By Anna Fields, Columnist
Even as a proto-feminist icon of the 1950s, Lucille Ball refused to identify with the term ‘feminism’ or to even side with women’s liberation. The fact is that Lucy, like many of her time and today, had, to some degree, internalized the sexism she’d been brought up to believe. According to Dr. Lori Landay of the Berklee School of Music, a film studies expert who teaches courses on the lasting feministic and cultural effects stemming from I Love Lucy, “someone once asked her about ‘women’s lib,’ and she responded, “I’ve been so liberated, it hurts.”
So was Lucy, in fact, against the idea? Certainly not, and again, the historical, social, and political context of the 1950s illuminates her statement. For Lucille Ball, feminism didn’t exist. It was called “women’s liberation” back then, and it didn’t mean then what it does now, since in those days the idea that women should enjoy the same rights, freedoms, and privilege as men was still a radical notion reserved for only the most politically active—and sometimes, revolutionary. Lucy didn’t yet have the right word for her desires. She was proto-feminist. But the fact remains that she certainly did things in her everyday life and in her career that actively worked towards women being recognized equally for their contributions, which, in itself, is an inherent part of what it means to be a feminist today: Someone who advocates, whether in practice or in their speech, for women’s equality. Lucy didn’t yet have the vocabulary for her actions and instincts that we have today, but she felt the injustice behind the gender expectations put upon her. The exact articulation of those feelings was left to Madelyn, perhaps, when she later described writing the original pilot episode for I Love Lucy.
“We wrote, Ricky says, “I want a wife who is just a wife.” And I don’t know what we were thinking, except that Lucy and I didn’t know any better.”
That was the premise for Ricky’s character, which begs the question remains: Have things changed since then? In some ways, they have—in others, not so much. But for 1950s American audiences, and certainly for Lucy and Madelyn, Ricky’s sentiment, though deeply unfair, was not considered unusual. In fact, it was completely typical and normative.
In terms of the gender expectations placed on today’s husbands and wives, Millennial stand-up and comedy writer Naomi Ekperigin added that, “the expectations placed squarely on women are always very funny to me. I think what I’ve used to my advantage as a comedian is the difference between what people expect and what they actually get. And I think it’s so funny the way we’re expected to be so perfect and look so good and constantly try to improve ourselves, but don’t talk about how you don’t like yourself, but constantly be trying to make yourself better. And, um, focus on your career and don’t worry about men, but you should really have someone. It’s like there’s a lot the fuck to do. And I think it’s so, it’s so funny to me to try to fucking make it work, cause it’s damn near impossible.”
“Yeah, it is,” I responded. “It’s like we started off being allowed to be nothing, and now we’re expected to be everything, and hopefully the journey will end where we’re allowed to be anything. From nothing to everything to somewhere in the middle, where you’re not just expected to be a wife, mother, secretary, housekeeper but you’re also not expected to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and also a perfect mother of three who’s got the tits of a 22-year-old. Eventually, you can just be whatever you want. Agreed?”
“Agreed!” Naomi said.
“Do you feel like you’ve had to make any sacrifices in your career over the past several years? Have you, do you feel like there was anything that you just had to put on hold, or that you just had to make choices about?”
“The fact that I’ve been engaged for three years is definitely a result of this career choice. For instance, you also that my fiancé’s also in this business, but I think that, especially because the wedding is also supposed to be the woman’s responsibility, that if I wasn’t so focused on doing this other stuff, maybe I would have planned a wedding by now.”
“Maybe you should tell him to do it.”
