“Cruella de vil~ Cruella de vil~ if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will”
Disney’s new Cruella movie recently premiered on Disney+ and movie theaters. As a Disney villain fan I caved and bought the movie on Disney+. Cruella de Vil has always been one of my guilty pleasure villains. I hate that she wants to kill puppies (I mean who would want to do that?!) but I love her personality and how she was such an aggressive and confident feminist in the 1960s.
That being said, Disney threw some story plot twists that surprised me and further reinforced some problematic tropes that I personally feel many people may not be aware of… hence this post. In terms of story, the plot twists are interesting and can be considered great to keep us all on our toes. BUT… the fact that Disney has done this many times before and those plot twists are problematic for certain populations and identities leaves me with complex feelings.
If this posts ends up not making sense it’s because I’m writing through my feelings and still processing my overall opinion on the movie.
This post will contain spoilers about the movie Cruella.
Let me talk you through my experience. The first time I watched Cruella I didn’t see the problematic tropes I previously mentioned. I was watching it just to enjoy the movie and be an enthusiastic audience viewer. After watching the movie I started to reflect on the movie and then it kinda sunk in. I felt a “… huh… something seems off” feeling. I reached out to a friend who can pick up on problematic adoption narratives as quickly as you can blink. And literally, that’s when it hit me. Cruella is not only adopted but there are so many things that do and don’t happen that ignore the adoption narrative and reinforce certain stereotypes about adoption, finding birth parents, parent separation and more. You can read my friend’s post on their Instagram account.
Watching the movie the second time I saw all these things and I started to have complex feelings about it. I wanted to like this movie like I did the first time I watched it. I love Cruella, the character. But now I’m seeing all these problematic things that make me not want to like it and can also be triggering for adoptees, parents who adopt, and birth parents.
Let me explain…
Estella’s/Cruella’s adoption narrative only lasts one night
For those who may not know I am adopted. I identify as an adoptee and am connected to a community of adoptees across the United States. I went to college to be a social worker and work for foster care/adoption/child protective services. I do not work in that field now but it is something I continually and personally experience and also, for a short time, professionally experienced in my life.
When we, as an audience, found out Estella/Cruella’s mom was not the person who gave birth to her initially I thought, oh Estella/Cruella is adopted like me. That thought ended a minute later when Estella/Cruella moved on from that fact and never really touched on it again. On a positive note, I do like that Estella/Cruella only sees her adoptive mother as her true mother and seeks justice for her. On the other hand, Estella/Cruella says “my real mother and other mother” implying Estella’s/Cruella’s birth mother is her real mother and her adoptive mother is her “other” mother. That is super problematic language. Using the word other and the term of othering someone is bad as it is. In this context using that language implies the person who raised Estella/Cruella is “the other” and now loses credibility as Estella’s/Cruella’s mother. It also gives all the credibility to the person who gave birth to Estella/Cruella, the Baroness. A person who wanted to kill a newborn baby and later tries to kill Estella/Cruella, even after acknowledging how brilliant Estella/Cruella is and can continue to be.
Now, to play devil’s advocate some people don’t identify as an adoptee and maybe Estella/Cruella is the same. It’s a pretty new concept and doesn’t seem to impact Estella/Cruella’s overall life and goals in any way. The movie also takes place in the 1970s and I don’t know if adoption narratives were really talked about or expressed during that decade. The movie plot also needs to move forward so seeing Estella/Cruella contemplating and processing this news for days and hours is not ideal and not good for the overall movie. I get that. I just wish it was brought up more throughout the rest of the movie and not just about the Baroness being the biological mother with that hint that maybe she could try to make things up to Estella/Cruella and be like a mother to Estella/Cruella (which, spoiler, doesn’t happen because the Baroness tries to kill Estella/Cruella… again). Replacing the individual who raised Estella/Cruella and earned the title mom is also problematic language and a problematic idea but it also happens a lot and I don’t really have a call to action for it at this time.
Tropes of adoptees in film
There are two typical, polar opposite, tropes of who adoptees are in film. I am not including foster care youth representation in this, as not all foster care youth representation in film are adopted.
One trope is adoptees as superheroes (i.e. Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Spiderman, Flash, etc.), exceptional individuals who either defy the odds or are destined for greatness (i.e. Harry Potter, Jon Snow – Game of Thrones, Gamora – Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules, Meet the Robinsons, etc.), and /or have a secret birth story often because of royalty or that “destined for greatness” factor (i.e. Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, not sure if we could count Narnia here, Aragorn – Lord of the Rings, the Skywalkers – Star Wars franchise, etc). Essentially these characters are seen as the token identity or character in their environment. Additional examples are Tarzan, George of the Jungle, The Tigger Movie, Annie, Pinocchio, Cosette – Les Misérables, etc.
