TV execs worried the public wasn't ready to see a pregnant woman onscreen — but she wasn’t about to hide behind house plants all season.
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Being the Ricardos
Credit: Getty Images

Being the Ricardos introduces us to I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) at her most trying hour: She's pregnant. And as far as the TV executives are concerned, this is a disaster.

In post-war 1950s America, "pregnant" was very much considered to be a dirty word. Upon hearing that Lucille is pregnant, one exec queries, "With a baby?" In an effort to clear up any confusion as to how this situation came about, Lucille quips, "12 weeks ago, I fucked my husband." (Sex ed with Lucille Ball, ladies and gentleman!) 

In director Aaron Sorkin's timeline, Lucille is also dealing with rumors of marital strife and, on top of that, fear that the press will uncover that she once registered to vote as a communist — career poison. Although she's been cleared by government officials, the scandal would undoubtedly end her run as America's favorite housewife. You might be forgiven for thinking that a pregnancy is joyous news compared to the threat of being outed as having links to the Communist Party, but in the early 1950s, the idea of a pregnant woman on television in America was every bit as alarming.

Being the Ricardos
Credit: Amazon Prime

Lucille and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), who plays her I Love Lucy spouse Ricky Ricardo, cause chaos when they tell the network of their desire to have their pregnancy written into the show. They see no reason why their second child can't be the Ricardos' first. This idea is met with outrage. The suits are in agreement that Lucille will hide her pregnancy on-screen, standing behind strategically-placed furniture in an effort to conceal her bump from view. Lucille marvels at the fact that motherhood is "too salacious to put on CBS," while Desi vows to have the decision overturned. 

In reality, the TV drama Mary Kay and Johnny, starring real-life spouses Mary Kay and Johnny Streams, had a real-life pregnancy written into its on-screen narrative four years earlier, in 1948. But as far as CBS was concerned, the prospect of putting a pregnant woman on TV, in front of almost 11 million households each week, was risky. And while Lucille did eventually succeed in having her pregnancy written into I Love Lucy, there were restrictions. Namely, the word "pregnant" was forbidden from being uttered on the show. Instead, Lucy was said to be "expecting." The groundbreaking episode announcing Lucy's child was titled "Lucy Is Enceinte" — using enceinte, the French word for "pregnant," as a clever workaround (and maybe a bit of a middle finger to the network).

This kind of censorship of womanhood was prevalent during the early 1950s. "Respectful" women were to be seen as wives and mothers, but not sexual beings, and pregnancy was considered too provocative for audiences. How could Americans be expected to invite a woman who had sex into their homes each week?

The Motion Picture Production Code, commonly referred to as The Hays Code, was in part responsible for the uber conservative depiction of womanhood from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. Although it wasn't strictly forbidden to show a married couple sleeping in the same bed, for example, it was far from encouraged. Instead, married couples on TV at this time, such as Lucy and Ricky, were often confined to two twin beds in an effort to maintain the perception of a woman's purity. One exec wondered how audiences would even be able to comprehend Lucy's pregnancy when "Lucy and Ricky sleep in separate beds!"

Being the Ricardos
Credit: Getty Images

Lucy's baby arrived on-screen in early 1953, the very same year that Hugh Hefner launched Playboy, a magazine which catered specifically to the male gaze. The message in pop culture was clear: Women could be viewed as homemakers or objects of desire, but the two concepts had to be kept entirely separate — the Madonna-Whore complex at work. (Thankfully for us, the strides that were made in television in the last 70 years have given us shows like Bridgerton and Normal People — the horny content of our dreams!)

Despite the network's initial reluctance to advocate an authentic female experience in the 1950s, CBS made history with its hit sitcom Maude in 1972, when the show's namesake character, a middle-aged woman living in the suburbs, opted to have an abortion. The controversial episode aired just weeks before the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, whereby the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion across the United States. Nowadays, abortion is often openly discussed in television, with dramas such as Sex Education and Dear White People featuring realistic portrayals of the experience. 

Following in Lucille's trailblazing footsteps, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made its debut in 1970. Breaking with convention, the show's title character was a single woman in her thirties who lived alone and had a burgeoning career. In a move that liberated women both on and off the screen, Mary unapologetically enjoyed the single life, going on dates with men but not succumbing to the pressure of getting married right away. Mary Tyler Moore walked so Carrie Bradshaw could run. In 1998, Sex and the City premiered and revolutionized the way television depicted women's sex lives. Following sex columnist Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her unmarried friends, the series tackled everything from dating and sexual preferences to birth control and abortion.

In the last 20 years, thanks to the influx of female writers and directors in the industry, authentic depictions of womanhood have become more commonplace. Michaela Coel wrote, co-directed, and starred in the 2020 drama I May Destroy You, which offers a raw account of sexual assault and the trauma that comes with it. The series was also lauded for tackling the often taboo subject of period sex and presenting it as a normal, potentially beautiful, thing. When lead character Arabella tells the guy she's about to hook up with that she's on her period, he's unfazed. He proceeds to remove her bloody tampon and, with his fingers, ends up picking up a blood clot. Curious, he inspects it closely. "I've never seen anything like that before," he remarks. It was a refreshing sight for much of the audience, too, given that menstruation is often dealt with by being completely ignored or shrouded in shame, let alone adding men into the conversation.

Lucille's victory in having her pregnancy written into I Love Lucy revolutionized the way pregnant women are portrayed in television and beyond. Today, there is a far healthier discussion when a TV actress becomes pregnant. The decision is typically based on what's best for the character, as opposed to ignoring the topic altogether and deploying houseplants or strategically placed furniture as cover. Sarah Jessica Parker was pregnant while filming season five of Sex and the City. With Carrie enjoying the single life, a pregnancy would have made little sense for the character. Therefore, Parker's bump was hidden with a wardrobe overhaul. Similarly, when Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress Melissa Fumero got pregnant in 2015, the writers came up with a creative solution by having her on-screen character, Amy Santiago, go undercover as a pregnant convict. However, when Fumero was pregnant with her second child in 2019, her pregnancy was written into the show, with Amy giving birth to a baby boy in the season seven finale.

When Lucy eventually gave birth to "Little Ricky," I Love Lucy enjoyed record viewership numbers. If anything, the legitimacy of the character's pregnancy enticed viewers to tune in. The storyline was a major step towards the authentic representation of the female experience in television that audiences now take for granted. Just another reason for us to love Lucy!

Being the Ricardos will be released in select theaters on Dec. 10, before its global release on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 21