You got some s’plaining to do!
by Chatty Catherine
I recently wrote a research paper on gender role depiction in television sitcoms of the 1950’s to 1970’s for a class on the cultural impact of Television. In my research paper I went into great detail and researched many episodes of classic TV that explored gender role reversal. This plotline shows up quite a bit, the frustrated housewife who feels her husband doesn’t appreciate her and the hard working breadwinner that believes his wife has it easier than him.
I have revisited some of my research on I Love Lucy, but this time I’m able to interject my own feelings and opinions. I thought this would be a great place to showcase how the depiction of women was reflected on the good ole “Idiot Box.”
One of the most popular episodes of I Love Lucy is the season two episode, “Job switching”. The episode first aired on September 15, 1952. The image of Lucy and Ethel in uniforms fighting a speeding conveyor belt in a chocolate factory has become an iconic image associated with the television classic. I challenge you to venture into a Hallmark store and not find this image on a lunchbox, coffee cup or greeting card. The scene is memorable and engrained on the American consciousness however if we really look at the episode from a critical eye, the subject matter of the episode is the financial dependence of the American housewife on her husband, and the devaluation of the responsibilities of managing a household.
Television of the 1950’s gave the impression that the married female’s place was in the home however; there were more women with work experience outside of the home than twenty years earlier. The message to the 1930’s working female was it’s okay to work as long as you don’t take a job away from a man or neglect your “wifely duties.” Then America became involved in the war to end all wars, WWII. Women were in demand while America’s sons were off fighting evil. Uncle Sam wanted the bravest of the brave to fight and Rosie the Riveter wanted women to rise up and support their country on the assembly line. After the war and our triumphant boys returned home it was time for the women of America to put down their lunch boxes and pick up their brooms. They had done their service to their country but now it was time to once again, serve their husbands and families.
The 1952 I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching,” is the prime example that the grass isn’t always greener. The episode begins with Ricky and Lucy Ricardo arguing about Lucy’s spending habits. As they argue the Mertz’s drop in and also get involved in the conversation. This argument between the sexes speaks volumes about the preconceived notions between husbands and wives, if this dialogue was updated for present day it would still work. No matter the time period women and men still have different outlooks on what they bring to their relationships. As Ricky brings Fred Mertz up to speed on his side of the argument, Fred agrees by saying “Let’s face it Rick. When it comes to money there are two types of people; the earners and the spenders or as they are more popularly known, Husbands and Wives.”
Ethel joins the fight by asking “what’s so hard about earning a living?” and Ricky responds “Have you ever done it?” This is followed by dialogue between Ricky and Lucy that creates the groundwork for the episode. Ricky tells the women that “holding down a job is a lot more difficult than lying around the house all day.” Lucy responds, “Lying around the house! Is that all you think we do?” After describing the tasks of managing a home they decide to switch places. Lucy, “we’ll change places for a week. We’ll get jobs and you take care of the house for a week.”
Ethel and Lucy go to an employment agency where they learn they are not qualified for any of the jobs that are available. They lie and say they are expert candy makers and land a job in a candy factory. They are moved from department to department. Ethel is moved from boxing candies because she stereotypically pinches each one to see what kind they are. They are later paired to work together wrapping candies and placing them on the conveyor belt between the candy manufacturing room and the boxing room, and a classic scene of television comedy ensues. You know the scene, Lucy frantically hiding chocolate into her floppy chef hat, Ethel stuffing chocolates into her mouth all in an effort to succeed at their job. The conveyer belt is sped up and ultimately the women are fired on their first day and learn the burdens and demands of the workforce.
The men do not fare any easier than the women. Ricky presents a beautifully prepared breakfast for his working wife that he insists was easy for him. Lucy soon discovers he ordered the breakfasts from the drug store after using an entire dozen of eggs to try to make breakfast on his own. Instead of admitting defeat and appearing weak to his wife he cheats and Lucy is very understanding. As Lucy is eating her breakfast she takes on the stereotype male role and reads the paper ignoring her husband as he tries to engage her in conversation. Ricky and Fred then display stereotypical female tendencies. Fred is upset Ethel didn’t kiss him goodbye, both are shown wearing aprons and Fred even wears a kerchief to keep dust from getting in his hair. The men are shown completely out of their element. They scorch the clothing with the iron; Ricky adds starch to a silk stocking, making it stiff as a board and thinks he did a great job. The male and female differing outlook to housework is displayed when Ricky adds a music stand to the vacuum so that he can read the sports section while he vacuums. The two men are clueless when it comes to cooking. The two pool their talents to make dinner together. Fred includes the frosting in the cake batter he prepares for dessert, Ricky overflows the kitchen with rice and chickens explode from the pressure cooker. Today this would be ridiculous. Many men are stay at home fathers or have lived on their own and are quite capable of cooking and household chores. It was a different time, today men don’t leave their mother’s side and immediately go running into their wives arms so that they can take over where their mother left off, taking care of them.
The women return home from work and the four relate their days and admit defeat. They now have an appreciation for what each other contributes. This scenario would be unrealistic for the viewer at home. A couple outside of TV land could not suggest that one partner take a week off of work so that they could switch places. This episode although a comical one, gave a glimpse into how the other half lives while they are apart.
If you are interested in this topic of gender roles in television sitcom’s of the 1950’s and 1960’s, or just want to some well-done television here are some viewing suggestions:
I Love Lucy – “Job switching”. September 15, 1952.
I Love Lucy – “Equal Rights.” October, 26 1953.
Bewitched – “A Very Special Delivery.” September, 23 1965