Lucy Ricardo (played by Lucille Ball in the hit 1950s show I Love Lucy) was a wife to Ricky. Lucille Bluth (played by Jessica Walter in the 2000 hit show Arrested Development) was the manipulative matriarch, secretly controlling the family business and stealing ideas from unassuming Korean banana stand owners. As you might assume in reading this blog, I, Lily, really enjoy watching television. I am a television fiend—30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, I Love Lucy, Arrested Development, Gilligan’s Island, How I Met Your Mother, Portlandia—if I continue the list, I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point of this blog post.
As a child, I watched I Love Lucy on Saturday Nights in my mom’s basement, usually eating Cool Ranch Doritos and drinking purple Gatorade. I laughed at the ridiculous situations that Lucy and Ethel would get themselves into, and then, later, when Ricky would inevitably yell at Lucy and Ethel. Today I see Lucille Ball as a hero in comedy—she was one of the originals. But there are issues with her characters—because even she thought it okay to play Lucy as (to borrow a word from the great librarian Andrew Lee) subservient to Ricky. Ricky is often embarrassed by Lucy, who is witty and sometimes a bit clumsy (clumsiness to be discussed later.)
Later, as an (almost) adult, I started watching Arrested Development, about a messed up wealthy family whose patriarch is suddenly arrested for some (light) treason. Michael Bluth has to take over the family business, as well as deal with his vapid mother and sister (Lucille and Lindsay) and clueless brothers (Gob and Buster.) The breakout character in this series is most certainly Lucille Bluth, who is, as I mentioned earlier, played by Jessica Walter. Lucille is revealed at the end of the series (SPOILERS AHEAD) to be the entire mastermind behind all of the crimes of the family business. In one of the last scenes in the show, she attempts to escape arrest by trying to hijack the Queen Mary, where a family party was taking place.
Lucille is not incredibly lovable—she’s manipulative, she’s a drunk, she cheats on her husband with his twin brother Oscar and she always wants her adult daughter on a diet. She’s a hyperbole of the ultimate WASP, but she’s also more of that. She’s a business magnate and a criminal mastermind. She is sexually free and tough when it comes to her bossy and often sexist husband. She’s definitely racist when it comes to her maids—Luce and Lupe. Lucille Bluth is a three dimensional character and shows how far we’ve come in female characters in television comedy—and shows how there’s still a ways to go. There’s a lot to improve, but she is a commentary.
But back to Lucy: it’s been a while for me. So I went on YouTube and checked out a few clips—the show is mostly what I remembered, Lucy and Ethel being silly, Ricky and Fred getting angry. But watch this clip, because the implications of character and gender are befuddling to me:
For those who don’t feel like watching, Lucy and Ethel attend charm school. Lucy spends a lot of time making fun of the woman who is teaching the class (rightfully so, she is ridiculous) then they present their new, classier selves to Fred and Ricky (who are confused as to why Lucy and Ethel aren’t in their bedrooms?) Lucy and Ethel are not themselves, but two characters they think will be more pleasing to their husbands. And it’s hilarious. It’s also hard to figure out whether or not Lucy and Ethel are doing this to get back at their husbands, the snotty charm school teacher, or simply because they want to class up for their husbands? Fred and Ricky just seem to “punish” the ladies right back. Lucy says this, a sad housewife’s lament: “I thought you’d pay attention to me if I was well groomed, charming, and attractive.” Then they go back to being “four, natural, lovable slobs.” Lucy is constantly searching for ways to both please Ricky and piss him off.
Now I’ll get to that clumsy characteristic that bothers me so much: almost every female in romantic comedies is a klutz. She falls down the stairs, trips on the sidewalk, and runs into the lead man. The clumsiness of Lucy Ricardo is similar in this way—it’s a way to distinguish her from every other woman, to make her endearing and literally bring her down. Lucille Bluth isn’t even clumsy when she’s drunk.
This is the uneven picture that Lucille Ball presented in the 1950s. To many, and to me, she is a feminist hero for many of her pursuits and accomplishments, not to mention she’s hilarious. But I hate to admit that there’s more to Lucille Bluth. She’s not as loveable—she’s a drunk who is mean to her children. But the way that she’s written is crucial: her character is a social commentary, which should be clearly understood by viewers. Not to mention, she’s smart, she’s shrewd, and, in many cases, she’s sexual. Just check out the video below, and, if you’re running out of time, just watch the last 20 seconds.
I can’t completely come to a conclusion to this comparison, because Lucille Ball was, in many ways a feminist, and Lucille Bluth often does play a negative stereotype. I think it’s important to consider these changes, especially in relation to what I’ve written about my project. There has been an evolution in these characters and it has a lot to do with who is sitting in these writing rooms and what they were raised in thinking about gender and stereotypes.