The Cowardice of Cruella

The new Disney film could have embraced villainy, in all its complications. Instead, it opts for a cheaper sort of sympathy.

Emma Stone as Cruella
Adam Maida / The Atlantic / Disney

This article contains mild spoilers for Cruella.

“It’s time to make some trouble. You in?” reads one of the posts promoting Cruella, Disney’s prequel-meets-reconsideration of the classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians villain. The line is in keeping with the film: It’s slick and witty and teasingly imprecise about what “trouble,” in this context, might entail. Previous incarnations of Cruella de Vil—including the 1961 animated film that gave us a song dedicated to her vileness—have paid fealty to the character’s outlandish fiendishness: This is someone who will attempt to murder puppies in order to make outerwear. The new version, which tells of Cruella’s life as a young fashion designer, both complicates and flattens the existing stories. Played with off-kilter aplomb by Emma Stone, the young Cruella is a hustler, a skilled self-promoter, and an influencer. She is not evil; she is merely complicated. She is a creature of 2020s America who happens to reside in 1970s London.

Cruella is the latest entry in the thriving genre of villain revisionism. The field includes lightly fictionalized reconsiderations of nonfictional events (works such as Confirmation and The People v. O. J. Simpson); documentaries such as The Clinton Affair, Lorena, and Framing Britney Spears; and retellings of old tales (Wicked, Maleficent) from the villain’s point of view. The genre is not new, but it is flourishing in an age shaped by the internet and fluent in the language of postmodernism: It tells the story about the story. It is deeply concerned with the totalizing power of authorship. It understands that villainy, as a category, is imposed—and that, in a culture that tends to prioritize reductive myths over complicated truths, the label can be its own kind of injustice.

Disney’s latest film is both an apotheosis and a nadir of the form. It goes out of its way to complicate, to relate, to correct. It takes a character so evil—so delightfully depraved—that she is named after the devil himself, and promises that she, too, can be rehabilitated. Its impulse toward retrospective empathy, however, strains credulity. (When a reassessment depends on the murderous capabilities of a dalmatian named Genghis, perhaps it has gone too far.) The Cruella you might know from earlier iterations is all but unrecognizable. Her defining cruelty has been switched out for the demands of glossy, girlboss feminism. Cruella is often fun to watch—it features some fantastic performances, some excellent lines, and some dazzling clothes—but its cavalier reversal of its core character cheapens the very idea of a corrective narrative. It takes a quintessential villain and nuances her character into oblivion.

Here is one simple way to render your villain instantly sympathetic: You make her the victim of trauma. Cruella begins, as many Disney stories do, with a child witnessing the death of a beloved parent. In this case, Cruella blames herself for the tragedy. Orphaned, she makes her way to London, where she takes up with two boys (this is how Jasper and Horace, Cruella’s eventual henchmen, enter the story). The three support themselves through thievery; she puts her great design skills to work creating elaborate costumes that enable their grifts. Everything changes when Jasper, recognizing her talent, gets her a job at a high-end department store. That leads to a job with the Baroness, the apex predator of London’s fashion scene. Cruella quickly discovers—and, warning, here are some spoilers—that the Baroness was responsible for her mother’s death. Driven by a desire for revenge, which might also be a desire for justice (the film is unclear on this crucial distinction), Cruella becomes a fashion star intent on displacing the Baroness. Heists and society balls and operatic plot twists ensue.

Emma Stone's Cruella in a clothing store
Disney

At no point, in this film based on 101 Dalmatians, does Cruella put dogs’ lives under threat. She makes some winking jokes about killing dogs and, for that matter, people. It is crucial to the film’s project that she never follows through. This Cruella is “bad” but not evil, and much depends on the difference. Instead, the cruelty in Cruella is outsourced: The villain is the Baroness, played with razor-sharp hauteur by Emma Thompson. She is calculating and cutting (sometimes literally: She nicks Cruella with a fabric cutter and, enchanted by the blood rather than abashed by it, orders staff to procure a fabric in the same color). She says things like “You’re helpful to me, is all. As soon as you’re not, you’re dust.”

