As a young girl, I was particularly obsessed with two films, Matilda and Madeline. I must have watched them every night for weeks, and stopped only when the discs were scratched from overuse. People around me never understood my fascination with the films, but I was hooked. Young girls with colourful personalities defying authority and socially imposed etiquettes to do what they felt was right? Sold!
This continued into most of my adolescence and adulthood. A film depicting a flawed female heroine? Sold!
A film with a sympathetic male character who falls in love with the woman despite her being confident, strong and outspoken? My teenage self basically swooned.
A film with a woman who is confident, strong and powerful for the most part, and then ends up sacrificing herself or giving it all up for a man at the end? Sold-ish…?
I seem to constantly be appeased by any show of feminism and female strength, however kitschy or skewed, in popular culture. This is because of the chronic rarity and stark absence of it in mainstream media through the years.
I found myself doing the same with Enola Holmes, the film on Sherlock Holms’ little sister set in 1884 England, that was released on Netflix on the 23rd of September. Looking at it as a film catering to young adults and children, I imagine it to be the Matilda and Madeline of the next generation of girls – exposing them to a strong and unconventional female lead.
However, as more and more seemingly “feminist” films jump on the bandwagon, and I allow myself to be more critical and objective, it’s clear that films like Enola Holmes border dangerously close on the precipice of superficial feminism.
It indulges in all the basic “Feminism 101” elements that many films include now – a “not-like-other-girls” female lead, on-the-nose feminist dialogues, a patriarchal foil, and the fluidity of conventional masculine and feminine traits in men and women. Some tropes are executed well, while others seem more farcical than feminist.
Both Enola And The Film Lack A Gripping Mystery
The film is adapted from ‘The Enola Holmes Mysteries’, a series of detective novels for young adults by Nancy Springer. This, along with a mystery that any adult would find underwhelming, confines the film to a younger audience. Unlike most Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the plot in Enola Holmes is unwitty and disappointing.
Where Sherlock Holmes adaptations occasionally let you into the man’s mind to help you keep up with his thought process as he solves a mystery or fights an enemy, Enola Holmes constantly breaks the fourth wall to let you into her mind, but rarely in relation to her solving the mystery.
Maybe the constant breaking of the fourth wall is symbolic of her growing up with only her mother for company, and we, an imaginary audience, being her constant companions. Maybe it’s symbolic of her feeling the need to constantly prove and explain herself as an ambitious and capable woman to an imaginary audience. Either way, not only is there a lack of a compelling mystery in the plot, but in Enola’s character as well.
The Importance Of Education To Raise A “Lady”
The film begins with Enola explaining that her mother never taught her to “string seashells or practice embroidery”, a deficit that comes up often through the course of the film. She instead encouraged her to read, engage with science, martial arts, and physical and mental exercises. She encouraged Enola to “be anyone”.
As images of young Enola reading on various strong women flash across the screen – Joan of Arc, Thalestris -queen of the Amazons, and sculptures of warrior women – it’s clear what being exposed to education and learnings beyond “domestic” duties can do for women.
Even though Enola’s mother’s character is under-fleshed, and her support of violence to secure equality and freedom, is problematic and largely unexplored in the film, she raises Enola to be a capable and independent woman at a time when that is not the norm.
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When her brother, Mycroft, remarks that Enola has had an unsatisfactory education given that she had no governess and her mother made her read books on feminism (“Perhaps she was mad or senile!” he muses), Enola asserts that she read on her own accord to ensure her own learning. “Mother said that was the best way to become a young woman,” she says.
This is reminiscent of a quote by the recently demised feminist icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg – “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person. Be independent.”
This definition of what being a “good woman” or “lady” means is where feminism and patriarchy clash, and is frequently explored in the film. Where Enola’s mother raised her to be a woman with individuality and independence, finishing schools for girls, like the one in the film, strive to remove all hints of individuality from women in an attempt to assimilate them into a sexist society.
“Speak as we tell you to. Act, think, be, as we tell you to, and you’ll become acceptable wives and responsible mothers,” the headmistress of Enola’s boarding school tells her students. The girls are made to walk elegantly, dress appropriately in corsets, laugh politely, eat delicately, and generally become non-descript and indistinguishable as individuals.
Enola refuses to accept that these are the things that make a “young woman”. Similarly, the film makes clear that Enola’s love interest, Viscount Tewkesbury, having a vested interest in flowers and studying them, and crying when parting with Enola, doesn’t make him any less of a “young man”.
Enola choosing to not give in to these gendered definitions, can be inspiring for young girls today, especially since today’s education system continues to be sexist in its own ways.
The Future Is Up To Us
It is always fascinating to watch films with feminist messages that are set in periods of the past, to see how far we think gender equality and women’s empowerment has come since. Be it Little Women, Colette, or now Enola Holmes, it’s clear that we can acknowledge that we’ve made great strides, but some things of the past are still uncomfortably relatable for women today. There is still a long way to go.
The film ends with Enola saying, “My life is my own. And the future is up to us!” How we use the freedoms we do have now, matters. What we do today matters. What we expose the next generation to matters.
While Enola Holmes might not be the most exciting or unproblematic film, it is the rare film for young adults of today with a feminist and empowered message. The future is up to us, and building on films like this one, to create better cultural guides to feminism and an equalised future, is a good step.
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