Televising Masculinities: I Love Lucy: Expectations of the Sitcom Husband in the early 1950s (Part 1)
By Brian Faucette
As a young kid growing up, I watched countless hours of reruns of classic American television shows like I Love Lucy. While most of discussion of the series has focused on Lucille Ball’s superb comic talent and zany antics, and on her marriage to Desi Arnaz (who also played her husband Ricky Ricardo in the series), there has been little discussion of Ricky’s masculinity and how the masculinity he represented tapped into societal norms and fears of American masculinity in the 1950s.
As a feminist man, I have embraced the tenets of gender studies as advocated by Judith Butler, Tania Modleski, and many others who have been responsible for ensuring that a focus on gender became a vital component of studies of media and remains so today. I believe, moreover—as many of the key feminist film and television scholars like Modleski, Charlotte Brundson, Alex Doty, and Richard Dyer have consistently shown in their work—media texts are both personal and political. Thus with each of these columns I will engage the medium of television from a personal and political level as I illustrate how TV has played such an important role in the formation and definition of American masculinities for men of all ages, races, creeds, and sexual orientations.
The introduction of the television as a technological device in the late 1940s, and its widespread acceptance by the mid 1950s, reflected the shifting dynamics of gender relations in America. [i] The home, once believed to be the domain of the wife and depicted as a most intimate space, was transformed in the 1950s into a space where men could find peace and security from the outside pressures of the world. Many men who returned from war found a nation transformed by the increasing influence of women and a shift to a nation of consumers rather than producers. Perhaps no form of American culture better encapsulates this “tectonic” shift in gender relations than the medium of television. The television, with its reliance on consumerism, was linked to the new idea of the normal American man as a “breadwinner” who worked outside the home and the American woman as the “homemaker” whose purpose was to care for the home, purchase goods for the home, and raise the children. [ii] It is this dynamic of gender relations in America that television in the 1950s embraced and marketed to the nation in order to ensure that American men could re-claim their masculinity at a time when many American men worried about their status and the status of the country.
When American men returned home after World War II, many of them faced the challenges of trying to readjust to a life where masculine violence was not celebrated, and to an economy where more and more men were working for large corporations rather than for themselves. [iii] It was within this climate—tinged with the fear that American men were becoming infected by criminality, homosexuality, perversion, and anti-American sentiment—that the nation sought to reify American masculinity. The fear of Communism and the growing tensions of the Cold War also factored into this narrative of masculinity “in crisis” because as many politicians, academics, and other influential Americans claimed the strength of the nation was linked to the ability of strong, manly men to stand up against Communist threats and the increasing feminization of the country. [iv] In short, for men of the 1950s, the most important component of their male identity was tied to the notions of responsibility and maturity that could only be achieved through marriage and the establishment of a home.
It was against this backdrop that the decade’s most successful sitcom, Love Lucy, premiered on Oct. 15, 1951. The series stemmed from Lucille Ball’s popular appeal in her radio series, My Favorite Husband, which CBS executives sought to adapt for TV after The Hollywood Reporter noted that it was “too bad that Lucille Ball’s funny grimaces and gestures aren’t visible on the radio.” [v] The transition to television would not be without its problems. Ball challenged the network over two key elements: the casting of her on-screen husband and the depiction of the daily chores of the American housewife.
Ball demanded that Arnaz who was a minor celebrity who had worked in B-movies and in the music business, play her husband in the series. [vi] However, CBS executives opposed the casting because Arnaz was Cuban, his English was poor, and advertisers feared the backlash from representing an interracial couple. Executives noted that the “audience would not believe a show where she was married to a Cuban bandleader.” [vii] Ball, incensed by the network’s reaction, pointed out that they were indeed married and that this connection would make the series seem even more believable. In order to convince CBS that audiences would accept the idea of an interracial couple on television, Ball and Arnaz went on a vaudeville tour together. Its success helped to alleviate CBS’s concerns.
