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The Evolution of Cruella - From Spinster Villain to Punk Icon

Perhaps what’s always been most frightening and explosive about Cruella de Vil is that she’s an older, single woman who doesn’t much care for the ideas of marriage and family. In the 1961 Disney adaptation, Cruella became happily single and anti-domesticity, and beginning with the 1996 live-action film starring Glenn Close, she also became a career-driven girlboss of the fashion world. As this epitome of villainy gets the sympathetic-star treatment in 2021’s Cruella starring Emma Stone, the centering of Cruella indicates a growing respect for her type, while her lingering evil betrays that the rebellious, nontraditional woman still has the power to unsettle us. Here’s our Take on Cruella’s journey to becoming a protagonist, and how she encapsulates our culture’s fear and awe of the archetypal spinster.

TRANSCRIPT

With a name like “Cruella DeVil,” (i.e. Cruel Devil), it’s pretty much spelled out that you’re going to be the bad gal. Some of Cruella’s core traits are that she’s insane, she wants to make clothing out of the most lovable creatures in the world, and she’s pure evil. But if you think about it, there’s something odd about the fact that Cruella is the Disney villain with the ultimate evil name. While her willingness to kill puppies is instinctively abhorrent to most of us, she’s actually a far less extreme menace than many other Disney villains who seek to dominate, wipe out, and oppress their whole societies. Perhaps what’s always been most frightening and explosive about Cruella is that she’s a single woman who doesn’t much care for the ideas of marriage and family. Her wicked power is that she’s a threat to the family unit.

Roger Darling: “She’s going to have a baby.”

Cruella DeVil: “Oh you poor thing. I’m so sorry.” - 101 Dalmatians (1996)

In the 1956 Dodie Smith The Hundred and One Dalmatians novel, she does have a spouse, though doesn’t much like him or respect him, but in her birth onscreen — the 1961 Disney adaptation — Cruella became happily single, even anti-domesticity. And beginning with the 1996 live-action film starring Glenn Close she also became a career-driven girlboss of the fashion world.

Tracking the evolution of Cruella through her various adaptations we can see a mirror of our society’s anxieties and discomfort around unmarried or ambitious women. As this epitome of villainy gets the sympathetic-star treatment in 2021’s Cruella starring Emma Stone, the centering of Cruella indicates a growing respect for her type, while her lingering evil betrays that the rebellious, nontraditional woman still has the power to unsettle us. Here’s our take on Cruella’s journey to becoming a protagonist, and how she encapsulates our culture’s fear and awe of the archetypal spinster.

Cruella 1.0: The Pure Evil Spinster

The appeal of Cruella is she’s so unapologetically, stylishly evil. One of only three animated villains to make it onto the AFI’s Top 50 Villains list, she’s so deliciously bad it’s fun to watch. In the 1961 film, Cruella’s silhouette is sharp and angular, she has a skeletal, pale face, her black-and-white color scheme is punctuated with accents of blood red, and the evil, sickly green color from her cigarette. She has a manor called “Hell Hall.” It’s striking that 101 Dalmatians creates such a close association between these signifiers of pure “devilry” and being an unattached woman of a certain age. Note the way Cruella is introduced to us: as a creepy shadow darkening the couple’s door, while Roger composes a song insisting she’s evil.

We’ve been told almost nothing about her, and when she enters, her behavior is certainly unconventional, but not yet definitively evil. But Pongo immediately backs away from her and snarls. She doesn’t even get to speak for herself or sing her own song, like most Disney villains. The audience, like the characters in the movie, is just supposed to know and trust that she’s evil, based solely on the way she’s presented visually, animal instincts, and the fact that she’s eccentric and single. And while Anita and Cruella are said to be classmates, Cruella looks markedly older.

From there, the film links being unmarried with having bad values. Cruella cares only for riches and materialistic delights. She’s insincere, abrasive and entitled, not ladylike, and constantly berates the bumbling men in her life She embodies not just greed but also — that stereotypically female sin — vanity. And she’s shrouded in “evil spinster” imagery — compared to a witch and the spider.

Marriage and the idea of a heteronormative, nuclear family is right at the center of 101 Dalmatians’s premise, which is why Cruella’s singleness and position outside of a normative family unit is so villainized. This movie, at its core, is a story about getting married, settling down, and having babies. It begins with Pongo lamenting his lack of a partner. He sets up a charming meet-cute for Roger and Anita, and for himself and Perdita. Then, both pairs walk down the aisle, ready to enter a life of domestic bliss. When Perdita is about to have her puppies, the men wait outside the “delivery room” with anxious anticipation, a traditional rite of passage for new fathers. And once the puppies have arrived, there’s a particularly long scene of the wholesome young family sitting around the TV before bed, which conjures a very 1950s image of idyllic, suburban domesticity. In short, family values are really important to the heroes of this story, so it makes sense that the villain of their story is a woman outside of this standard idea of happiness who doesn’t hold the ideology of family sacred.

