We all remember how every classical Disney love story ends: the young prince and princess riding off into the sunset having slain their demons, never to be seen again. Presumably, they lead a life akin to that of rosy petals and eternal champagne baths. Our collective thoughts never go any further than that picturesque final scene. We wonder just how will Cinderella and Prince Charming overcome future obstacles, such as who will do the laundry, now that their lives are only just beginning. They are young, they are in love, and they solved the mystery of the glass slipper. What else matters at this point?
Well, there’s still the inescapable thought of “what happens next?” that many, especially women, begin to ask ourselves as we get older. Just how do Cinderella and Prince Charming fare in the future? Do they live happily ever after or does their marriage disintegrate because Cinderella and Charming couldn’t handle each other’s quirks? There’s no real answer to this particular question because almost every other fairy tale, a gendered genre designed for girls, ends where the life of most begins.
There’s a quiet understanding amongst our own media landscape and culture that values youth above all else. No one wants to see whether or not Jasmine and Aladdin overcame their vastly different economic backgrounds despite their love for each other or if Belle finally realised she was held under duress for the first half of her relationship with the beast. What all these narratives have in common is that suspended ending, where the young lovers begin a life together, free of obstacles (after all, they did defeat that dragon) and fears of the future are moot.
That being said, this is not about Disney or fairy tales (well, not entirely). This is about our youth-obsessed culture and love. Love and its complicated relationship with age and gender. It is also about fairy tales in general, gendered towards women specifically, ushering young girls into false narratives of love at such a young age. It perpetuates the idea that love has a timestamp; that to love is to love at the right time or before a specific time (which is more often than not, before we hit that middle-aged number.) It further stigmatises the invisible guillotine looming over the heads of women who feel pressured into finding “the one” before they no longer feel desirable.
Cultural critic Bell Hooks’s work on love, in All About Love, as a philosophical concept suggests that “everyone wants love but that we remain totally confused about the practice of love in everyday life” and how heavily coded the philosophy of love has become in gendered stereotypes. When men talk about love, it’s revered. When women talk about love, especially at the halfway point of their lives, it’s considered frivolous acts of desperation.
Now, what does this all have to do with a heartwarming little show about football? Well, Ted Lasso, developed by and starring Jason Sudeikis, is working to undermine all these perceptions of love, gender, and age. Whether it is done in a conscious effort or not, this show is redefining gender norms through its leads, Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) and Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis). Their dynamic and characterisation as it develops throughout the first season hint at the possibility of what and how love itself can be detached from our preconceived notions of youth. More importantly, as foils of each other, both of these characters are unravelling the fabric of our gendered expectations of masculinity and femininity.
Rebecca finds herself in the role of club owner of a premier league team after a heartbreaking divorce from her husband of twelve years and on a path of burning down the same club she inherits after her divorce. The club symbolises everything ex-husband ever cared about: a hyper-masculine space he was king in and further reinforced his domineering ego and presence. There’s a quiet rage that radiates from her green eyes that is equally compelling as the sadness. This combination of rage, sadness, vulnerability, determination, and care she exhibits to those close to her is what makes Rebecca Welton that cocktail combination of dynamic femininity not seen that often on our television screens. What is even more symbolic, is watching Rebecca battle these conflicting emotions through the very space her ex-husband once strutted. A space that is filled with the pitfalls of toxic masculinity.
Waddingham’s Rebecca Welton is merely a product of our culture’s obsessive notions of youth. Much like she’s tossed aside for a younger and squickier version of herself by her ex-husband, a lot of older characters such as her are also sidelined in various narratives. Rebecca becomes a source of contention for viewers as she refuses to fit the mould of what femininity in her 40’s “should” be; or what we, as viewers, have come to expect. Waddingham has carefully crafted an exterior that so drastically clashes with the interior of who Rebecca is. In many ways, that is the very thing that makes it so compelling to watch. At almost six feet with icy blonde hair and green eyes, Waddingham resembles one of those cold and beautiful marble sculptures that are often intimidating. So, when her character, Rebecca, begins to show cracks of vulnerability and devastating hurt, there’s a magnetism that becomes almost inescapable in these conflicting images. We are at once in awe of Rebecca as this woman of stature and power and utterly devastated by her utter frustration and despair.
In direct contrast to Rebecca, is Sudeikis’s Ted Lasso. Ted is an all-American football coach from Kansas who is hired in Rebecca’s orchestrated plan to destroy her ex-husband’s football club. Not to be confused with American football, Coach Lasso has no real technical experience with the European sport, hence his newfound job as head coach of Richmond FC. Credentials aside, it’s who Ted is that matters; not what he does. Sudeikis’s Ted Lasso is a foil to the very idea of masculinity in America. His characterisation of Ted hinges on unfolding the problematic aspects of hypermasculinity in our everyday culture, as Ted is someone who doesn’t need to constantly assert his dominance over others much like Rebecca’s ex-husband did and does throughout the series. This is especially poignant within the space of sport, where it’s excessively built upon toxic masculinity, as his soft and nurturing approach to relationships becomes important.
All the background plot serves is to place these two characters in direct contact with each other in a moment of their lives where they both find themselves lost. Both having come from failed marriages, Ted and Rebecca begin to forge a relationship that is built on mutual trust and understanding that is not, at first, outwardly sexual and passionate. It is a gentler and more tenuous meeting of the hearts that catches your attention; like the gentle rise of the sun. Their intimacy creeps on you, much like Ted’s approach to life does so on Rebecca. More importantly, they each present vastly different images of femininity and masculinity that deconstruct our perceptions of what love looks and feels like in our culture. We are used to the fragile and meek persona of a female lead and the strong and overbearing personality of the male lead, who are both often young (or even unfortunate, the male lead is extremely older than his female counterpart).
In saying all of this, how or when Ted and Rebecca are carefully placed within their orbit in the upcoming seasons is something to hope for (maybe even root for). Middle-aged love narratives haven’t exactly been the epitome of excellence and execution. Most narratives of its kind are often sidelined, or even worse, sent down a path of tragedy and despair (ie. The Good Wife, Bates Motel, House MD). This is not to say that all male and female relationships must end up romantically involved, but to conflate the nature of young relationships with those of more mature couples is not exactly accurate. There is a clear and consistent pattern within our media landscape that unconsciously punishes older characters for even crossing that particular boundary most young couples have had the luxury of crossing countless times.
Ted Lasso may be ushering in a refreshing new space where older characters have the luxury of being vulnerable, open, and sexual on their terms. It is also taking gendered norms we often take for granted and reinventing them in direct context to wherever Ted and Rebecca’s relationship may be headed by reclaiming the philosophical mediation of love from the male fantasy that is the only narrative available. For now, that male fantasy revolves around the youthful depictions of female leads that often, and strangely, fall for the much older man as what appears to be a right of passage.
by Mariana Delgado
Mariana (she/her) is a recent graduate student from the University of South Florida where she foolishly earned a Master’s degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration in film studies. Proud mother on one beautiful little schnauzer named Pepe and lover of all things trauma-related theory. When she’s not rewatching The Leftovers, she may also be found rewatching LOST as a means to finally understand the human condition one traumatic show at a time. Find her on Twitter.