Television

Ted Lasso and Cinderella Have Something in Common

Too bad Amazon’s #girlboss movie doesn’t know it.

Ted Lasso and Cinderella
Ted Lasso, Cinderella. Photos by Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime.

If you’ve been on the internet at all in the past week or so, you’ve probably found yourself staring at the Ted Lasso Discourse-with-a-capital-D. Some say it’s inevitable because of the Apple TV+ comedy’s popularity, but I say it’s inevitable for the same reason that Amazon’s updated version of Cinderella feels completely ridiculous: people can’t stop complaining that kindness is passive and boring.

Kindness is the vanilla of emotional concepts. It has the reputation of being safe, two-dimensional, passive, and utterly bland. Ask any culinary expert, though, and they’ll tell you that vanilla is actually one of the most complex, active flavors and spices around. So too is kindness, particularly the version depicted in the classic Cinderella tale and in Ted Lasso. Behind that veneer of “nice,” behind the sunny smiles and endless patience (and equally endless biscuit boxes) lurks a complex psychology that’s much more active than reactive, despite outward appearances.

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Both Cinderella and Ted Lasso start their heroes’ journeys from, essentially, the same place (and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). Both characters are deeply, deeply decent people with an instinct towards caretaking and compassion, with an underlying, usually unspoken assumption that, if they’re kind enough, even the wickedest of foes will be disarmed. In Ted’s case, at least, that proves true. Despite the scorn of everyone who thinks he’s too foolish and self-absorbed to realize that his chipper personality is almost universally hated, Ted wins everyone over and converts them, in part or in whole, to his philosophy.

What we as viewers are allowed to see, however, is just how much work that kindness takes.  It’s not an act—Ted is genuinely kind—but applying that kindness takes work. The show takes care to show the toll that keeping up that cheery image takes on Ted, who uses his cheer to hide his stress, grief, and panic attacks, even from himself. In the second season, it’s clearer than ever that Ted’s non-confrontational strategy of kindness doesn’t work in all circumstances. After successfully getting his team to bond, he still can’t get them to win until the other coaches point out that the team needs conflict and aggression to get results. Ted even meets someone his kindness can’t disarm when sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone joins the staff. When she promptly calls him out on using overt displays of excessive cheer as a coping mechanism, we’re offended on his behalf, but we also know she’s right.

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No one in-story calls out Cinderella for her apparent cheerful-doormat ways, but it’s not hard to realize that she, like Ted, is both a good person and a traumatized person who uses goodness as a coping strategy. Her kindness in the face of unceasing cruelty is a sign of her inner strength, not of weakness. More importantly, it is an active choice and a deliberate non-reaction to her stepfamily’s cruelty, but it still has to be paired with more complex, scary actions before it’s effective in getting what she wants.

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Assuming Cinderella’s kindness is passive and weak misses that whole point, which is what is so frustrating about the latest iteration of Cinderella. Amazon’s version, written and directed by Blockers’ Kay Cannon, has a #girlboss gloss. She’s feisty! She wants to open a dress shop! It’s a deliberate attempt to distance itself from previous versions of the character, without ever really understanding what it’s saying in doing so. The thing is, Cinderella doesn’t have to be an entrepreneur to be three-dimensional and active; by denying her enemies what they want most—i.e., to break her spirit and to keep her under their thumb forever)—she’s already doing that.

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In addition to a choice, kindness also acts as a strategy. Ted Lasso doesn’t just glide effortlessly through Richmond and change minds by his purity of spirit. He actively applies his kindness in specific ways. He bakes biscuits for Rebecca daily; he learns the names and backstories of (apparently) every Richmond employee; he intentionally plays up his own guileless image in order to defeat and embarrass Rupert at a game of darts. Likewise, Cinderella doesn’t just flit around blithely. Every moment of joy she can grasp, especially in public, is an act of resistance.

“Kind” characters are often treated as sweet, naïve idiots too dumb to realize that others don’t deserve their kindness. But the secret of Cinderella and Ted Lasso is they know perfectly well who does and doesn’t deserve to be treated with kindness, and they do it anyway. The difference between the new Cinderella and Ted Lasso is each story’s perspective on that secret. Ted Lasso sees it as something worthy of nuanced dialogue and unpacking, while Cinderella sees it as something to be fixed.

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It’s also worth considering whose benefit that kindness is for. There is an argument to be made —and Ted Lasso is quietly, if not overtly, making it this season—that Ted’s acts of kindness serve himself as much as those around him. It’s a way for him to essentially take control of situations, and, as we’ve learned, feeling out of control is something he struggles with. It’s easy to imagine a different version of Ted Lasso, one that is less critical of its hero’s cheer and less interested in engaging with the knotty underside of kindness. Fortunately for us, we get to see this version, which avoids mocking Ted for his good nature while pulling no punches in acknowledging how unhealthy and even unhelpful his actions can be. AFC Richmond has a terrible record through most of the series, and due in part to Ted’s coaching philosophy! His kindness is still his defining trait, but we get to see all sides of it: the genuine and the helpful, but also the sly and the damaging.

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The instinct Cinderella leans into is the exact opposite, with marketing that outright highlights its “not like other girls” message. Stories about women pursuing their hopes and dreams are great, but I just wish that movies like Cinderella understood that being an Instagram-ready “boss babe” isn’t the only way to go about it. A girlboss personality is just as one-dimensional as a “sweet” one if it’s not developed well. One could argue that a woman is even more suited to demonstrate the pressures of performative, strategic kindness and niceness—give me that story instead!

It’s a symptom of a larger culture that only sees kindness as something milquetoast, totally selfless, and passive. I’d have been much more interested in a Cinderella whose kindness is actively explored rather than one who gets shifted into an equally un-nuanced ambitious-gal trope. Ambition is not inherently more interesting or complex than kindness, but just gets viewed differently. In the end, it’s not necessarily that we need more stories about kindness; it’s that we need more stories that consider kindness interesting, complicated, and worthy of deeper storytelling, instead of dismissal.

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