If You Have A Toxic Mom, Disney's 'Cruella' May Be Triggering

by Rachel Garlinghouse

My family and I couldn’t wait for Disney’s latest live action film, “Cruella.” The trailer was appealing. Finally, we would learn who Cruella really is and more importantly, why she has the best evil laugh, drives like a bat out of hell, and has such interesting fashion choices. Also, is she really so villainous that she’s after all those adorable Dalmatians for their fur? (I hoped not.)

Watching “Cruella” turned out to be far darker than we could have imagined. Luckily, my husband and I watched it together first, before deciding if we’d let our kids watch. I say luckily because wow, if you have any mommy issues, “Cruella” will have you triggered AF.

This article contains some movie spoilers, so if you choose to keep reading, don’t say I didn’t warn you. All right. Deep breath. Here we go.

It was a Saturday night, and hubby and I plopped into our bed, a huge bowl of popcorn between us. Our children were already asleep, and we finally got to chill out. Yes, we are two grown adults watching a Disney movie on a weekend night. What’s your point? Disney live action movies are magical for all us eighties and nineties kids who grew up on “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Learning the stories behind the stories gives us all the happy vibes.

The movie begins pleasantly enough. Estella is a clever, stubborn girl, who is raised by a single mother. She’s seen sewing, but not following the pattern despite her mom prompting her, demonstrating to us that she’s a girl who marches to the beat of her own drum. Estella gets kicked out of school for her constant shenanigans, including beating up boys on the playground. Her mother packs up the car, and they’re off to London together for a fresh start. But they have to make one stop on the way, to ask a friend for a little financial help. Estella is expected to stay in the car, but of course, she sneaks out.


In classic Disney style, there’s a glamorous ball, a storm, and a villain. Estella is orphaned when a balcony scene renders her mother falling over the edge. The scene is pretty horrifying, even for adults. However, we aren’t entirely surprised. Almost every Disney movie involves a child who loses a parent. Estella flees, believing she’s the reason her mother is dead.

Things go from bad to worse. Estella makes two friends and together, they manipulate and steal, always wearing fantastic disguises sewn by Estella. We see Estella go from a child to a young woman with a real flair for fashion, which they use to their criminal advantages. When Estella lands her dream job as a fashion designer for The Baroness, she finally senses that she’s making her own way in the world. Of course, that all comes crashing down when she realizes who The Baroness is. Hint: She hosted a ball at her mansion, with a balcony over treacherous waters. She’s cold-hearted, brisk, dismissive of everyone else’s feelings, a real gaslighter. If she were a real person in current times, we might call her a narcissist.

Estella begins her dual personality, determined to avenge her mother’s death. In some scenes, she’s Estella, the fashion designer, and in others, she’s Cruella, slowly chipping away at The Baroness’ sanity. There’s no stopping Cruella who is beyond clever, yet we also see her talk to her dead mother while obsessing over her plans to ruin The Baroness’ life. In essence, we watch Cruella dance on the brink of self-destruction. Then there’s that jaw-dropping moment when we learn the truth about Estella’s past.

The movie is flooded with themes of abandonment, trauma, deception, and grief. Mother-daughter relationships are complicated. I know very few women who say they are best friends with their mother, living in harmonious magic. The reality is that most women I know have strained, if not non-existent relationships with the women who birthed them. Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes it’s choices, and other times, there’s just no compatibility. Yet, like Estella-Cruella, we can only run and plot for so long before the past catches up with us. You know how the saying goes: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.


The movie also reminded me that sometimes there isn’t just one “villain,” that both parties can have their faults. Most of us try the best we can with what we have, and maybe we have to Brene Brown it and embrace radical acceptance of the other person and their circumstances. But this certainly doesn’t mean that we have to put up with toxic relationships. If healthy boundaries aren’t enough to hold the relationship in a neutral place, breakups happen—even if that breakup is with your own mother. Does it feel like betrayal? Yes. Is it sometimes essential? Yup.

We often hear about daughters that have “daddy issues,” but I don’t think we give enough attention to the audacity of some moms who just never showed up for their kids in the right ways, leaving the kids as collateral damage, floundering to figure out life solo. Estella tried to free herself from her mother. She created a new family with Horace and Jasper, she worked hard to secure a good job, and she leaned on her talents and strengths—but eventually, the missing piece broke her.

Motherhood holds so much power, with the potential to cause so much pain. I know far too many of us who are walking around with preventable wounds. What are we supposed to do with that? Some of our mothers abandoned us, some were emotionally unavailable or forcibly too available, some were abusive or negligent, some died. What do we do with that?

Cruella tried to pave her own way, but in doing so, ended up on a path far too similar to her sinister mother. From the outside looking in, Cruella-Estella needed some serious therapy, a counselor who would lead her to processing her childhood trauma, putting up some healthy boundaries, and channeling her energy into good, not evil.


I know, Cruella is a fictional film, one that, thankfully, seemed to have a hopeful enough ending. However, much of the movie was deeply realistic when it comes to the nuances of mother-daughter relationships and just how influential and fragile they can be. Before you cozy up with your kids on the couch for a family movie night, just know that Cruella’s tale is one of trauma and courageous truth, one that might trigger some of your family members.