Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil in Disney's Cruella.

Cruella Is a Love Letter to the Queer Community

The film's campy queer aesthetic is a gift to baby gays everywhere.

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In 2016, Emma Stone hosted Saturday Night Live for the third time. In the episode’s digital short “Wells for Boys,” she plays the mother of a sensitive, shy boy who prefers to gaze into a Fisher-Price toy well than do other stereotypical boy activities. When another kid asks what the deal is with the well, Stone shouts, “Because you have everything. EVERYTHING is for YOU. And this ONE THING is for HIM.”

The sketch, which was written by gay writers Julio Torres and Jeremy Beiler, struck a chord with the queer community who saw their younger selves in the quiet, queer-coded kid who feels alienated from the other children and the heteronormative nature of childhood toys and games.

I kept thinking about “Wells for Boys” as I watched Cruella, Disney’s latest live-action reimagining of one of their animated classics. Unlike many of the recent cut-and-paste adaptations, Cruella fashions an original story around the dual-toned, Dalmatian-obsessed villainess. Emma Stone stars as Estella, a punky outcast turned orphan who grows up on the streets of 1970s London. Estella has only her two best friends, fellow street urchins Jasper and Horace, and together they form a found family of grifters and thieves. The duo helps Estella get a job at a fancy department store to pursue her passion for fashion design.

From there, the film takes a page from The Devil Wears Prada, as Estella is drawn into the seductive world of high fashion, where she meets the intimidating and renowned designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). What follows is a fashion rivalry, with Estella adopting the alter ego “Cruella” as her own punk-rock rebellion against the Baroness and the fashion industry.

Cruella is an odd duck of a film. A PG-13 rated story of high fashion drama and revenge hardly seems like kids fare. So who is this movie for? I think the answer is quite clear: this is a film made for baby queers and the queer community at large.

Was this Disney’s intention? Absolutely not. But Cruella is destined to be adopted by the queer community much like its cinematic sisters Maleficent, Mulan, and Frozen. Cruella trafficks in all the hallmarks of a queer classic: scenery-chewing performances, stunning costume design, epic needle-drops, and a protagonist intent on bucking the status quo. The film’s camp aesthetic is clear, with much exaggeration and affectation from its characters. We even get Artie (John McCrea), Cruella’s fashion BFF and the “first” (debatable) openly gay Disney character.

Then there’s Cruella’s own story: rejected and made fun of by the other children, she found solace in her found family, eventually working up the courage to ditch her red wig and let her true colors fly. The coming out metaphors abound. Cruella is a paean to misanthropic, misunderstood queer kids who develop into Hot Topic teens who grow up to be graphic designers, artists, and pop culture bloggers.

Kids like these grow up on the fringes, many of them unable to relate to the typical Disney narratives of pretty pink princesses and square-jawed princes. So when characters come along that are even the slightest bit alternative, queer audiences adopt them as their own. I predict that Cruella‘s campy and queer aesthetic will garner fans of all ages. And the drag queens who are currently assembling their Cruella-inspired looks for Pride? Well honestly, I can’t wait.

(image: Disney)

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Author
Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.