I Hate Lucy

The return of Lucille Ball

3 minute read
Ricky (Desi Arnaz) comforts Lucy (Lucille Ball) after yet another of her plots to escape her housewife existence meets an ignominious end.
Ricky (Desi Arnaz) comforts Lucy (Lucille Ball) after yet another of her plots to escape her housewife existence meets an ignominious end.

I hate Lucy. Heretic that I am, this doesn’t mean that I hate Lucille Ball. In fact, she was an amazingly talented actress, a savvy businesswoman, and has the reputation of being a consummate professional, a tireless worker, and a great broad. (And I truly mean “broad” as a high compliment.)

That said, I hated the I Love Lucy show and I have no idea why people, especially women, enjoy and revere the debasement of a housewife who felt so trapped in her societal role that she weekly schemed to do something else — anything else — with her life. Each carefully constructed plot didn’t just have her baffoonishly failing but often desperately trying to crawl, literally and figuratively, out of her situation.

That so many episodes ended with her wailing, crying, and falling into her patronizing husband’s arms only reinforced the idea that a woman only had one place and one master — and that that master could never be herself.

Were we watching the singularly least talented or most incompetent character on Earth, or were we laughing at any attempts by a woman trying to find fulfillment beyond dusting? Comedy is often topical and must connect with a social group. Are we still enamored with Lucy because of the polka dots and flaming red hair, or is it because we still want our girls to learn that their place is truly at home?

Housework is necessary; it can be truly “home-making.” If that is the choice a woman makes, no problem. Unsalaried women have advised titans, supported schools, run charities, and raised wonderful solid citizens to make their place in the world. There are many happy homemakers — and though they’re still a minority, some of them are men.

Setting aside the financial reality of what’s needed today to maintain a secure middle-class life, including education for our children and future retirement for ourselves, it’s only been one generation since having a working mother implied the a stigma of a neglected child. Though women are now respected professionals in every stratum, they still make 77 cents on the dollar — and in many places where a woman does get to stand on the glass ceiling, someone maybe looking up her dress.

Better is not fixed.

I asked my female students how many of their parents had more career expectations for their brothers than themselves. Over half raised their hands. The others only had sisters. The parents knew their daughters would go into the working world, but they weren’t imagining that these young women would ever be the bosses. We have expectations of our daughters: be good students, get good jobs, marry, raise families. But few expect our daughters to rule the world.

And we still must love Lucy. Even when I was a kid, long before Wendy Wasserman led my feminism, I winced at the agony of Lucy. I pitied her and I feared I would end up like her. I saw her in my mother and some of my mother’s friends. These women wanted something more, but they hadn’t been reared with the self-confidence that they could be anything more than the woman behind the man. (And if the man was less ambitious than the woman, there was hell to pay.)

Watching the talented cast of I Love Lucy may seem harmless, but to me it’s no different than laughing at what we now understand to be racist in The Amos 'n' Andy Show. Those guys were so funny — they always seemed to have a scheme to raise their station, to become more than what society had offered them or they were educated to earn. Amos and Andy always fell back into the same old place, until next week. Then we could laugh at their audacity all over again.

Oh Lucy, what are you going to try this time?

For a look at pop culture nostalgia in general, and Lucy in particular, click here.

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