The Baroness is emblematic of the film’s frenzied effort to have things both ways. The original Cruella is a great villain in part because her evil is so delightfully two-dimensional, so transcendentally cartoonish. She utters deliciously demonic lines (“Poison them! Drown them! Bash them! Drop them on their head! Got any chloroform?”) about adorable puppies. But Cruella, having argued that its main character is fundamentally good, cedes that depravity to the Baroness. As for Cruella, the traumatized orphan? She is seen scrubbing toilets (her job at the department store, it turns out, is janitorial) and being belittled by an imperious manager. The bids for sympathy are heavy-handed. How will Cruella finally break bad? Unclear. And not the point.

Another way that the film complicates its compassions: Cruella, in this rendering, is not one person but two. The character’s most defining physical feature—her starkly split-colored hair—has a psychological upshot. She is both Cruella (who is “born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad”) and Estella (who loved her mother and is essentially kind, if rebellious). This is a well-worn trope: Cruella/Estella is a version of Clark and Kal-El, Arthur and Joker, Jekyll and Hyde. But the bifurcation is so muddled that Cruella herself has to constantly clarify which of her alter egos she is embracing at a given moment. “I’m Cruella,” she will say, to her colleagues and the fourth wall. “Are you Cruella or Estella?” other characters will ask.

In some stories, the alter ego can be a way of exploring the elemental idea that people have dual, and sometimes dueling, capacities for goodness and badness. Here, though, the trope is used in much the same way that childhood trauma is: as a plot device, and as a way of making Cruella a character who offers something for everyone. Is Cruella good or bad? She is both. She is neither. She is exceptional. She is relatable. After a while—Cruella has a two-plus-hour running time—all the whiplash begins to look like indifference. The film’s efforts to frame its protagonist as a feminist antihero take the form of easy currency. Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” is referenced unironically. In one scene, the Baroness utters the line “I choose me.” The whole thing can read, at times, as a game of corporate-feminist Mad Libs made corporeal.

“Each film is only as good as its villain,” Roger Ebert once observed, and the older Dalmatians films show why. Their stories have been elevated by Cruella’s delicious deviance. In her recent book, Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology, Jess Zimmerman quotes Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, the dean of humanities at Arizona State University: “The monster dwells at the gates of difference,” he notes, in one of the insights that inform his seminal book Monster Theory. Monsters, Zimmerman argues, “separate acceptable from unacceptable, what’s allowed from what is not. Their monstrosity is deviation blown up to exaggerated size—the mythic equivalent of ‘if you keep doing that, your face will stick that way.’”

This is part of the visceral thrill of cinematic villainy. Villains tend to be much more entertaining to watch than heroes because their embrace of aberrance can be cathartic: They acknowledge the constraints imposed by cultures that are narrow in their empathies—and then studiously ignore them. Many of Disney’s greatest villains are coded as queer for this reason. (The Little Mermaid’s Ursula was inspired by Divine, the famous drag queen.) These characters dwell at the gates of difference and, crucially, have no interest in residing anywhere else.

Cruella nods to that transgressive power—and also reduces it. The queer character here, Artie (John McCrea), is not a villain but a friend of Cruella’s who happily agrees to serve as one of her assistants. Several other people in the film, two of them characters of color—including Cruella’s childhood friend Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a main character of 101 Dalmatians—are similarly cast as cheerful agents of Cruella’s will. For a movie premised on corrective vision, these treatments are notably myopic. Cruella adopts The Queen’s Gambit idea of success; its plot assumes that everyone in Cruella’s world will happily drop what they’re doing to help her exact her revenge (or is it justice?). The film insists that her success is success for anyone who has been marginalized. She is an outsider, after all. Her clothes suggest the avant-gardism of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. And yet: “I want to be like you,” she tells the Baroness. “You’re a very powerful woman.” So Disney has given us an allegedly punk antihero whose defining goal is to be respected within the establishment.

Every age gets the Cruella it deserves. The Cruella of the 1990s, an era whose mass culture was inflected by feminist backlash, was made monstrous not just by her murderousness, but also by her acute disinterest in marrying or mothering. (“Puppies, darling,” coos Glenn Close, infusing the role with maniacal glee. “I’ve no use for babies.”) The Cruella of the current moment—frenzied, flattened—is an icon for a time that finds the slogans of “empowerment” easy and the substance of empowerment hard. The film embraces the glib condescension of the idea that every villain must be, somehow, misunderstood—that a woman can’t be purely evil, that she must have a softer side, that her currency is her beguiling relatability. Watching this sumptuous revision, I longed for the classic Cruella: vain, vapid, willing to kill puppies, and never feeling the need to explain herself.