Cruella De Vil: The Nasty Woman Role Model We Need
So many puppies, so little time.
Do you remember the first time you saw what female pleasure looked like? Real, raw, feminine lust. When did you see it first?
Chances are you didn’t see it in a Disney movie. But for a great many young women coming up in the 1990s, that first time came in the 1996 adaptation of 101 Dalmatians. But it wasn’t between a woman and a partner. It was between a woman and a particularly illegal fur coat. A Siberian tiger, to be exact.
Cruella’s short, halted breaths were unmistakable when she unwrapped that fur coat. She was unbelievably excited to receive it, and exclaimed that it was magnificent. She had to have it in her hands, around her body. It was imperative. Nothing was going to stop her. And when it was finally around her, the first words out of her mouth were, “You were a big bad boy, weren’t you darling?”
Glenn Close brought this sinister lust to Cruella de Vil in 1996, reviving a beloved character for a new generation. The 2018 film Cruella, starring the ubiquitous Emma Stone, is set to do the exact same thing. We just can’t get rid of Cruella de Vil.
And why would we want to? Cruella is rare in the media landscape because she is the female id, snuggling her coat and laughing at the world. She’s been a nasty woman before the term ever came to be. Cruella is Samantha Jones and Miranda Priestly rolled into one.
The original 1956 novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians paints the original Cruella as an unflinchingly domineering heiress, a Daisy Buchanan archetype with a spine and (actual) zest for life. Her car has the loudest horn in London. She was expelled from school for drinking ink. She sleeps in ermine sheets. She douses her food in pepper. Cruella is fun.
It’s safe to say that Cruella was created as a feminist caricature in the 1950s. She enjoys cars, and dresses in an alluring manner despite being married. Her cat destroys her furniture but reports: “Though it’s heartbreaking how little she notices it — she’s such a rotten housewife.” She forces her passive husband to take her last name upon marriage, seeing as she is the last in her family line.
But who is this husband? We’re told he is a furrier, no doubt part of his appeal to Cruella. They were married despite their extreme wealth gap and it being the 1950s. Never once do we hear him complain out loud about Cruella’s behavior. When she has a fretful moment upon losing her signature mink coat, he calms her and says it’s probably just a ghost from someone in her family. Maybe Mr. de Vil secretly loves having a bold wife he can spoil with the furs she loves so much.
Cruella is also decidedly childfree, no doubt scandalous in her time. Whether she is dismissive or completely apathetic toward children isn’t clear. But when it comes to animals, you can count on Cruella to be utilitarian to a fault. Even her Persian cat (mercifully cut from Disney adaptations) confesses that her kittens were drowned at Cruella’s hand. She herself is alive only because of her monetary worth.
Compare Cruella to the droll Mrs. Dearly (Anita in the Disney portrayal). She hardly speaks in the novel except to reinforce that she used to be deathly afraid of Cruella. Most of the direct observations in the novel come from Mr. Dearly. He snidely suggests that Cruella is “showy” and asks if her hair was black and white when she was a child (turns out, it was). Mr. Dearly pities Cruella’s husband, as only a man who fancies himself in the perfect marriage is able to pity another man. There’s a moment where she asks for more details about the ermine sheets, only to be ignored by everyone in the scene at hand. Could a friendship have been nurtured between these two women if not for her jerk husband?
Interestingly, the original 101 Dalmatians story paints Mr. and Mrs. Dearly as incredibly boring people. Mr. Dearly works in banking and they own dogs. That’s all we know. Later portrayals of these characters are revised to make them fuller, giving them careers and pasts. Cruella is revised downward, making her a loud and obnoxious woman whose only personality trait is that she loves fur. Yet we still like her more than the Dearly family. She has passion for something, and she will have it.
Across all portrayals of Cruella, the common denominator is an unapologetically selfish nature. Cruella will do what she wants whenever she feels like it. Glenn Close brought a sleek arrogance to the character, portraying a domineering boss willing to fire one of her top employees because she denied her the puppies she desired. Once Upon A Time showed a cruel villainess desperate for freedom at any cost. Freedom to cause mayhem and pursue riches, but freedom nonetheless. The Descendants paints Cruella as an abusive mother, using her son as a servant (perhaps because she caved to societal pressure to have a child in the first place?).
Most of us would never dream of dognapping or making puppies into a fur coat. But what about slowing down to watch a building burn down with morbid fascination? Or referring to two attractive men as a “scruff sandwich”? Cruella represents the baser instincts of the feminine mystique, the half of the liberated woman that society doesn’t always care to see. Her self-love knows no bounds, even to horrifying ends. It’s easy to see the appeal in a world where women have to practice not apologizing.
The urge to assign Cruella to the fashion industry is only natural. In a time when miniskirts were only seen in science fiction television shows, Cruella was wearing skintight gowns with contrasting colors. She is waifish but wears giant fur coats that swallow her up. Cruella oozes style and female sexual power. It’s her shoes and her fur coats that steal the show. The poster for the 2009 Broadway musical 101 Dalmatians features only a puppy and a woman’s leg strutting out in a spotted heel and mini skirt. No need to ask who it belongs to.
After all, it’s no longer an insult to be told you look like Cruella De Vil. It’s on par with being compared to Lady Gaga, Joan Rivers or Iris Apnel. Having an extreme look is not only accepted at this time in history but praised. South Carolina native Brianna Worthy had a native birthmark that gave her a Cruella-like white streak. Far from being ashamed, she is incredibly proud that her daughter received this unique look. She was quoted as saying, “I plan to raise my daughter knowing she is beautiful and special and to not listen to people mean comments at times.”
The new live action film Cruella (starring Emma Stone) is set to be released in the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, ushering in a new generation of fans for the feminist icon. The timing couldn’t be better. She may be the first in a long line of nasty women to hit the big screen as a reaction to this unexpected president. We may need Cruella’s go-to-hell attitude going forward, as well as her self love. After all, rebellion isn’t always polite. Sometimes you need to just pull on your (vegan) mink coat and chase those puppies.