Feminist Theory in Disney’s ‘Cruella’

By: Roxana Martinez

San Bernardino, Calif.

DISNEY

Modern-day Disney films have become more progressive. Disney’s newest films—“Luca” (2021), “Cruella” (2021), and “Black Widow” (2021)—all in some way make reference to the inequalities faced by women in leadership positions, whether it be in a friendly competition or in a role in the most elite government organizations. What is most interesting is the unusual yet traditional direction in which filmmaker Craig Gillespie decided to take his film “Cruella.”

Many viewers are divided on “Cruella.” The film, derived from the classic “101 Dalmatians,” contains significant  departures from the original story. Despite this, many have come to love and support Gillespie’s masterpiece by portray-ing both the protagonist and antagonist of his story as independent and self-reliant women. 

While older crime films like “Mildred Pierce” (1945) and “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) follow a female lead through a three-act cinematic structure, Gillespie decided to use flashbacks to break away from the traditional structure. In doing so, we are able to understand the origin story of our main characters and how they got to be the person we are seeing on screen. 

Understanding who Estella Miller was as a child helps the audience understand the goals and ambitions of her alter ego, Cruella De Vil. In most films of this genre, when an evil female character is involved, they usually face a significant event that leads to their downfall while their male counterparts, in some cases, get away. Female villains are not often successful in their evil doings. Instead of letting Cruella’s image be completely destroyed, Gillespie decides to change the narrative and allow Cruella to have a setback that she will build off of to become a better criminal. 

Not only that, but he transformed a serious storyline into one filled with comic relief that made it enjoyable for the audience. The active involvement of queer theory to create a more inclusive film was a sign that film production companies like Disney are beginning to make changes for the better. 

Although Gillespie steered away from the usual crime genre narrative, he has remained traditional in many other ways. Key elements of the genre seen in the film include the committing and solving of crimes, law enforcement involvement, and a story arc familiar to consumers of other crime TV shows, books, and movies.

The film’s approach to feminist theory was a step in the right direction for the depiction of female leadership roles in crime films. Nonetheless, it did not challenge the representation of women as much as I had hoped going into the movie. But perhaps I should take comfort in some of the words Estella says in the movie: “Don’t worry, we’re just getting started. There’s lots more bad things coming. I promise.”

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