The original premise for the show was based on the relationship of a successful orchestra leader and his successful movie star wife, a tactic designed to draw upon the public’s knowledge of Ball and Arnaz’s showbiz credentials. Ball and Arnaz resisted this idea; they believed it was “unreal” and would not produce good television. Instead, the series would represent the ideal of the Eisenhower era: the wife in the kitchen and the husband working outside the home. During the first story conference, Arnaz demonstrated his devotion to the series and his own understanding of the importance of masculine imagery when he told the writers he didn’t want the character written as ridiculous or foolish. [viii] Arnaz also demonstrated his importance to the series when he convinced the network that a live audience was necessary during the filming of the series (a television first) and when he engaged the services of cinematographer Karl Freund to help solve the problem of ensuring audiences across the country would see the show’s visual elements without the sacrificing image quality. Ball and Arnaz demanded that the series be filmed in Los Angeles rather than New York to better suit their needs—in part because Lucy wanted to use the series to try and provide some stability in her marriage and career. [ix]
Freund’s work is another reason that the show was seen as an advancement in the medium at the time. Freund was well known in Hollywood for his innovative work during the German Expressionist period, when he created movement with his camera by mounting it on moving objects like bicycles and cranes. He even strapped the camera to his own chest to film the subjective shots in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece The Last Laugh. Freund first met Ball on the 1943 Technicolor film, Du Barry was a Lady. She fondly remembered the care he had taken to light and photograph her. When Arnaz needed a professional cinematographer who could tone down the harsh lighting of early television, he understood that Freund was his best option.
Still, Freund faced a great challenge: Arnaz wanted him to create a lighting set-up that would accommodate all types of shots in a single location. Arnaz wanted to film the series as if it were a mini-play using a single sound stage with multiple standing sets. To achieve this effect, Freund devised an overhead lighting system that cast a flat, even illumination over the entire set. He also had stagehands paint the walls in various shades of gray to make the cast stand out and look their best when photographed. [x] Together Ball, Arnaz, and Freund planned each shot and continually worked until the shots and the actors’ movements were perfectly lined up. Freund’s innovations are one of the reasons the series maintains not only its popularity but its critical respect today.
Arnaz, insistent upon the studio audience, convinced CBS to allocate money to convert a sound stage at a movie studio into a space where the series would be shot with four sets side by side, three cameras, and 300 audience members. [xi] After all the production details and location were finalized the show went into production—despite the fact that CBS and sponsor Philip Morris still weren’t sold on the show’s potential success.
The series’ tone was established in the first episode, “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub.” In the episode Ricky and his friend and landlord Fred Mertz (William Frawley) want to go to the boxing match to celebrate Fred and Ethel’s (Vivian Vance) anniversary. Lucy and Ethel want to go to a nightclub instead. To teach the men a lesson, the women arrange dates for themselves. When the men find out they agree to blind dates of their own, only to learn that their dates are their wives dressed up in outrageous costumes. The women in the end get a chance to put on their best dresses, but like so many women of the 50s they learn that what the man wants is what the woman should want; the episode ends with the women attending the fights with their husbands with looks of boredom on their faces.
Lynn Spiegel astutely argues that within the sitcoms of the 1950s the reliance on female stars was believed to appeal to television’s family audience, especially the housewife, and that the format also domesticated men. [xii] Throughout its run, I Love Lucy embraces the duality of the need to appeal to consumers and represent masculinity as authoritative and domestic. This duality has not been fully explored in critical responses to the show.
In “The Audition” (Nov. 19, 1951), the focus is on Lucy’s desire to get into show business, a desire that emerges when she discovers that TV executives are interested in putting Ricky on the air. Ricky espouses the view of American men when he tells Lucy, “I want a wife who is just a wife. All you have to do is clean the house for me, bring me my slippers when I come home at night, cook for me, and be the mamma for my children.” The series continuously explores this masculine ethos, along with Lucy’s recognition that life in 1950s America is based around consumerism. In the episode, as Ricky shaves, Lucy demonstrates her knowledge of how television and consumerism function when, in order to convince Ricky he needs her, she tells him, “everybody knows you gotta have a pretty girl in your act to help demonstrate the sponsor’s product. She eats it or drinks it or waxes the floor with it or cuts potatoes with it or drives off in it.” The episode ends with Lucy dressed up as clown performing in Ricky’s act when his primary clown, Boffo, is injured during rehearsals. Lucy gets her way, but she must do so in a way that reinforces Ricky’s authority and makes her seem ridiculous.
The episode in the first season that best illustrates the gender divide is “Men are Messy” (Dec. 3, 1951). The episode opens with Lucy in the living room of her apartment happily dusting the furniture, illustrating that Lucy is no different than other 1950s housewives who spent their days ensuring their homes were neat and tidy. As the camera dollies out, Lucy is shown wearing a simple dress with an apron over it. After she finishes the dusting she straightens the pillows on the couch. The phone rings and Lucy answers it. As she explains to Ethel on the other end, she is “just straightening up” because “you know I can’t stand it if the house isn’t neat.” She then tells Ethel her motto: “A place for everything and everything in its place. That’s the way I like it.” These opening moments of action and dialogue serve to show that Lucy is a conscientious housewife who performs her duties with joy (Lucy cheerfully hums as she works) and efficiency. The two discuss possible plans for the evening and then Lucy hangs up the phone.