“I know. But it’s so funny, again, with all these gender expectations. We try to split it up. I’ll say, ‘Andy, you call this place, and I’ll call that place, but then he’ll call and they’ll be like, ‘what’s the bride’s name?’ They’ll want all of my contact information. And he’s like, ‘but I’m the one who’s calling you. We went to look at a couple of venues, they all just like look at me, like, ‘well, it’s her day!’ and I’m just like, ‘this bitch has expectations.’ Don’t think I’m gonna get to have my way all the time, you know? He’s not some groom who’s just expecting to show up and that’s it. It shouldn’t have to be up to just one of us to handle everything. Nothing’s solely my job or solely his – it’s all both, and it should be, because we’re both getting married. Anything else is such an outdated mode of thinking about weddings and relationships. It’s incredibly frustrating”
It’s even more frustrating when we consider the history behind these expectations, and how long and hard comedians have already been working – both before and behind the camera – to change this either/or mode of thinking. When Lucy first proposed her show, when she was pitching it – first there was a comedy that she was going to be in where she was the wife, about newlyweds, and that didn’t really go anywhere, and Clairol wanted to sponsor a show with her in it, and she said – what if instead of being somebody’s wife, or somebody’s girlfriend, or somebody’s secretary, I was “The Somebody.” And that’s the first time where the woman is “The Somebody.” And she had her feminist ideas from the very beginning. She wanted to have an actress, and wanted her character to be someone who didn’t want, as an angle, to get married. She wanted to have a career – as an actress – that’s what that character wants. And then she’s kind of the kooky girl, and has all these temporary jobs, and she has the boyfriend that the network and the sponsors insisted that she have, but she really pitched it as something where she understood there was something that was changing, that this was something for her and for her friends, and for a different demographic, and Clairol was very, very interested in that, and they were very supportive of that, and all the kinds of things that we see in that show that speak to a non-housewife audience, is the reason we get a non-housewife character on television today.
Huffington Post blogger Wendy Wisner writes that we should all “Let us be ourselves. Let us seek out the other stuff when we want it, when we’re ready. I think we could all use a whole lot less doing, and a whole lot more being. And faith. Faith that life is full enough on its own. And that we have no one to impress. Despite how it feels, no one is watching us as much as we are watching ourselves. No one can tell us what we need or how we should fill our days. Only we can. We have that power. Let’s use it for happiness. For enjoying the most ordinary of our days. Life is shorter than we realize… the rest will come together on its own.”
While we were walking to her car parked in a lot near iO West, Susan Rice admitted that, “I used to spend hours in front of the mirror doing takes. Pretending to be someone else. I was lonely, so I used to spend hours in front of the mirror, and I didn’t know what I was doing but I was having a great time reliving those I Love Lucy episodes.”
Do you have a favorite?
“Oh G-d. Anything with her and Ethel… Probably ‘Vitavitavegamin’ or that candy factory scene, where she’s trying to do way too much and failing miserably? I mean, it’s such a woman thing to do. It’s like, ‘No, I can do this. I can do… Oh my god I can’t do this. Oh, I can’t… well I’m going to try to do…’ I mean it just spoke to me. That one just made me laugh out loud cause we, you know, overextended ourselves. When I first saw it I was pretty, well… I wasn’t that young but I was young. You know? Of mind. Inexperienced. I related to it because I’d probably had seen my mother juggling like that, you know. Trying to get it all done and then just having to give up and laugh about it. But I think she was so physical too which you didn’t see a lot of physicality. With Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and even Milton Berle and Red Skelton. They were very physical. Lucy came on the scene and she was really physical. And she did mirror that. She mirrored what she had grown up with.”
You do, too, dear Reader. We all do.
We have to start admitting it to ourselves and to one another that we are all in this together. We’re all little sponges in this petri dish, floating around, trying to survive while soaking up all the messages we later insist are “biological.” Messages that are, in fact, only the liquid we’ve been absorbing since birth. Liquid that’s full of things we’ve come to accept and even actively encourage others to accept without question. This is the real comedy of being a woman and a feminist: poking holes in that passive acceptance. Those base assumptions. That default setting of what we presume is “natural” about our gender. Draining some of the liquid out of life. Pointing out how, in the beginning, we could essentially be nothing but property intended solely for the purposes of breeding and keeping house, and now we must be everything including breeding and keeping house.
But is that really true? And if so, will the pendulum that, over time, has seemingly swung from one extreme to the other ever settle somewhere in the middle? Will we have evolved from being nothing to being everything until, eventually, we can be anything?
Anna Fields is an author and independent filmmaker, whose various works have been published, produced, developed, and awarded by Penguin Putnam, Skyhorse/Arcade, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Forbes, Marie Claire, Bunim/Murray, PB&J Television, CBS, ABC, Turner/Cartoon Network, LaMaMa Etc., and the Austin and Toronto Film Festivals. Her latest book, The Girl in the Show, is available now wherever books are sold.