy is almost always able to cause enough trouble for Ricky that her apparent defeat is not upsetting to the audience.17 Perhaps, then this show is appealing to women because it covers topics and themes to which they can relate, while remaining non-threatening to male viewers. That makes I Love Lucy neither guilty of supporting nor blatantly destroying the status quo, but subtly undermining it with advertisements that sell products, not ideas, and a leading lady who lives her own life.

The family-friendly television show I Love Lucy was wildly popular during and after its time, entering the homes of millions on a regular basis for over six years. But just as Lucille Ball was much more than an actress, this sitcom was much more than a typical 1950s television show. The comedic use of physical comedy, witty lines, outrageous costumes, and slapstick humor set I Love Lucy above the rest and established it as a household name that would remain for decades to come. Because of its lasting impact on American society, the role it played during and after its time is one to consider. Did show-related advertisements and the demeaning outcome of every episode perpetuate the commonly understood gender roles of the time; or did Lucille Ball’s powerful presence accompanied by her equally strong character suggest a world where women will strive for a voice at any cost? Evidence supports both claims, and the final outcome it open to personal interpretation. But before deciding whether Lucy is nothing more than a silly housewife, one should consider the current social state of women today and the rapid evolution of women’s rights that appeared in decade following this harmless sitcom.

Notes

1. Simone D Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1949) 443.
2. I Love Lucy, “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” Season 3, Episode 11, CBS, December 14, 1953.
3. I Love Lucy, “Lucy Plays Cupid,” Season 1, Episode 15, CBS, January 21, 1952.
4. Hotpoint, “Hotpoint Washing Machine,” advertisement, Life Magazine, April 23, 1956, 90.
5. General Electric, “G-E Sunlamp,” advertisement, Life Magazine, January 16, 1956, 1.
6. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963, rpt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010) 81.
7. Jack Demarest and Jeanette Garner, “The Representation of Women’s Roles in Women’s Magazines Over the past 30 Years,” The Journal of Psychology 126, no. 4 (1992): 357.
8. Two particular advertisements I found illustrated these ideas. One, from a September 1950 issue of Life Magazine, depicts a dolled-up Lucille endorsing manicure tools; the other from a March 1950 edition, depicts Lucille as using a new Hoover vacuum all over an elegant house. Both of these ads perpetuate the idea that even a famous actress like Lucille Ball knows the importance of looking good for her husband and being domestic by maintaining a clean house
9. Various Advertisers, “From the World’s Most Famous Nursery to a Nursery Nearest Your Heart,” advertisement, Life Magazine, April 27, 1953, 111.
10. Johnson-Carper, “Fashion Trend: Double Dresser and Bookcase Bed,” advertisement, Life Magazine, April 6, 1953, 38.
11.The beloved heart introduction people are used to seeing in regards to this show was in fact only put into place once the show began reruns. The original title sequence, which can now be found in DVD collector sets, featured cartoon characters of Lucy and Ricky propelling down the side of a Philip Morris cigarette box with an announcer reminding the viewing audience that this company was the show’s sponsor.
12. Simone D Beauvoir, The Second Sex, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1949, Page 443.
13. TV censorship during this time period was very strict, so the ability for a pregnant Lucille Ball to portray a pregnant Lucy Ricardo on TV truly reinforced the social values behind this idea of the good wife and mother
14. Simone D Beauvoir, The Second Sex, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1949, Page 443.
15. “Beauty into Buffoon: Lucille Ball’s Slapstick Makes Her a Top TV Star,” Life Magazine, February 18, 1952, 93.
16. “Beauty into Buffoon: Lucille Ball’s Slapstick Makes Her a Top TV Star,” Life Magazine, February 18, 1952, 93.
17. One example of this can be seen in Season One, Episode number Nine (“The Fur Coat”) when Ricky rents a real mink coat for his job and accidentally leads Lucy to believe that it is a present for their anniversary. Ricky then fakes a robbery to separate Lucy from the coat, which fails and leads Lucy to find out the truth. In retaliation, Lucy buys a fake coat that she then “restyles” by chopping it up until it is nothing more than a vest. And even though Lucy never gets a real mink coat out of this episode, she does frighten Ricky to the point of tears, which establishes that she is never left powerless.

Bibliography

General Electric. “G-E Sunlamp.” Advertisement. Life Magazine. January 16, 1956, Page 1.

Demarest, Jack and Jeanette Garner. “The Representation of Women’s Roles in Women’s Magazines Over the past 30 Years.” The Journal of Psychology. 126, no. 4 (1992): 357-369.

Johnson-Carper. “Fashion Trend: Double Dresser and Bookcase Bed.” Advertisement. Life Magazine. April 6, 1953, 38.

I Love Lucy. “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined.” Season 3, Episode 11. CBS. December 14, 1953.

I Love Lucy. “Lucy Plays Cupid.” Season 1, Episode 15. CBS. January 21, 1952.

Hotpoint. “Hotpoint Washing Machine.” Advertisement. Life Magazine, April 23, 1956, 90.

I Love Lucy. “The Fur Coat.” Season 1, Episode 9. CBS. December 10, 1951.

Simone D Beauvoir. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 1949. Page 439-523.

Unknown. “Beauty into Buffoon: Lucille Ball’s Slapstick Makes Her a Top TV Star.” Life Magazine.

February 18, 1952. Page 93-94 & 97.

Various Advertisers. “From the World’s Most Famous Nursery to a Nursery Nearest Your Heart.” Advertisement. Life Magazine. April 27, 1953. Page 111.

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