She then organizes the desk in the living room. After she finishes her cleaning, feather duster in hand, she steps back to admire her work and then goes into the adjoining kitchen. As Lucy enters the kitchen Ricky comes home from work carrying a newspaper, his hat, and his coat. Ricky whistles as he hangs his hat on a statue next to the door, then crosses the room. He lays his coat on the back of one of the chairs, tosses the paper on the couch, removes his tie, places it on the desk chair, sits down at the desk, and opens the mail. He then opens the desk drawers and removes a pile of papers from it and lays it on top of the desk, looking for something. He finds what he needs, but instead of putting everything back in the desk, he simply leaves it. He then gets up and removes his suit coat, takes off his sweater, and throws it on the floor. He sits down on the sofa, picks up the paper, takes off his shoes, and throws them on the floor followed by the sections of the paper he is not interested in reading. He then grabs a banana from a nearby fruit bowl and, before sitting back on the sofa to read his paper, he rearranges the cushions and pillows so that he can lie down on the sofa. As he sits with the paper in his lap, he begins to peel the banana and takes a bite. Ricky’s actions illustrate how men in the 1950s took for granted the labor of their wives to maintain the home and showed little regard for the efforts those women undertook.
Lucy emerges from the kitchen happy to see her husband and greets him, “Hello Ricky baby.” She then observes the room that she has spent so much time cleaning and is amazed by how quickly Ricky has made a mess of her work. However, when Ricky tosses the banana peel on the coffee table, Lucy, with her hands on her hips shows her annoyance. She says, “Well… how could a cyclone hit in here and not in the kitchen.”
Ricky looks at Lucy with a puzzled expression and asks, “What are you talking about, a cyclone?” Ricky’s inability to see his own role in messing up what Lucy has spent her whole day cleaning further demonstrates how Ricky connects to the model masculinity of the 1950s that celebrated men as “breadwinners” and wives as “homemakers” whose purpose was to serve the interests of their husbands, husbands who felt that because they worked hard outside of the home, they should simply be able to relax and do as little as possible within it.
Lucy shows her displeasure with Ricky’s actions and tries to point out that he has ruined her labor when she uses the metaphor of the cyclone. Yet Ricky pretends—or perhaps believes—that he is not responsible for any mess when he says, “Where? I don’t see anything wrong with it.” Fed up, Lucy replies, “Oh you don’t. Would you mind telling me please what all these clothes are doing here in the living room?” She then tries to illustrate her point as she picks up his sweater off the floor.
Ricky smiles and says, “Oh, that is where I took them off. Would you put them away for me, dear?” The dialogue here shows that, like other men of the 1950s, Ricky tries to use his love for his wife to sugarcoat the fact that he sees her as his domestic servant and partner. “Look, honey there is a new invention that you’ll just love. It is a hole in the wall, has a long pole in it, little metal things hanging on it, and it’s called a coat closet,” Lucy says sarcastically as she tosses the sweater over Ricky’s face in an attempt to get him to make an effort to help keep the house clean. He lifts the sweater and with a grin says, “Well, what won’t they think of next.”
Lucy, exasperated, says, “Honestly, Ricky, how can you men be so sloppy and dirty and nothing but a bunch of messcats?” To which he playfully replies, “There is nothing sloppy and dirty about this room. It just looks lived-in.” He then tries to convince Lucy to end the argument and explains that, “You can’t expect me to live in a museum. A man’s home is his castle.” Ricky’s statement echoes the mindset of 1950s American men who saw the home as their refuge from the world and believed that within that “castle” they were the voice of authority and could determine which labors they wanted to engage in and which they did not, such as common household chores. Calling Ricky the “king of the slobs” and stating that, “if you want the house to look this way then sit and wallow in it,” Lucy expresses the frustration of housewives who want to love and respect their husbands, but also wish that they’d show some courtesy by taking responsibility for themselves in the home. Lucy then begins reading one of Ricky’s magazines and tells Ricky that Tommy Dorsey, a jazz musician like Ricky, keeps his shoes on and lives in a clean home.
Lucy tells Ricky to put his shoes on and to pick up the papers because “company is coming” when Ethel phones and Lucy invites them up for the evening. Ricky remains defiant and tells Lucy, “It isn’t company. It’s Fred and Ethel.” Ricky does not understand that, for women like Lucy, it is important that anyone, even friends and family, only see the home when it is tidy. She asks, “Ricky are you going to help me clean up this place or aren’t you?” He replies like a spoiled child saying, “No, this is my home and I want to be comfortable in it.” Ricky’s answer that the apartment is his shocks Lucy, who has consistently thought of their relationship as a limited partnership. She then shows her own determination about her gender role when she asks, “Your home? What does that make me, a visiting relative?”
