I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a long time, but I never was sure just what offended me so much about I Love Lucy. It was something more than the jaw-dropping level of domineering Lucy accepted as her due from Ricky. And when I read this article which describes Lucy as “infantilized submissive… who cannot directly challenge her manly man”… suddenly I understood what had bugged me:
Lucy and Ricky are not just another submissive wife/domineering husband set. Lucy plays the spoiled child to Ricky’s overbearing father. Consider the structure of most episodes: she whines at Ricky to let her do or have something. Ricky tells her no. She throws a temper tantrum. He threatens her. She promises not to do it. She does it behind his back. He punishes her. He ultimately, indulgently forgives her.
Ethel and Fred weren’t like this. Ralph and Alice on The Honeymooners weren’t like this: people may now piously object to his empty threats to send her “to the moon”, but Alice was an adult. She and Ethel may have chosen to abide by certain sexist rules, but like most real life women of their time, they found ways to manipulate situations all the same, giving themselves a measure of control and equality – and they had husbands who really did appreciate them. That always helps. Donna Reed and June Cleaver were practically instruction manuals for How to be a Happily Submissive Wife, yet they acted like adults, and their husbands accepted some of their input on such wife-appropriate topics as the kids, the laundry and the neighborhood.
So why did American gravitate toward a creepy father-daughter couple? The obvious answer would seem to be that we want to think of women as infants – harmless and requiring a strong ruling hand. But then I think of how many millions of smoking habits Lucy managed to start with endorsement advertising, and I’m reminded that no one is more systematically infantilized in current US culture than The Target Demographic: young men. They whine for society to give them things or privileges, and the market rushes in to fulfill whatever urge they’re feeling, because like Lucy, young men have the product savvy and self-discipline of a bag of hair.