I was recently flipping through channels when I stumbled upon an I Love Lucy marathon and was compelled to watch it for the next 4 hours, giggling hysterically by myself. I remember watching it with my mother, who’s laughter I can still hear when watching any especially screwball episode, and her accounts of herself as a young girl, her mother and her grandmother sitting around the television screaming and, by her description “literally peeing ourselves with laughter”. I hadn’t watched an episode of this show for years, since a college course labeled “love, sex and dating” in which the premier episode was shown to the class to demonstrate typical marriage dynamics in the 1950s. During the discussion of women’s subordination that followed, I felt myself pondering the liberal arts explanation of this show: Lucy was a repressed housewife abused by her alpha husband. There are, of course, things that are hard to watch about Lucille and Desi’s fictional marriage as represented on I Love Lucy. But I think there are equally as many opportunities taken that push the comfort level of the American public- including a depiction of a headstrong woman who uses her wit and brain to problem solve, a tongue-in-cheek awareness (or perpetrated naïveté) on the topics of sex and race (Ricky Ricardo being from Cuba was a heavy plot point- he spoke Spanish in nearly every episode), as well as a somewhat unconventional family structure (Desi played a bandleader, not a business man).
Behind the scenes, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz managed to change Television into what it has been for the last 60 years. I Love Lucy was the first show ever to be properly filmed (Karl Freund, who shot some of Lang’s Metropolis, was the cinematographer) This was because of a bargain Lucy and Desi struck with CBS that traded their huge pay cut for the the rights to the filmed TV show (which made them the producers), and therefore allowed it to be the first show fit for syndication. This propelled Lucille Ball to become the first female television studio head. The show also pioneered many of the now traditional production values still used in sitcoms today.
When I watch Lucy Ricardo “cower” from Ricky’s violent threats, it is with humor and a self-awareness that shows that Lucy is no coward. Her physical comedy and unbelievable quick wit is an ultimate defense against the status quo. She uses a typical format (her housewife life, her marriage) and transforms the conversation into something different- into a ballad of HER struggles and HER obstacles (experiences shared by many women in the country- I Love Lucy is the most watched television show ever made). And for all the progress we see on screen (one of the first representation of pregnancy on TV) there is more progress being made behind the scenes (Lucille Ball fighting for that right as a producer and studio head).
Reflecting on this makes me ponder the use of television in general. The television format was meant as a more immediate reflection of the public- a mirror that changes with the times. Sitcoms reflect back commonalities over weeks, months and years, unlike film, whose main objective is to be contained in an hour and a half. I think that what we see as representative progress on TV shows is actually a lag behind the progress being made in real life.
With the media blitz (and my intense love) for Lena Dunham’s series Girls, I can’t help but draw lines between the shows. In the first season to date, Dunham has drawn serious criticism for the show’s lack of representation of women of color and different classes. While I see these points, I feel that what is represented is something uncharted in the waters of typical women on TV. I can imagine Lucille Ball tuning in, watching 20-something girls living as they see fit: working to create lives that include a career that is challenging and intellectually fulfilling, experiencing their own roles in relationships through (graphic) experimental/ casual/ out of wedlock sex and sexuality, planning their own families, including a real effort (appointment, anyway) to terminate an unplanned and unaffordable pregnancy. I believe she would be captured and enthralled by this young woman’s perspective, and I believe that she lead the way for 25-year old Dunham to write, act in and produce television based on her own worldview (whose common themes are undoubtedly shared by many other women our age). Although it’s not perfect- my 20 something world is filled with much more variance in race, class, gender expression than shown on Girls, there is no doubt that women still have to jump through hoops to share their stories. I hope that TV catches up with us- that the real artists eat up air time with challenging points of view and we see more truth to reflect on/ be reflected by. Right now, I am assured that what I see is an exponent of progress, rather than the sum.