Although I Love Lucy has been fodder for feminist criticism, I would argue that Lucy Ricardo was, in her way, and in her time, a pioneer in the feminist movement, unintentional though she might have been. I like, maybe prefer, looking at Lucy that way. To be sure, I had some “’splainin’” to do when my daughters watched episodes in which Ricky doled out Lucy’s allowance, would not permit her to cut her hair short, or turned her over his knee to spank her. And so as I introduced my daughters to the antics of Lucy Ricardo, we had discussions about historical context, traditional gender roles, anger disguised as humor, and how mixed up it was that married couples had to sleep in twin beds, but it was fine to smoke cigarettes on television shows.
Nevertheless, just for today, not for always, but just for today, I want to set aside the deeper feminist arguments, overlook the sweeping social messages, pass by piercing perspectives on stereotypes, and steer past any strict moral discourse. Just for today, I want to share some simple thoughts about Lucy Ricardo. Because in a simple way, Lucy Ricardo’s approach to life shaped me, perhaps it even saved me. The warm glow that was cast from the afternoon broadcasts of I Love Lucy reruns through the screen of the little B&W television set that was in my childhood bedroom is still in my heart today.
1. Challenge authority with grace
Lucy may have retreated under Ricky’s bullying, but she was never defeated. Lucy never spoke out against the patriarchy; she took action. She waged battle against Ricky’s superior attitude, often by outsmarting him. Her schemes were creative and courageous, but they were never mean-spirited. When Ricky told Lucy to “be a good little girl,” she complied by finding a good way to get into his act. She indulged her husband, always with her upper hand, but gloved like the ladies wore in the ‘50s.
2. Be radical within the system
Lucy Ricardo challenged traditional gender roles in television’s earliest and most conservative days. For example, she left Little Ricky with his grandmother to go on a working tour of Europe, not her work, to be sure, but she balanced career and motherhood in the 1950s and viewers watched. When Lucy and Ethel switched roles with Ricky and Fred, they had to lie about their work experience to get hired at a factory, and they ended up eating a lot of chocolate, but Ricky and Fred made a shambles of their domestic chores. Was the lesson that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence, or did Lucy stir up deeply ingrained notions of traditional gender roles in the workplace and home? The more apparent feminist identities of characters such as Maude, Gloria Stivic, Mary Richards, and Ellen were still decades away, yet Lucy was a radical figure in her day.
3. Strong is beautiful
Lucy had her glamorous moments, but those weren’t the moments most recalled. We remember and love her best when she was covered in starch, grape juice, or with her fake nose on fire. Lucy was an incredible physical comedian, perhaps the best ever, and that required physical strength. Lucy could hoist and take home John Wayne’s stolen cement footprint. She scaled a tall wall to steal a grapefruit from Richard Widmark’s tree. Lucy was lowered from a helicopter to the deck of a cruise ship, bicycled through European border crossings, tangoed until the chicken eggs she’d hidden in her shirt were smashed, and she could bend like a pretzel to fit inside a trunk. Lucy might have worn a frilly apron around the kitchen during an era when a woman’s physical strength was not considered valuable in our culture, but the strings were tied around abs of steel.
4. Never give up on your wildest dreams
Lucy made no bones about wanting it all, marriage, career, motherhood, fame, a movie star’s autograph, and a designer dress in Paris. But Lucy didn’t just sitting around wanting, Lucy pursued. She may not have had the talent (whether it was singing, dancing or playing the sax) necessary to get into fictional show business, but Lucy Ricardo’s tenacity carried her every step of the way to those hilarious moments in those fictional nightclubs, movies, and television commercials.
5. Laughter is the best medicine
At almost any time of the day, in almost any place in the world, you can turn on the television and find Lucy Ricardo being attacked by a giant loaf of bread, frozen in a freezer, eating snails with tongs on her nose, talking Martian on the Empire State Building, being rescued from a ledge by Superman, or getting soused on Vitameatavegamin. Perhaps what makes her comedy still relevant today is that it arises from her flaws, flaws that we all share. Lucy Ricardo was stubborn, submissive, ambitious, vain, confrontational, and scheming. But she was never mean, never a doormat, always eager, self-deprecating, approachable, and zany. Lucy makes me laugh, and laughing makes me feel good.
6. Women’s friendships with each other are the perfect blendship
Oh sure, Lucy and Ethel had their feuds. Like when they unknowingly bought the same outfit to wear to a charity performance, and then ripped the other’s dress to shreds while singing a song about being perfect friends. But Lucy and Ethel loved each other unconditionally despite the trouble in which Lucy’s relentless plotting got Ethel. They were the embodiment of loyalty and were inseparable, going together to Hollywood, Europe, and eventually to live in Connecticut. They were Ya-Ya sisters before the phrase was coined. I will leave you with a little video montage that I found, set to the tune of “Friendship” as sung by Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz. If a picture paints a thousand words, a video montage might just say it all, or at least enough for today.