Cruella DeVil: “More good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease, and disaster.” - 101 Dalmatians (1996)

Single career women in film and TV have long been viewed as threats to happy family life, often because of the fear that they’re secretly looking to steal a married man. Cruella is not a challenge to Roger and Anita in this sense of being a temptress, but in an even more extreme way: she wants to murder their puppies, who are an easy stand-in for their babies. Thus the narrative taps into that fear that an unmarried woman is a challenge to family life, simply because she’s chosen differently — and goes further to make that danger literal and life-threatening. Her long cigarette holder with her haze of green smoke makes her appear literally toxic, and as she spreads smoke around Roger’s and Anita’s home, there’s a sense that her poisonous presence and rotten aura are defiling the family’s little sanctuary.

Many saw fast-living actress Tallulah Bankhead as inspiration for Cruella’s antics and Mary Wickes as inspiration for her looks, but Marc Davis, one of Cruella’s original animators, said, “I put something of all the bad women I’ve known into Cruella.”

Still, as much as she was seemingly condemned by her story, Cruella’s flair, style and humor — and most of all her delicious wickedness — made her fabulous, as the woman who voiced her, Betty Lou Gerson, understood very well: “to me, she was such a fun character, I loved her. I thought she was wonderful.”

Whereas the original 1961 101 Dalmatians poster put the dogs front and center, we can see from a quick glance at the posters for the 1996 live-action 101 and 2000 sequel 102 Dalmatians

(and Glenn Close’s top billing) that by then Disney was aware that Cruella was the one audiences were coming for.

As she transforms into an Anna Wintour-like fashion mogul, we get a more fleshed-out window into Cruella’s love of her career, and her view that marriage deprives women of the opportunity to thrive as professionals. These shifts show our culture’s increasing respect for and awe of successful women, at least in theory, but her character is still cartoonishly evil.

Director Stephen Herek told the Washington Post that when he “finally committed to doing the movie, the first thing that I thought about was Cruella, pure evil,” and Close also saw this as the essence of the character. She told the Associated Press in 1996, “I was really determined that

Cruella be as bad as possible. I think Cruella basically has no redeeming human characteristics…except for her wicked sense of humor and the engaging way that she’s gleeful in her evilness.”

Cruella is also shown to be brought down by vanity. At the end, she must be soundly defeated and deprived of her glamour — drenched in molasses and manure, framed as insane while Roger and Anita get their domestic happily ever after.

The Cruella-Anita dynamic fits into a common story template where the scary spinster or evil career woman is a contrast to or cautionary tale for a sweet younger woman. The 1996 film makes Cruella Anita’s exacting boss — a mold that would be fleshed out further in dark fashion mentor story, 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly — who seems was in part inspired by Cruella and channels her aesthetic — was a celebrated icon who brought awareness to how her society wants her to fail as a “woman.”

Miranda Priestly: “Snow Queen drives away another Mr. Priestly” - The Devil Wears Prada

But both the 1996 101 Dalmatians, and The Devil Wears Prada ultimately turn the female boss into a symbol of selfishness. While the original Cruella’s entitled heiress persona is replaced by a hardworking boss one, her outrage upon finding out Anita is marrying stems from a sense of personal betrayal. She’s losing a good worker who’s contributing to her empire.

Cruella, the Rebel

2021’s Cruella reworks this dark mentor story structure by giving Cruella a dark Miranda Priestly-esque fashion mentor of her own, the Baroness Von Hellman, in a set-up that has immediately drawn comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada. If Cruella is now in the “ingenue” spot, though, she’s far from the wholesome, naive soul we expect for this character. Instead, as director Craig Gillespie says, the Baroness symbolizes the “establishment,” while Cruella has a “rebellious nature.”

So this reframes the clash to speak to a more interesting idea of what it means to be “devilish,” which can be found in a number of literary works — to be a destroyer of established orders, to challenge the powers that be, and conventions that everyone else conforms to. The film still retains the dark mentor’s core “selfishness” and the extreme individualism and self-love that define Cruella herself, but here that radical selfishness is given an edge as it’s linked to the drive for survival in a hostile world.

Meanwhile, in recent years, Cruella has also been increasingly getting scarier and less cartoonish. Debuting in 2014, Once Upon A Time’s Cruella is more formidable than her predecessors in both her goals and her abilities: instead of being defeated by dogs, she controls them, succeeds at killing them and even kills people. This Cruella also gets an origin story, inviting us to at least try to understand her. But while the show may raise the prospect that Cruella was shaped by an equally evil mother, who was also an aging woman without a man, in the end, it illuminates that it’s not any exterior factor that made Cruella who she is. She’s simply cruel by nature and always has been.

