Her Crazy Driving is a Key Element of Cruella DeVil’s Evil. Here’s WhyRoundup
tags: film, feminism, automobiles, popular culture, sexism, Driving
Genevieve Carpio is assistant professor at UCLA and author of the book Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race.
Disney’s upcoming live-action film, “Cruella,” is a prequel to “101 Dalmatians.” Emma Stone plays the title character of Cruella de Vil, showing her backstory as a budding designer in 1970s London. Set in the anti-establishment punk rock era, the film reimagines the fur-obsessed puppy-napper as a sympathetic and even feminist figure. Or, at least she appears to be a heroine worth rooting for. That is, until we see her behind the wheel.
The tale shows de Vil’s rise from scrubbing floors to rising fashion star and then, a car thief, hot-wiring a stolen neoclassic luxury car and skidding through the streets of London.
This view of an unhinged de Vil driving madly through the city is a familiar one. Within the first seconds of the “Cruella” trailer, we see a Panther De Ville with a vanity license plate spelling out DEVIL. Likewise in the “101 Dalmatians” films, both the 1961 cartoon and 1996 live-action adaptation, de Vil’s car made its way down the road before she even appeared. It is the car that stands in for de Vil herself, in all of its glamour, excess and danger.
Ironically, in the 1956 children’s novel “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” written by Dodie Smith, de Vil does not drive at all. Instead, she is driven by a chauffeur. Why then did the Disney films make de Vil’s car synonymous with her villainess? Perhaps because depictions of crazy or even evil women behind the wheel are deeply rooted in American culture. And they are not innocent. In fact, for more than a century, such depictions have been a way to undermine women’s push for social and political equality.
During the early 1900s women’s movement, which focused on attaining the vote, elite women embraced driving as a form of empowerment. Female drivers symbolized the New Woman who embraced social emancipation, participation in the public sphere and even pleasure.
In the Progressive Era, suffragists organized auto parties and crossed state lines to advocate for feminist politics. They challenged gender norms by participating in competitive racing and cross-country tours. And, they embraced the simple thrill of being a woman behind the wheel, a prominent symbol of freedom.