I Love Lucy, the legendary ’50s sitcom starring comedian Lucille Ball, changed TV in so many ways. It was one of the first shows to depict pregnancy (groundbreaking because actors couldn’t even say “pregnant” on the air), and the first-ever to feature an interracial married couple (played by Lucille and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz). But the most revolutionary, important thing about I Love Lucy, by far, was the incredible, adventurous friendship it depicted between Lucy and her best friend, Ethel Mertz:
The bond between Lucy and Ethel, played by Vivian Vance, is essential to the plot of almost every episode. Because it was the ’50s, both characters were stay-at-home housewives. But while their husbands were away at work, Lucy and Ethel didn’t just hang around the house—they got into trouble. Their wildest successes and wackiest failures always happened side-by-side. A typical episode went something like this: Ricky (Lucy’s husband) or Fred (Ethel’s) would be stubborn and/or obnoxious about a domestic issue. In retaliation, Lucy would cook up a harebrained scheme, with Ethel’s full support, to set the guy straight:
In this episode, Lucy wants to spend more time with Ricky, but he isn’t happy about her plan to tag along on a dudes-only camping trip. He offers to bring Lucy to the woods for a weekend to see if she likes it first, while secretly planning to emphasize all of nature’s most miserable aspects, which he hopes will make her back out of his upcoming excursion. Ethel overhears Ricky’s scheme and warns Lucy. Lucy convinces Ethel to drive out to the woods, hide in the bushes, and help her prank Ricky right back, which goes too far. Throwing dead ducks out of a tree for a pal, though—that’s friendship!
In another episode, Ricky and Fred insist to Lucy and Ethel that being a housewife is easier than having a “real job,” so the women offer to trade places with them. While Ricky and Fred learn firsthand how miserably difficult housework is, Lucy and Ethel go to an employment office. They lie their way into jobs at the same candy factory and spend the rest of the episode covering each other’s backs—while the factory basically goes to hell around them:
Unlike the stereotype of the perfect, untouchable housewife that most people associate with ’50s sitcoms, Lucy and Ethel sometimes had messy hair and weren’t always in full makeup. They got in trouble with everyone (not just their husbands), and generally caused scenes wherever they went. They made it OK for actresses to be something other than pretty, perfect, and poised:
In this episode, Lucy’s rich, pretentious high-school classmate calls her up soliciting a charitable donation. Sick of her former classmate’s condescension, Lucy gets wrapped up in an elaborate lie about mansions, summer homes, servants, the lot of it—and Ethel, of course, has her girl’s back. Lucy and Ethel get dressed up in their fanciest clothes to go drop off a check, but Lucy’s classmate shows up at her house instead, catching them off guard. Lucy and Ethel have to deal with the consequences of offering a much larger donation than they’d planned, and end up taking a lucrative but haywire job dressing up as alien babes and doing a publicity stunt for a movie called Women From Mars to make back the money they mistakenly donated. (Side note: This is probably the best I Love Lucy episode ever.)
But even though it was sometimes Lucy and Ethel versus the world (or just Ricky and Fred), they always cooperated with each other. They were around the same age, from similar economic backgrounds, and were both happily married. Their relationship existed on an essentially even playing field, so stereotypical female competitiveness plots—over men or status—never entered the picture. Whether they were snooping, spying, scheming, or going on wild adventures, their relationship was a source of constant mutual support. (In that respect, Lucy and Ethel’s escapades often passed the Bechdel Test before it even existed.)
The absolute coolest part about all of this is the fact that Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance were friends in real life, too! After a rocky start, when Desi Arnaz (who was equal partners in Desilu Productions with Lucille) cast Vance as Ethel without Lucille’s approval, the two remained lifelong BFFs.
Lucille went on to cast Vivian on her subsequent shows, maintaining the fictional relationship between Lucy and Ethel. They spent time together off-set, too, helping each other dye their hair and casually running into international royalty. There are great videos of them later in life being grumpy old lady friends together, picking on each other and telling funny stories that played up a common myth that they didn’t get along. Both onscreen and off-, Lucille/Vivian and Lucy/Ethel came across as smart, capable, creative women who supported each other. Even though they got themselves into some serious trouble, they walked side by side. ♦