The Forced Feminism in Netflix’s Enola Holmes

On September 23rd, 2020, Netflix released the movie Enola Holmes which is based on the novel collection by Nancy Springer. It has a multitude of stars including Helena Bonham Carter, Henry Cavill, and Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the lead and is the executive producer. To promote and celebrate the release, Netflix UK & Ireland erected statues of sisters who were overshadowed by their famous brothers, a bold statement of solidarity to the feminist movement.

To be brief, the movie is about Enola Holmes, the youngest of the Holmes siblings (that is Mycroft and Sherlock) who leaves the comfort of her home to find her mother who disappeared one night. She teams up with a runaway boy and gets caught up in a plot far more dangerous than she ever imagined.

Now, of course, spoilers ahead.

I remember reading the book series when I was in the fifth/sixth grade. This is before I became a diehard Sherlock Holmes fan and I hadn’t read them in a while so I didn’t have much to compare the movie with. For once, I thought this was great. I’d be able to just sit back and watch the movie instead of worrying how accurate (or not accurate) it was.

After watching the movie, I was pretty satisfied. It’s a family-friendly mystery adventure with great acting. However, something kept bugging me and I realized that there was one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb: forced feminism.

With this very famous book series written by a woman and both producers being women, despite the screenplay and director being male you would think that the movie could be a strong representation of an independent girl in a society that suppressed the daring side of her personality.

Ironically, the bones of the plot are quite the opposite. Enola’s mission - which is originally to find her mother - takes quite a turn when she meets the runaway Viscount Tewkesbury (and for writing sake, I shall be calling him VT) who is trying to escape an assassin. The plotline of her missing mother is shoved to the side as Enola begins to “warm up to VT” and “runs into him,” but only when plot convenient. She becomes a character solely there to advance the man’s plot and character arc. 

In the end, it is explained that VT’s character is integral to a vote in the House of Lords for the Reform Bill, an actual bill in 1884, so bless Enola for saving his life. And if you’re wondering about the mother and that storyline? She pops back in around five minutes till credits and says goodbye again all wrapped up with a nice motivational speech for her daughter about being her own woman. She also doesn’t divulge any new information with regard to the suffragette bombings she was apparently planning.

For a movie’s promotion to revolve around its feminism, why was the main character’s plot revolving around a man, a man whose role is more important than hers could ever be? Why did Enola have to derail her own mystery and adventure of her missing mother and the suffragettes? This is not explained, except for a few simple “because the plot said so” moments with the blame placed on Enola’s curiosity.

But let’s take VT out of the story for a moment and turn to the other characters, specifically the handful of other women.

There are a total of 14 characters with speaking lines. Besides Enola and her mother, there is Edith (who is based on a real person), Mrs. Lane, the Dowager, and Miss Harrison. These women either help or hinder Enola on her mission, but each is there for the purpose of a Tumblr worthy speech about feminism or the villain monologue.

Technically, there's also Lady Caroline Tewkesbury and Miss Gregory, but their lines are, well, polite small talk and a lot of smiling. The rest of the supporting cast are men, who all get much more character development unless you’re counting the assassin. 

You have a great lead played by a great actress with the great source material. You can’t have a character spout “I hate finishing school,” toss in a few “oh you men” speeches and assume that’s all you need to do for your movie to be considered feminist. 

Feminism is an onion. It’s layered with microaggressions from both genders and assumptions piled on with judgment because no matter what, a woman will make the wrong choice. Of women standing up for their rights, and women realizing that they want just to continue with what they’ve been doing all along, not because of a man but because that’s what they love.

There could’ve been a real feminist story here to tell with regards to the large and quite dangerous suffragette rise, truly focusing on the women’s stories instead of just a snapshot here and there to say “wow, look at us.” Explore the many opinions and viewpoints, how each character’s life could change with this new independence. What could women gain? What would women lose? Have women really help women instead of just the motivational speech and disappearing again. 

There are talks of Netflix making more of these so hopefully, they’ll realize that feminism is much more complex and that we as both writers and the audience should move past the stereotypical surface level portrayals.