By Brian Faucette
Don’t miss part one of this column here.
The importance of gender dynamics and gender narratives to I Love Lucy is made explicit in the second season opener, “Job Switching” (Sept. 15, 1952). It is an episode that in many ways served to frame the reception and direction of the series for the rest of its run. Ricky and Fred argue that the women have it easier by staying home and running the house, rather than going out into the workforce and earning a living. Lucy and Ethel disagree, so the men decide to swap places with the women and take over the housework while the women get jobs working in a candy factory. The goal is to see who has the toughest situation in 1950s America.
The episode opens with an angry Ricky coming home from work. He stands in the living room with his arms crossed as he chastises Lucy for her spending habits. “I don’t know what is wrong with you but every single month your bank account is overdrawn. Now what is the reason?” he demands to know. Lucy smiles half-heartedly and tells him, “You don’t give me enough money.”
“I don’t give you enough money. Do you think this is a game we are playing?” Ricky asks her as he backs her into a corner of the room. He then asks Lucy, “Do you realize how tough it is for a guy to make a buck these days? Do you think the money just grows on trees?” Ricky’s questioning of Lucy’s spending and management of the finances serves to show how men might allow their wives to control the family budget, but the moment that spending becomes a problem they’re going to assert their authority. The scene, while played for laughs, is a bit disconcerting. Ricky towers over Lucy, and the encounter seems to suggest that Lucy is a simple-minded fool or child who can’t survive without the astute guidance of men like Ricky who can keep women and their flighty habits in check.
As Lucy and Ricky discuss their finances, Fred and Ethel enter. Lucy invites them to stay. Just like in “Men are Messy,” the two couples align their positions based on gendered assumptions. Fred tells Ricky, “She spends money like I was printing it in the basement. Let’s face it Rick. When it comes to money there are two kinds of people: the earners and the spenders. Or as they are more popularly known, husbands and wives.” Fred’s allegiance to Ricky because they are both men captures the series’ need to rely on the idea of the “battle of the sexes” to create comedy. Ricky explains that, “If they had to make the dollar, they would think twice before spending it that fast.” Ethel and Lucy then ask the question that propels the episode forward, “What is so tough about earning a living?” Their question captures the nascent feminist strain that was emerging in the 1950s as more and more women entered the workforce and sought to stress the need for equality in the home and in the workplace, an equality that will not begin to be achieved until the late 1970s (and continues to be sought after today).
Ricky condescendingly says to the women, “Holding down a job is a lot more difficult than lying around the house all day long.” Lucy and Ethel, angered by their husbands’ assumption that their labor is easy and of no consequence, reply, “Is that all you think we do? Who do you think does the housework? And who do you think cooks all the meals?” Ricky, echoing the sentiment of many 1950s American men, shrugs off Lucy’s questions and proclaims that, “Anybody can cook and do the housework.” Lucy challenges Ricky’s dismissal of their work and tells him, “I would just like to see you two try it for a week.” Ricky in order to make his point exclaims, “Okay, we will. You will have to go out and earn the living.”
The next scene shows Ricky in the kitchen wearing an apron as he makes breakfast. As Ricky and Lucy sit down to breakfast together, Lucy compliments him on his cooking skills, and asks, “Where did you learn to do all this?” Ricky smiles and says, “Maybe I am just a natural born cook.” As Lucy reads the paper, Ricky asks her what kind of job she is going to get, but she ignores him, just as he has ignored her during breakfast in past episodes. “Now you know what I go through every morning,” Lucy tells Ricky as she tries to provide him with a full understanding of her daily experience. Ricky then promises that he will “reform.”
The phone rings as they are eating and Lucy answers it. She finds out that Ricky purchased their breakfast from the drugstore nearby where Ricky left his hat. Lucy then tells Ricky that he could have tried to cook the breakfast himself using the groceries in the house, but he explains that when he tried to make the eggs they did not “turn out quite right.” Moreover, he admits to Lucy that he wasted a dozen eggs. The scene shows that despite Ricky’s boastful claims, he cannot even make his own breakfast. And despite his lecture to Lucy about spending money, Ricky finds it acceptable to buy breakfast when he is the one who is responsible for providing it.
Lucy and Ethel then head to the local employment agency to seek help locating jobs. They try to convince the man running the office that they can do any job—despite the fact that neither one has any experience in the workforce. The man reads off a list of possible jobs, and then Lucy gets excited when he says he has openings for candy makers.
As Lucy and Ethel seek employment, Ricky works in the apartment doing the laundry and ironing when Fred shows up wearing a kerchief on his head. Fred then tries to give Ricky some pointers about conducting housework when Ricky shows Fred a piece of clothing that he scorched by accident. The two men share tips and discuss their own blunders as Fred asks how to iron silk stockings, and Ricky explains that you don’t iron them, but instead make sure you have plenty of starch on them when you wash them. Ricky then shows Fred one of Lucy’s stockings that he washed, which of course is stiff as a board and looks like it fit would fit on a sign rather than a person. The scene designed to make fun of men depicts them are incompetent at housework, suggesting this is why women are better suited to working within the home.
