There has been a multitude of controversies surrounding Disney films for years but in the light of the House of Mouse releasing (yet another) live action story, this time about notorious villain and Queen of murderous fashion Cruella DeVil, a few new controversies need to come to light. As we all know, Cruella isn’t the nicest person you’ll meet, she does like killing animals for their skin and fur but it could also be argued that she is a feminist and has been the whole time.
In the live action Disney adaptation of ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ released back in 1996, Cruella is introduced, dressed head to toe in fur but with a distinct style that feels lifted from the screen of a classic Hollywood film. She saunters to her office but stops at Anita’s workstation, mesmerised by the drawing but also, her talent. This first conversation between the characters is eye opening. Cruella asks Anita what she wants from her career, where she sees herself in the future, she wants to offer her opportunities, she wants to lift her fellow woman up. But Anita, when replies she wants to quit her job once she’s married as that is her goal in life, Cruella says, “More good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease and disaster. You have talent darling, don’t squander it.” Hearing those words at 7 years old meant nothing, hear those words at 31 years old, you immediately recognise who Cruella is. She is a feminist but she’s also a villain, a Disney villain. This is a message that Disney continuously sends out in their films.
The idea that a single woman in power is someone not be trusted and therefore vilified isn’t a new concept for Disney. Obviously, many of the studios’ films are adapted from fairy tales and folktales where women don’t come off as the heroine often at all. The women are witches, wicked step mothers, spinsters, shapeshifters, independent thinkers, they are the alternative to the normality. Through adaptations, these poisonous messages can be amended but Disney have chosen to go down a different path.
Back in 2018 it came out in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Keira Knightly said that she doesn’t allow her daughter to watch certain Disney films. Not adhering to the ‘damsel in distress’ story that makes it seem that girl’s lives are only complete when a man comes along to save them. Knightly did say that although she loves ‘The Little Mermaid’ she though it sent the wrong message to young girls. Ariel literally gives up her voice to be with a man who may or may not feel the same way about her. The response to Knightly’s decision was split between those who watched Disney when they were younger but can still differentiate between a fairy tale and how to act in real life and those who believe that some Disney films and the values they portray are outdated. Newer films such as Tangled, Frozen and Moana have been mentioned as progressive and moving beyond the simple Princess needs a Prince story trope. But really only Moana has gone further, with a story about a young woman on a self-discovery journey as one to save her community and family. She doesn’t have a love interest and nor does she need saving herself, but while watching the film, these story elements are not even missed. But before there was Moana, Ana, Elsa and to an extent, Judy Hopps, the Princesses and heroines of Disney faced off against the ‘other’ women. Disney making the main character a feminist, or as feminist as they are willing to go, has only been a recent development, before it was the villains who embodied these ideals but cloaked in evil deeds and wicked characteristics.
In the latest Disney efforts, the idea that Cruella is a feminist is continued. This story is about how Cruella came into being, having always had a ‘wild side’, she embarks first in a life thievery then breaks into the world of fashion. Her career is the most important thing, that is until she is consumed by revenge. The antagonist of the story is the Baroness, a wealthy and iconic fashion designer who rules her company with an iron fist. It is revealed she is responsible for the death of Cruella’s mother as well as other deep dark secrets (SPOILER) that is in fact Cruella’s birth mother and had actually ordered a servant to kill her as a baby would interfere with her own career. Of course, we know Cruella evolves into the dog hating, animal killing villain we love and adore but this new development that Disney dives deeper into the ‘feminist=villain’ trait with the Baroness. Not to say that the Baroness is actually a feminist but she shows signs she could be if she wasn’t so cold hearted. But the dig about her wanting to kill her own child just so she can have a career is, absolutely, ridiculous. This new story avenue paints Cruella in a different light yet she is still a villain at the end of the day even of she does want to elevate Anita’s career and she’s chose not have a conventional family. If Disney had chosen to mine these personality traits and given her a different background, her feminist ideals might have had a positive beginning, but no, villains must stay on a certain path and mustn’t deter from the formula.