The other trope is adoptees as rebels and troublemakers, we can also view them as challenging authority and societal norms (i.e. Loki – Thor and Avengers franchise, movie Instant Family, Lilo and Stitch, Elphaba – Wicked musical) and/or having mental or emotional issues and challenges (i.e. Scarlett Witch – Avengers and WandaVision (I believe the Avengers adopted Wanda which can be another discussion for another post), Jessica Jones, Lena Luthor – Supergirl, Magneto – X Men franchise, Credence Barebone – Fantastic Beasts movies, etc.).
And I understand I’m really only touching on certain genres within film (I don’t watch them all), but they are popular genres that many identities and ages watch and consume. Most are also seen by all members of any given family household.
In my friend’s post they also mentioned the positive tropes with adoption, specifically the ones where the adoptee is a genius or exceptional in some way, tend to show that the adoptee is that way because they were adopted and maybe hint that the adoptee would not be that great if they weren’t adopted. I would say in these same view points we can see the negative tropes with adoption showing the adoptee as bad or challenged because someone abandoned them and not being open or accepting of their adoptive family.
These specific view points tend to be true to a certain extent. I would say there can be a combination of both in any given adoptee’s thoughts and feelings but media only shows the two binary extremes. I mostly understand it (based on personal experience and my own feelings about adoption) and my main concern is that if not discussed it can create problematic stereotypes… and it’s not discussed so it has created problematic stereotypes in society.
For Estella/Cruella she fits into both. When she is feeling guilty about her mother’s death she strives to be the best person she can be, for her mom. It’s literally the driving point of the story. It’s her motivation to be the best she can be and pursue fashion without challenging authority or the rules.
When she finds out the Baroness killed her mother she starts to teeter and starts to lean more heavily on her Cruella persona. Then really jumps off the deep end (with a well thought out revenge plan) when she finds out she’s adopted and her birth mother tried to kill her which led to her being adopted (and also led to the death of her birth father). Some people may say this drive in behavior and decision making may not have been because she was abandoned or relinquished and I can agree with that but I also may push back on that statement. I definitely think discovering she was adopted, that her birth mother tried to kill her at birth, and that her birth mother killed her mom is a huge driving force in the behavior expressed and decisions made for Estella/Cruella, I’m sure we can all agree on that. Whether or not it was because of an adoption related narrative, revenge/vengeance, wanting to make mom proud, or other we won’t know. It is a movie after all, we can’t ask Estella/Cruella. Estella/Cruella may also not know, a lot has changed and a lot of new information presented itself in a short amount of time. It’s a lot to process.
The desire for a family doesn’t exist for Estella/Cruella until she finds out her mom did not give birth to her
I didn’t pick up on this until I talked to my friend, mentioned earlier, but Estella/Cruella shows no desire for a family until towards the end of the movie and I have to question if it’s only because it’s a Disney movie and Disney needs to have a good message. Estella/Cruella mentions family when convincing Jasper and Horace to help her take down the Baroness. And bringing up family when you’re trying to persuade someone to do your dirty work for you (Jasper and Horace’s words, not mine) is pretty bad. If you’ve seen the movie already this is when Cruella is starting to treat Jasper and Horace horribly and is starting to verbally abuse them. Estella/Cruella eventually realizes by playing the persona of Cruella she was being mean to Jasper and Horace and works together with them to take down the Baroness. In the end she says something about the three of them being a family.
There’s nothing wrong with not wanting or looking for a family when your only family member dies. I personally thought Jasper and Horace were like family, at least mimicked what a family dynamic may be like, for Estella/Cruella but I guess she didn’t really think too hard about it. For me, the interesting part about this is that Estella/Cruella never forgets about her mom, her mom’s death, and the great things her mom did for her. So why is it that when she finds out the Baroness gave her life she starts thinking about or at least persuades Jasper and Horace with the concept of family. I’m probably thinking too deeply about it but it makes me think that having the Baroness as a blood relative almost… threatens Estella/Cruella’s mother’s (adoptive mother who I refer to as Estella/Cruella’s mother because she is) status as Estella’s/Cruella’s only family member. It’s almost like Estella/Cruella is thinking “oh I don’t want to be related or think of the Baroness as a family member so let me find someone to replace her or someone who I can call family and mean it so I can purposely block out/ignore the Baroness”. And you know who that is? Jasper and Horace.
