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Millie Bobby Brown in Enola Holmes
Millie Bobby Brown in Enola Holmes
Culture > Entertainment

My Experience Engaging With Femininity In The Film ‘Enola Holmes’

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

Instead of watching the Indian soap operas highlighting young brides and docile daughters, I feel empowered by movies like Enola Holmes. Enola Holmes is a 2020 film about the younger sister of the popular detective Sherlock Holmes and her adventures in finding her mother who leaves their home, Ferndell Hall, on Enola’s 16th birthday. Enola investigates her femininity and sense of identity on her journey, finding allies like Viscount Tewkesbury and foes like her older brother Mycroft Holmes. She becomes entangled in a side quest to save Tewkesbury from an assassin hired by his grandmother who sought to prevent him from voting against traditional principles in the House of Lords. The movie ends with Enola’s success in identifying the evil machinations of Tewkesbury’s grandmother and Enola’s newfound sense of independence after finding her mother. 

It was over 100 degrees outside, the pale blue sky was naked of clouds as the unrelenting sun seared the mosquito-infested mud to powdery dirt outside the peeling wood panels marking the walls of my grandmother’s house. There I was, splayed on the woven rug of our tiny village home like a cat, legs outstretched and hair undone, hanging down to my waist. It was the summer after seventh grade, and I was battling bouts of boredom as the adults would journey to the nearest shopping mall with their wallets full and my kid cousins would disappear to school every day except Sunday. I glanced over at the clock, its aged hands reading 1 p.m. I had a choice of staring at the ceiling fan or watching terrible soap operas that aired on the only television in the house until dinnertime. I sigh as my eyes turn around and around and around tracing circles…

Vroommmmmm. Finally, my grandfather’s scooter runs into the living room to its parking spot next to the bed. Tata’s bald head is coated in sweat that drips down his crisp white shirt and pants, a sharp contrast to the bland hue of our Indian rural town. Reaching over his potbelly, Tata rummages through his bags to pull out a steaming hot box of delicious Indian sweets. 

I perk up, hoping the sugar will motivate me to make use of this hot summer day. I grab a box of mysore pakam, laden with ghee and flour and sugar, letting sweet syrup run down my fingers to my elbows as I run to the kitchen, grabbing the nearest plate to catch the drops before they fall to the tiled floor.

Grandpa frowns at me, shaking his head in disgust at my unkempt appearance and the way I lick my fingers after every bite. Sternly, he admonishes me in Telugu, “You are a woman. How will you find a husband if you act like that?”

I hesitate, Why should I be worried about marriage? I am only 12 years old, I thought. I wish I had vocalized my concerns that day, but I knew my place in the household. I must respect my elders and the breadwinners of the family. Tata went to complain to my mother and father after they returned about how he was worried for my future, for the legacy of the Alavala family. I cowered behind the staircase, cringing at his stinging words, worried that what he said might be true. I ran upstairs, oiled my hair, and came back down in an ironed salwar that he would approve of. I glanced up in the mirror, realizing my reflection was unrecognizable.

My role in society as a woman has been mediated by my culture. All the women in my family in India at the time were housewives and held at a lower social status. My mother does not even call my father by his name, using only a formal term that roughly translates to “sir.” The women are their husband’s helpers, the ones who care for the children and express their emotions. I thought that this was the result of tradition, something that was irrevocably sacred and powerful. But as I grew up in America, I saw that women should never automatically be placed at a disadvantage. I was familiarized with social norms that were not only outdated but outrageous. Although my extended family in India continues to perpetuate the skewed power hierarchies in the household, I have seen women begin to assume positions of power as  American citizens

I see that in the effects of television as well. ‘Enola Holmes’ is a movie set in England at a time when women had little power and were expected to only be good mothers and wives. Enola starkly rejects this societal stereotype, in part due to the teachings of her radical feminist mother.

Enola Holmes empowered me to see that I could be capable of anything, even as a woman — especially as a woman. Although the oppressive system Enola engages with is quite different from the misogynistic family structure I have been a victim of , I see the parallels between our worlds. She is expected to be a proper Victorian lady, to go to a finishing school, to have a family in her future, and to never speak up or speak out. I am expected to be a proper traditional Indian woman, to value family over career or education, and to respect my place in the household and society instead of fighting against it. 

Similar to how Tata berated my appearance, Enola’s older brother Mycroft scolds her when they reunite after a long time, brought home by the disappearance of their mother. During their first interaction at the train station, Mycroft states, “You’re in such a mess. Where’s your hat and your gloves?” He has expectations of what a woman in society must look like, and Enola, with her unbound hair and lack of feminine attire, looks unfit for society. Yet instead of feeling ashamed as I had when I did not fit the social norm, Enola embraced it. She boldly responds with “Well, I have a hat. It just makes my head itch,” in part showing her unabashed innocence while also emphasizing her individuality and autonomy.

Enola’s struggle as a woman ahead of her time reminds me of the struggles of popular feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This catalytic piece of literature was grounded in Wollstonecraft’s Enlightenment ideas that women and men should be treated equally and given the same natural rights. As Enola follows in her mother’s footsteps as a sharp thinker and a strong fighter, she diverges from the trajectory of traditional girls at the time. Despite growing up sheltered and knowing little of the world in Ferndell, she emerged as a feminist as she began interacting with others in society. Enola lives in a world where women have not yet gained the right to vote in the UK, but the film still captures underlying messages of misogyny and discrimination against women applicable to America today. 