When they report for work at the chocolate factory, Lucy is given a job in the chocolate dipping department and Ethel is given a position in the packaging department. Lucy watches as a woman next to her tempers the chocolate and then rolls the candy in it creating a ball shape. Lucy misjudges the difficulty of the work and looks more like she is making mud pies rather than dipping candy. Lucy tries to strike up a conversation with the other woman but to no avail. Eventually Lucy ends up with chocolate smeared on her face when she accidentally puts chocolate on the face of the woman next to her, when she tries to swat a fly. The scene is definitely funny, but it again serves to highlight the idea that women in the workforce are ineffectual. Lucy is not just bad at her job—she is comicly bad, again showing how her attempts to prove her point to Ricky results in looking the buffoon.
After the debacle of doing laundry Ricky is shown successfully vacuuming the house and reading a newspaper. When Fred shows up with a cake, Ricky says, “You know why women claim housework is so hard—because they don’t use their heads.” (Indicating that if women were more innovative, like men, they would get more accomplished.) Fred then shows Ricky his seven layer cake, which is as flat as a pancake. Ricky tells Fred he has the main course covered because he has cooked four pounds of rice for four people along with two chickens, which he placed in a pressure cooker. However, when the lid blows off the pressure cooker, chaos ensues as Fred and Ricky look all over the kitchen for the chickens that were launched out of the cooker. The chickens fall from the ceiling and Ricky and Fred pick them up to wash them in the sink. Again, their inept knowledge of cooking and housework is shown as Ricky and Fred try and wash the chickens using dish detergent and a scouring brush.
As they are washing the chickens, on the stove the rice overflows from a pot. Ricky and Fred turn around and see the mess and then begin to try and catch the rice in bowls, their hands, and anything else they can find, including a broom and dustpan. As they struggle to clean up their mess, Ricky and Fred slide on the rice and fall in the floor. These scenes, which are without question hilarious, further solidify the notion that men can only be successful outside of the home, and serves to reify the cultural assumptions of the 1950s that a man’s place was in the workforce not in the home doing chores. What seems at first glance to be a rather progressive acknowledgment of the difficulties of being a housewife ultimately serves to reinforce a woman’s place within the home.
After trying and failing at multiple positions at the candy factory, Lucy and Ethel find themselves working in the wrapping department where they are supposed to wrap each candy by hand as it travels from the kitchen to the packing room via a conveyor belt. The women are told that they will be fired if they fail to get a single piece of candy wrapped. At first Lucy and Ethel are successful, but when the speed of the conveyor belt increases they fall behind and have to resort to other means to try and stop the candy from reaching the other room. Lucy stuffs chocolates into her mouth, shirt, and hat in order to keep up. As production increases the women are unable to keep up and the humor in the scene occurs as the viewer watches Lucy and Ethel struggle to keep pace and stuff chocolates in their mouths, shirts, and hats. There is an irony to the scene in that Lucy and Ethel discover that a product, which many women consumed in the 1950s, is something that is difficult to manufacture and produce and women’s labor is required for its manufacture.
The episode ends with the image of Lucy and Ethel returning to Lucy’s apartment (a moment that mirrors the image of Ricky coming home from a hard day at work). Both women look exhausted and Ethel holds her stomach from eating too much candy. They find a note on the kitchen door from Fred and Ricky advising them to wait to enter until the men return. Lucy enters the kitchen, and as she does she screams loudly. Lucy comes out and tells Ethel, “It’s in shambles. There is food all over the place. On the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling, it is a mess.” Lucy then tells Ethel, “I don’t want to clean it up.”
Ricky and Fred return with presents, and admit that, “We are lousy housewives.” Lucy then smiles and says, “We are not so good at bringing home the bacon. We got fired off our first job.” Ricky says with relief, “We’ll make the money and you spend it. And listen girls, we never realized how tough it is to run a house before.” The men then present their wives with five-pound boxes of chocolates and the girls pass out. At the close of the episode the status quo of 1950s gender relations is restored, with the suggestion that perhaps the men and women have learned something from their experience. Still, the women are forced back into their roles as domestics and the men can find freedom in the workplace, so despite the proto-feminist strains embedded within the episode, in the end masculinity is reaffirmed as the most important factor in the formation of American social structure.
Two other episodes illustrate the show’s desire to embrace the conversations that were occurring about the nature of American masculinity at the time. “Ricky Has Labor Pains” (Jan. 1, 1953) and “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” (Jan. 19, 1953) display a softer, more concerned side of Ricky’s masculinity. The two episodes also reveal how the series sought to strengthen Ricky’s image of masculinity by depicting the importance of fatherhood in transforming men into responsible and mature American citizens. In effect, by making Ricky a father, the series worked to solidify Ricky’s image as a model middle class American man as he went from being a popular bandleader to a doting dad.
The role of masculine authority and assumptions about gender relations, consumerism, and the changing nature of the American family and home are explored throughout I Love Lucy. Ricky showed that even the most headstrong of wives could (and normally, for her own good, should) be guided by the influence of a strong male hand. Lucy is often seemingly punished for trying to assert her own agency, but Ricky’s is never in question. Televised images of masculinity through roles such as Ricky Ricardo helped American men define themselves, and popular series like I Love Lucy played a key role.
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.