Ricky tells Lucy that she is welcome to clean half of the room and leave his half of the room messy. She then separates the room using a piece of string. Ricky responds with disbelief and says something in Spanish. He then tests Lucy’s earnestness and tries to step over the line, and Lucy tells him he can’t cross without a passport.
When Fred and Ethel arrive Lucy explains why the apartment is divided and why half of the room is dirty. Fred sides with Ricky, saying “It looks okay with me” and Ethel sides with Lucy. Fred crosses the line as Lucy tells him “pull up some debris and sit down.” At Ricky’s suggestion, Fred takes off his coat, tie, and shoes. Ricky then offers him a banana and the two sit together on the sofa peeling fruit and tossing the remains onto the coffee table.
The line serves as comic relief but also illustrates how the men do not understand that they could be more respectful of the women and their efforts. Men like Ricky and Fred in the 1950s were told that it was the man’s job to go out in the world and provide for the family and that it was the woman’s role to ensure that the home was well-maintained. While modern audiences might sympathize with Lucy, the show continues to reinforce Ricky’s dominance. Lucy, instead of being rewarded for her attempts to assert herself in her relationship, often ends up the butt of the joke.
Later, Ricky finds out that a magazine wants to write a story about his domestic status and to take pictures of his home. Ricky is approached about the pictures while working at the club, and simply assumes that because he needs the publicity, Lucy will accept her position as the model wife. He tells the photographer that she is “the best little housekeeper” and “everything is always as neat as a pen.” When Lucy finds out that a magazine wants to photograph Ricky and his home she thinks it is for one of Ricky’s music magazines. She and Ethel decide to teach Ricky a lesson about the importance of their labor and keeping a tidy home. They fill the apartment with garbage, chickens, laundry hanging on a clothesline, and old tires. As Ricky enters the apartment he is shocked by what he sees. Ricky tells the photographer that they are in the wrong apartment. Just as they are about to leave Lucy appears dressed in overalls and an oversized wig. She speaks with an exaggerated Southern accent. Ricky sits with his head in his hands as he ponders what Lucy has done to prove her point. However, it is Lucy that is made to look ridiculous when she learns that the photographer is from Look magazine—a very popular magazine similar to Life known for its photojournalism.
The episode ends with Lucy crying in her apartment as Ricky comes home from work. She tells Ricky that the magazine has come out and that the spread of him is “good.” Ricky then asks why she continues to cry and she explains that she made the cover of the magazine dressed in her “hillbilly” attire and holding a gun. Thus, the episode which could be read as containing a moment of feminine awareness and power in the beginning ends with Lucy being embarrassed. She tried, and failed, to make the point that Ricky and men like him should be more helpful in the home by respecting the effort that women make to keep the home neat and tidy. In effect, the episode embraces the vision that masculinity in 1950s America is best defined by a husband’s job and that, if a wife challenges her husband’s actions and authority, the consequences are embarrassment and public humiliation.
In part 2, I’ll discuss more episodes in depth, including the classic episode “Job Switching.”
Dr. Brian Faucette teaches film and English courses. He has written book chapters and journal articles that explore the question “What does it mean to be a man in America?” and analyzes how the media impacts the construction of American masculinities. You can follow him on Twitter @brfaucette.
[i] See Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992.
[ii] See Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. Basic Books, 2008.
[iii] See William Whyte’s The Organization Man. Doubleday, 1957.
[iv] May, 91.
[v] See Stefan Kanfer’s Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball. Knopf, 2003, 120.
[vi] See Mary C. Beltrán’s Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom. Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009. She provides a historical and cultural look at Arnaz’s career and its impact on the formation and reception of the series.
[vii] See David Halberstam’s The Fifties. Ballantine Books, 1993.
[viii] See Susan Carini’s essay “Love’s Labors Lost: Managing Crisis During the Reign of I Love Lucy.” Cinema Journal 43, No.1 Fall 2003. In her essay, Carini offers a detailed analysis of the behind-the-scenes conflicts fought by Ball, Arnaz, the crew, and executives over control of the series and its content.
[ix] Kanfer documents how series sponsor Philip Morris’s concerns about the image quality factored into the decision to use film for the production of the series.
[x] See Louis Chunovic “Shedding Light on ‘I Love Lucy'” Electronic Media 20 no. 40 October 2001.
[xi] See Douglas McGrath’s “Television/Radio: The Good, the Bad, the Lucy: A Legacy of Laughs: The Man Behind the Throne Making the Case for Desi.” New York Times Oct. 14, 2001.
[xii] Spigel, 153-154.
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well, you had some ‘splanin’ to do and your sure did it!
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