In classic superhero origin story form, the titular character for the new Disney film “Cruella,” played by Emma Stone, begins her tale as an orphan, with the added guilt of having inadvertently caused her mother’s death. With no family in the world, she ends up on her own, with some petty thieves and her dog. It’s got the classic Disney fairytale feel, but as Disney has chosen to center girls’ stories, they continue to decenter what is important to most women.
Our superhero stories for women, the new stories for girls to tell them how to achieve their dreams, come with a very apparent deletion: Love and morality are not part of the new female advancement story. Instead, both are cast aside in favor of aggressive power. It’s as though these girls have already begun the testosterone treatments to turn them into the men they know they can be to succeed in a man’s world.
Such is the story presented in the latest Disney live-action release, “Cruella.” Propelled by her talent and sheer moxie, Cruella—or Estella, her given name—takes a job with a fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). While designing clothes is Cruella’s dream, working for the Baroness is grueling. She is demanding and exacting, a narcissistic perfectionist.
“You can’t care about anyone else,” the Baroness tells her assistant Cruella. “Everyone else is an obstacle. You care what an obstacle wants or feels, you’re dead. If I cared about anyone or thing I might have died like so many brilliant women with a drawer full of unseen genius and a heart full of sad bitterness. You have the talent for your own label. Whether you have the killer instinct is the big question.”
“I hope I do,” Cruella replies.
If Hollywood has taught us anything about fashion, it’s that it’s a cutthroat industry. Beauty is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who wants to maintain healthy personal relationships, if we can believe “The Devil Wears Prada.” That cutthroat mentality comes into play quite literally in “Cruella,” because the title character has a penchant for vengeance. After learning a little too much about the baroness, Cruella goes for the jugular.
And she’s good at it. The little orphaned girl who lost her mother and never knew her father goes all in on feelings of anger, vengeance, and retribution, just like the Evil Queen-style Baroness has done in her life and career. But there’s something real missing: Love, relationships, caring, compassion, and humanity.
The fairytale communicated is that it’s when Cruella embraces her cruel side, her bitterness and anger, that she comes into herself. Accepting herself, as we’re so often told in self-help books is a good thing, is for Cruella an effort in taking on meanness, pettiness, and anger. In the movie, this leads to her success.
We’ve told young women not to prioritize love, so it’s no wonder that “Cruella” is a story about unleashing anger, cutthroat ambition, and isolation. She has friends, but they fear her. She has love only for herself. In that sense, this story is a tragedy.
Films aren’t here to tell us how to live, as art is not mere propaganda. But given Disney’s insistence on crafting stories specifically to indoctrinate little girls into prioritizing a woke, corporatist agenda, such as “Frozen,” it’s hard not to look at “Cruella” outside of that frame.
There are some good things in the film, but it’s not a children’s film. This is much more in line with “Devil Wears Prada” than “Cinderella” — which everyone is supposed to hate these days anyway. The film is set in 1970s London, and Cruella’s clothing line has more in common with Vivienne Westwood than what the fairy godmothers would put together. The soundtrack is stupendous.
Cruella is the girl boss we’ve heard so much about. She is the young woman who follows her dreams no matter who she has to step on to achieve them. But she has no love of anything or anyone but herself. She becomes the thing she despised — and Disney celebrates her for it.
“Cruella” is the story of a villain. It’s not a fairy tale, and the lead character is more of a moral reckoning for our culture of children’s storytelling than it is an aspirational heroine story.