Women’s Capabilities in “I Love Lucy”

Although “I Love Lucy” was about 40 years old when I began to watch it, I still love it and treasure each moment that I am able to watch a re-run in Los Angeles. My home is just a few blocks away from studios that housed “I Love Lucy” as part of Desilu Productions. Living in an area where their studio presided, seeing community murals, and watching re-runs makes me feel like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz continue to have a strong presence in Los Angeles.

One episode always surprises me: “Lucy Wants New Furniture,” 1953. Although Lucy was depicted as a housewife in a time just passing the WWII “Make and Mend” society of the 1940s, Lucy is shown to have no knowledge of sewing. She begins by cutting out fabric with a small razor blade rather than scissors because the manicuring scissors she tried to use were too small.

lucy sewing
Lucy with sewing machine

In an effort to save money, she attempts to make her own dress. Lucy rents a sewing machine and explains it is easy enough for a child to use. She reads the booklet and the instructions, “First thread the bobbin,” but Lucy doesn’t know what a bobbin is. Lucy mistakes the up and down movements of the needle as the bobbin by explaining “that must be the bobbin, it’s bobbing up and and down…”

Ricky tries to comfort Lucy
Ricky tries to comfort Lucy

After Lucy finishes sewing the dress, she tries it on and asks her good friend Ethel what she thinks. Ethel comments, “I give up, what is it?” Lucy explains, “Pretty bad, isn’t it. I was hoping it would look different when I tried it on… You don’t have to get nasty about it, afterall I made it with my own two hands.” Ethel responds, “It looks like you made it with your own two feet.”

Lucy's home made dress and perm
Lucy’s home made dress and perm

Despite Lucy’s sincere attempts to make a dress for herself, the dress turns out unwearable with exaggerated mistakes in asymmetry. She also accidentally cut through the carpet when she was cutting her dress patterns with the razor blade. This conveys complete incompetence in making a dress especially because mistakes go beyond the dress itself.

Dress pattern accidentally cut into carpet
Dress pattern accidentally cut into carpet

Although the goal of the episode is to convey the need to economize and not spend money on commodities, in this case, new furniture, the episode emphasizes how difficult it can be to economize and do things for yourself via Lucy’s failed attempt to make a dress for herself. This is just one example of errors with do-it-yourself projects seen in “I Love Lucy.” (“Pioneer Women,” “Redecorating the Mertz Apartment,” “Lucy Raises Tulips”)

This episode has strong undertones that represent the 1950s cultural push for mass consumption as a strategy to boost the economy. As the most popular TV show of the 1950s, “I Love Lucy” was a part of the culture. Lucy is representative of women budding out of the home sphere with the vast schemes and tricks she plays on her husband; however, her skills are constantly downplayed. Housewives of the 1950s are depicted as unfit for making clothes; instead they are strongly dependent on clothes readily available in department stores and by major designers. This is depicted in several episodes where Lucy wants to buy new dresses or accessories. (“The Fur Coat,” “Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress,” “Lucy Gets a Paris Gown”) New clothes are linked to her happiness, but something always goes wrong, which suggests that material commodities only provide short term joy. I love “I Love Lucy” because of the wealth of meaning it carries in each episode. Its speaks to social expectations, norms, and attitudes of the time. It also helps explain how we came to be a society of mass consumption.

“I Love Lucy” is symbolic of a transitional period where the role of women was changing. Lucy conveys the spirit of working women who took the place of men as part of the domestic war effort. She wants to be more than just a housewife, she wants to work, be famous, earn an income beyond the allowance Ricky gives her, but Lucy is never fully fulfills her dream. Our media is still stuck in this transition period as women’s skills continue to be downplayed. Although more and more women are succeeding and are able to convey their own skills to the world, women are taken less seriously as they are highly sexualized in mainstream movies, TV shows, magazines, and ads. Women do not receive the respect they are entitled to and it is rooted in preconceptions limited abilities. Getting out of this 60 year transition period is essential to see the potential of all women.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. woolfarmgal says:

    Such a great article. I might add we are in transition again-from a consumption driven economy to a trade/barter/home business driven one. The nine to five is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Women are producing more, schooling more, gardening more…from home. Is anyone wondering what has happened to the folks who have given up on looking for a job? I dare say they are making up their own jobs. And women are becoming producers.

    1. Helen Trejo says:

      Yes! I agree, women are becoming producers, and using crowd sourcing spaces like Kickstarter to get community support. It is great!

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