Disney’s mom trope vs Disney’s stepmom/adoptive mom trope
I told my mom about the mom roles in this movie and she went to say, “why do all the moms die or disappear in Disney?”… and for the most part she’s not wrong. It’s a common trope in Disney, there’s even an academic essay and discussions about it. This will also be an upcoming podcast episode but I wanted to briefly touch on the birth parent vs the adoptive parent Disney trope. I think, or at least I see, this is more noticeable in Disney animated films, particularly Disney princess related films, than live action (non-remake) movies. Often times Disney moms are either dead, are living but are rather quiet and overshadowed by dad, or don’t exist and there’s no explanation as to why. Some exceptions are Pixar’s Brave, Moana, and Princess and the Frog (although Tiana’s mother is technically overshadowed by Tiana’s deceased father and his dream).
The other Disney mom trope is the Disney step-mom or adoptive mom trope, which is often negative and often represented as a Disney villain (i.e. Lady Tremaine, The Evil Queen, Mother Gothel, etc.). Even if you watch the TV series, Once Upon a Time, this is evident in the first few seasons when we see Henry’s mom (adoptive mom) is the Evil Queen from Snow White’s story.
The new Cruella movie changes this narrative by having both Estella/Cruella’s mom and the person who gave birth to Estella/Cruella aka the Baroness alive and talking to each other (briefly)… I guess one could also say the same happened to Sleeping Beauty, her adoptive family being the 3 good fairies and both her biological parents being alive. However, Sleeping Beauty’s mom doesn’t really talk throughout the entire movie. I think she says one sentence to Maleficent and that’s it. I also can’t refer to the Baroness as Estella’s/Cruella’s mom because she’s not. The Baroness literally tries to kill Estella/Cruella at every age of her life… up till she goes to jail for it.
I do like that the non-biological mother is the hero parent and loving parent. I believe that to be true, in my personal experience, but I never saw it in Disney. It just sucks she has to die when Estella/Cruella is still a child. I would have liked this movie more if Estella/Cruella’s mom and the overall adoptive mom trope was able to last beyond Estella’s/Cruella’s childhood.
Outside of these tropes there is another topic worth mentioning, particularly when talking about Cruella de Vil. In adaptations of the character Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians – both the animated and live action with Glenn Close, TV show Once Upon a Time, and now this movie) she is often coded as having a mental health or mental illness concern or issue that is not addressed or supported. To quote myself and my past work: “In the live remake 101 Dalmatians and the sequel 102 Dalmatians Cruella has a clear obsession to kill Dalmatian puppies for her fur coat collection. At the beginning of the live remake sequel Cruella is seen in a mental institution for wanting to kill the Dalmatian puppies from the end of the 101 Dalmatians movie. In the TV show Once Upon a Time Cruella de Vil loves killing people, animals, and anything that is considered alive. According to her mother she’s had this passion for killing since she was a little girl when she killed her father. After that she grew up killing all of her mother’s future partners and as an adult killed her mother and her mother’s Dalmatians (making a fur coat out of the dogs).” (link to full essay).
This movie is no different. I don’t know if it’s because someone else already thought of it and so we’re following all the other adaptations of the character, movie producers can’t redeem killing puppies so we blame mental illness, or other but I’m conflicted about it. I think we need more representation around mental health and mental illness, particularly in the representation of how characters may react, internalize, process, and work with their mental health challenges. I am not a licensed professional nor do I truly know what someone struggling with mental health goes through on the daily so I cannot speak to the future of media representation around that topic. I do wish it wasn’t a villain character we were seeing this rare Disney mental health representation with. I feel like it can give negative interpretations or stereotypes about mental health for Disney audiences. I guess to point out other, maybe more positive, mental health coded characters we have Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh and friends, and Elsa from Frozen.
On a positive note, Cruella is a strong female character in a time that was more oppressive of women… key note, more oppressive. The new Cruella movie embodies a feminist perspective and has a strong female protagonist and antagonist. The downside is there seems to really only be those two strong female lead characters and everyone else seems to be male, aside from Anita Darling. So while it is feminist, and yay strong female lead characters, I would have liked to see more female characters with speaking roles who are moving the story forward. For reference, the male characters I can think of are Jasper, Horace, Artie (vintage fashion store owner), John (valet who saved Estella as a baby), and Roger Dearly.
Fun fact, while watching the credits, Glenn Close (the original live action Cruella de Vil) was a producer on this movie… I think Emma Stone might have been as well but I can’t remember now. I also read an article on why Cruella did not have her signature red cigarette in this movie (Read more about this topic). Apparently Disney banned all reference to smoking in all their movies for the past 10+ years. Something I didn’t really pick up on and now I feel like I need to rewatch everything to know it’s true. Excuse me as I go marathon every Disney movie.
What did you think of the movie Cruella? Let me know your thoughts!