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Why Lucille Ball Still Matters Today

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Tomorrow is Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday, in case you’re wondering what’s up with all of those I Love Lucy marathons on TV. Her rebellious housewife adventures might seem tame by today’s standards, but Lucy is responsible for defining “today’s standards” in a few nifty ways. So, let’s pay some tribute to the late ginger-locked comedienne and gander at a bit of boundary-breaking legacy from 200 episodes of one of the longest running television sitcoms ever. You might want to get your mom/grandma in here for this one.

Wearing “the pants”

Without Lucille Ball, would there be a Tina Fey? As the first female television executive, Lucy headed Desilu Productions. The whole show was originally a maneuver to get her lady-lovin’ band leader hubby off the road and back in Hollywood, where Lucy was anchored with a Columbia contract. The couple had a tumultuous off screen relationship (read: boozing womanizer, ahem ahem) but they put on a good show, picked up a ton of Emmys, and nurtured a company that eventually begat… Star Trek.

Wearing pants (and performing slapstick)

And in the ’50s too! On the surface, Lucy Ricardo’s constantly thwarted schemes to break into show business were not especially feminist. But as Janet McCabe writes in Feminist Film Studies: Writing the Woman into Cinema, there might be something more subversive happening here: “Each week finds Lucy unsuccessfully attempting to escape domesticity and break into show business. The physical comic routines performed by Ball offered a means of challenging patriarchy as she upstages her husband/other men; and this is what audiences tuned in to see.”

Live audiences

I Love Lucy was the first television show in Hollywood to be filmed in front of a live audience. BLOOPERS!

Being pregnant Having a baby

Lucy was one of the first actresses to appear pregnant on television at the time where the word “pregnant” couldn’t appear on television. Scandalous… and record breaking. When Lucy births Little Ricky in “Lucy Goes to a Hospital,” 71.7 percent of all American television sets tuned in.

Multi-ethnic rrromance

Television executives were more than hesitant to show the romance between an All-American gal and a fiercely accented Latino, so Lucy and Desi went on the road as a vaudevillian act to prove them wrong. Sure, the series is peppered with uncomfortable-to-watch moments of cultural insensitivity — it old!!! — but she lightened up some routine xenophobic tensions in the industry bringing us TV’s first inter-ethnic married couple.

Getting “sexual”

During the first season, the Ricardos marital twin beds were pushed together… and pushing up against some strong social mores. Alas, after the baby was born, the twin beds were divorced apart to “diminish the impact of the suggested sexual history.” ‘Cause, like, their baby didn’t suggest sexual history at all, right?

Ginger pride!

Lucille went ginger for her 1942 film DuBarry Was a Lady, and when her physical comedy earned her the rep of “that crazy redhead,” she just ran with it. She made red iconic.

The ha-ha-has

“Speed ’em up a little!” What were your favorite moments?