Cruella DeVil: “Some people struggle not to be drawn into the darkness…‘Why not splash in and have fun!” - Once Upon a Time 4x19

Whereas the sympathetic-villain story so often softens or excuses it’s character’s villainy, passing the blame for what the villain becomes, the whole point and essence of Cruella is that she’s 100% bad. And we can see in 2021’s Cruella as well that this is the origin story not of an innocent being led astray, but of young Cruella’s seeds of evil blossoming and maturing.

Like other sympathetic villain-protagonist stories, the prequel to 101 Dalmatians does make Cruella (known at first as Estella) more relatable in order to turn her into a protagonist we’re meant to root for. It builds identification with her by turning her from a spoiled heiress into a scrappy, self-made hustler whose anti-establishment rage is understandable, creative, and empowering. One trailer advertises that “her story isn’t black and white.”

So while Gillespie and Stone both downplay the likeness to Joker, the film does to an extent show the figure as shaped by her environment. But it also strongly embraces the Once Upon A Time explanation that Cruella is inherently, inevitably evil. Essentially she’s evil thanks to nature, but that nature is well-nurtured in order to come out and flourish.

The other major way the film transforms Cruella is to make her, more explicitly than ever before, aspirational. This Cruella is a cool, bold punk in jaw-dropping fashions. She’s also young, and while this draws viewers more than ever into her psyche, the “older woman” aspect of the original character is arguably important; if we’re trying to overcome old biases against the so-called “spinster” we should also embrace her as an aging woman.

The film’s marketing goes so far as to cast Cruella as a symbol of female empowerment, which can be tricky to reconcile with the whole “devilish” core of her character. Her unstable mind and sociopathic tendencies risk undercutting and confusing any feminist rhetoric she might spout. Still, her conflict is related to her gender. Her rage taps into a bigger, anti-patriarchal rage. Even her madness is that of a woman driven mad by a world that tries to force her into a box that doesn’t fit.

There’s also sexism woven into the tradition of villainizing Cruella and other “spinster”-esque baddies. Female Disney villains resemble what we collectively assume the spinster must feel: envy of youth and fear of becoming old, ugly, and spinster-esque. They’re striving for what’s not theirs, whether that’s Rapunzul’s hair — or a couple’s puppies — embodying society’s anxieties about aging, unattached women, rather than the possibility that a single woman could grow old gracefully or find fulfillment in another sphere besides domesticity.

The socially acceptable role for a spinster is represented in the original 101 Dalmatians by Nanny, who acts as Cruella’s foil. Nanny delivers Perdita’s puppies and dutifully protects Roger

and Anita from threats. The message here is that you can at least still fit in as a single woman as long as you serve a family and uphold notions of what the “perfect family” looks like. Still, the best you can hope for is to be a bumbling sidekick, who doesn’t even get to have her own first name.

By so boldly pushing back against these rigid expectations, Cruella has managed to become a powerful feminist icon of sorts — as well as a gay icon, as some viewers have read her as queer-coded.

Conclusion

As much as Cruella’s stories have hit us over the head with the message that she’s a wicked witch who must be defeated, the real takeaway for many audiences has long been an awe of her independence, differentness, and devil-may-care attitude toward the world.

Even if Cruella was struck down so Roger and Anita’s “perfect” 1950s life full of puppies (or babies) could be affirmed, on a more subconscious level, Cruella’s irresistible flair and confidence demonstrated that their traditional married life isn’t the situation everyone wants or needs. As her solo film underlines, Cruella DeVil has always been a symbol of female rebellion. She doesn’t give a damn what a woman ought to act like, and our enduring fascination with her shows that people have always related to what she represents — the power of choice, wildness, and the thrill of feeling bad to the bone.

Sources

Hill, Jim. “When It Comes to Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, the ‘de Vil’ Is in the Details.” HuffPost, 6 Dec. 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/when-it-comes-to-disneys_b_6606834.

“How Cruella Become a de Vil Woman.” The Independent, 7 Mar. 2008, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/how-cruella-become-de-vil-woman-792575.html.

Lezmi, Joshua. “Sorry, Internet, ‘Cruella’ Star Emma Stone Rejects Your ‘Joker’ Comparisons.” Collider, 1 Apr. 2021, collider.com/cruella-emma-stone-joker-comparisons/.

Maitland, Hayley. “What to Expect from ‘Cruella’, according to Director Craig Gillespie.” Vogue, 7 Apr. 2021, www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/craig-gillespie-interview.

Sneider, Jeff. “Emma Thompson in Talks to Join Emma Stone in Disney’s Live-Action ‘Cruella’ Movie.” Collider, 14 May 2019, collider.com/emma-thompson-emma-stone-cruella-disney-movie/.

“Where Does the Term ‘Spinster’ Come From?” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/spinster-meaning-origin.