It goes without saying that, even before Emma Stone stepped into a previously unseen version of the classic Disney villain, that Cruella De Vil was already something of a gay icon. From her outrageous fashion sense to her poor driving abilities, her campy demeanor is something that continuously resonates with a certain demographic who also answer the question of “how are you?” with, “Miserable as usual, dahling, perfectly wretched.” So even before someone like Aline Brosh McKenna—writer of another gay classic, The Devil Wears Prada—was attached to pen the live-action film exploring Ms. De Vil’s backstory, Cruella was already destined to have support from those with their own flare for the dramatic. (Not even considering that Emma Thompson co-stars as a Miranda Priestly-esque villain.) But the latest in Disney’s string of reimagined classics goes deeper than what one might consider stereotypical depictions of queerness: Cruella’s own coming of age can in fact be seen as mirroring the experience that many queer people go through in embracing their own true nature and selves.
You see, one kind of narrative might explain it this way: she wasn’t always Cruella. Born with distinctive black and white hair and a budding passion for fashion, young Estella was arguably forced to become a jaded grown-up much faster than her peers. Following a tragic incident involving a cliff, her mother, and some dalmatians, Estella turns into a streetwise thief with the help of two fellow bandits she meets one day by chance, Jasper and Horace. (In order to conform and not draw attention to herself, she dyes her hair red.) Jumping at the chance to pursue a career in fashion, she maneuvers her way up the ladder to work directly with haute couture designer the Baroness (Thompson) who, despite her upper-class appearance, is almost more deceitful and under-handed than Estella and her friends. Upon learning some devastating information that links the Baroness to her late mother, Estella assumes the identity of her evil alter ego, Cruella, to seek revenge on all those who have wronged her. Thus giving rise to the theory that she wasn’t always Cruella: she became that way because of a tragic childhood that dealt her a rotten hand in life.
But another kind of narrative, and one that is more thoroughly explored throughout Cruella, might articulate it differently: Estella was just a disguise she assumed to go unnoticed in a world where everyone seems the same, one that she could take advantage of as a petty thief. Her true identity was always Cruella, a girl with a one-of-a-kind black and white hairdo that not only sets her apart from everyone else just based on appearance, but also in terms of a sense of creativity and passion belonging only to her. Indeed, her idea of revenge against the Baroness was to outsmart her at her own game—fashion—instead of taking the easy way out by perhaps just robbing her and stealing her dogs. (Of course, Cruella did in fact steal her dogs in addition to becoming her business rival, because she’s a true villain at heart.) As she puts it herself, Cruella is brilliant, bad, and little bit mad, and as the character learns over the course of discarding Estella, she was born that way. Estella was never her true identity. She was born brilliant, bad, and a little bit mad. She was born Cruella.
It’s become something of a tradition with live-action Disney adaptations following the previously unknown backstories of villains that there had to have been something that made them become villainous. Maleficent, for example, had her wings stolen by the only friend she’d ever had and, in a justified rage caused by the betrayal, declared war on him and his kingdom. But as Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) soon learns, she has a kind and loving nature beneath the jaded shield of pain, one that helps her rediscover the power of love and family. Something similar could be said about Cruella, conceivably, in that the audience is almost immediately given to assume she declared war against dalmatians for killing her mother—a war that ultimately speaks for itself given the events of assorted 101 Dalmatians films. But when given a closer look, we learn that this isn’t actually the case with Cruella: she didn’t become a jaded thief solely because her mother was taken from her too soon and she was mad at the world. (That was definitely part of it, no doubt, but not the only reason.) It took years of condensing herself into an identity and a definition that the world could understand for the character to understand that she had always been Cruella: a villainous fashion icon who never learned to drive.
It’s worth noting that a similar transition often occurs for real-life queer people: we spend most of our lives in a heteronormative culture that compels us to force ourselves to fit in assigned boxes, when all along we could have been saved a lifetime of pain and heartache if we’d learned earlier that standing out is in fact better than fitting in. And by the time one reaches adulthood, there’s an overwhelming realization that we’d rather not exist at all if we have to be like everybody else. So Cruella’s bold choice to throw away Estella, a mask she had used to shield her from a misunderstanding world, is nothing short of heroic rather than villainous—at least for a queer viewer. Not to mention that her decision to embrace her unabashed, messy, wicked self and refusing to conform to a world that demands good hearts and niceness is equally as empowering, since life is absolutely too short to deny yourself of anything, let alone your true colors. A Cruella sequel is already in development, so hopefully that means that Disney is committed to more queer subtext for the foreseeable future.