Published in the Victorians Institute Journal, Erin Temple agrees with the  idea that the film ‘Enola Holmes’ emphasizes “girl empowerment in a restrictive society.” She discusses how although the feminist adolescent is a common theme for many stories surrounding the Victorian time period and young adult fiction, ‘Enola Holmes’ uses the technique of directly addressing the audience, which makes  the movie engaging and unique. Enola acknowledges and speaks to the viewers, making me feel more connected and inspired by the principles she stands for. 

One way ‘Enola Holmes’ explains Enola’s unique perspective on the female experience is her education. Throughout the movie, I was captivated by her mother Eudoria’s teaching style. When Mycroft and Sherlock question Enola’s education at the beginning of the movie, Enola asserts, “She made me read every book in Ferndell Hall’s library. Shakespeare, Locke, and the encyclopedia, and Thackeray, and the essays of Mary Wollstonecraft. And I did it on my own account. For my own learning. Which, Mother said, was the best way to become a young…woman.” Enola references Wollstonecraft’s work as an important literary influence in her education. Another key principle referenced in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is the structural ineffectiveness of the education system at the time. She famously highlights that women are “created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears, whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused.” Just as Mycroft attempts to quiet Enola’s independent and free-spirited nature by sending her to “Miss Harrison’s Finishing School for Young Ladies,” girls were valued to be docile and quiet trophy wives during Wollstonecraft’s time. The film shows how Enola was an extraordinary woman ready to fight through the world, and so she struggled to tame her spirit at the finishing school. The movie utilizes a feminist perspective that made me feel disgusted at the finishing school’s desire for uniformity in women, the extreme focus on the way they held their spoons and sat in their seats. Looking at the historical obstacles hindering women from achieving their full potential, I am so grateful that my current education system provides me with the resources to succeed in any profession. Such change was only possible through women like Wollstonecraft speaking up about how political change and “radical reform of national educational systems” would benefit all of society.”

Enola Holmes also changed how I viewed the mother-daughter relationships, especially due to Eudoria’s absence in most of the film. In 19th century England, mothers were expected to be reliable and present for their children. As the first person in my family to want to pursue a career in surgery, I have been dissuaded by many of my relatives that I cannot make time to go through school and satisfy the roles of wife and mother. Should I take a break from my education to start a family? Should I let myself prioritize my passions and put my family’s interests afterward? The independence American ideology has instilled in me is at war with my Indian upbringing. Enola’s mother seems to live much differently, leaving Enola with little goodbye and focusing on her role in a military suffragette group. I was appalled at the prospect of a mother abandoning her child at home without prior explanation. When Enola finally finds her mother at the end of the film, Eudoria attempts to explain: “I left for you because I couldn’t bear to have this world be your future. So I had to fight”. There is a clear change in Enola’s behavior during this encounter – she responds as a woman instead of a girl missing her mother, her experiences lending her courage and maturity. As Temple points out, Eudoria’s absence actually allowed Enola to form her own identity and perceptions outside of her mother’s teachings. Wollstonecraft would agree with the idea that women can pursue a life beyond having children and would have approved of Eudoria’s desire to spark political changes in England. Eudoria’s inclination to prioritize her passions adds a new dimension to motherhood. In a way, Eudoria’s imperfect balance of activism and motherhood comforts me in knowing that I cannot expect a perfect work-life balance from myself. 

Not only does Enola Holmes uplift women, but it also challenges the traditional roles of men. Enola’s love interest, Tewkesbury, is on the run from his family as he does not want to join the military and instead wants to be a reformist in the House of Lords. He is portrayed as much more emotional than Enola, more willing to admit his fear of the future and his worry in the face of danger. Temple states that “Enola, rather than her companion Tewkesbury, is more capable both physically and mentally: she solves the mysteries, devises escape plans, and defeats one of the villains in physical combat.” Again, ‘Enola Holmes’ has characters that do not satisfy typical gender norms, thereby empowering females to take on more male-dominated roles and males to take on more female-associated characteristics. I watched this movie when I was 15 years old, close in age and maturity to Enola, making this a coming-of-age story that also marked the expansion of my perspective on what it means to be a gender. Instead of only drawing from my experience growing up in a patriarchal culture, I was able to welcome the idea that the preset qualities I associate with men and women were completely subjective.

Despite the oppression Enola faces from her brother and other members of society, she finds herself and marks a strong foundation for a future in social reform and advocacy as shown in the film’s sequel. As a character, Enola manifests this idea of autonomy and self-reliance that breaks stereotypes constraining women. As an adolescent watching this film, I was able to put myself into Enola’s perspective and perceive myself differently, apart from the stereotypes imprinted on me by culture and society.

For example, when Enola attempts to blend into society at the start of the film, she initially states her discomfort in the clothes she is expected to wear as a woman in Victorian times. She even dresses as a boy to hide from her brothers as she escapes Ferndell to travel to London in search of her mother, as she believes she is more inconspicuous and agile in a boy’s attire. However, once she reaches London, she redefines feminine clothes from something constraining her social mobility to camouflage that will help her on her journey. Enola confidently addresses, “The corset: a symbol of repression to those who are forced to wear it. But for me, who chooses to wear it, the bust enhancer and the hip regulators will hide the fortune my mother has given me”. Enola’s reframing of the constrictive corset as a tool that enables her adventure reminds me of the linguistic practice of reappropriation when a group takes a derogatory term and transforms it through use in their community. She uses it as a magnificent disguise, building strength and power from a constrictive feminine article of clothing. As an Indian feminist, I am still working on taking my culture and reclaiming it from a feminist standpoint. I hope to draw strength from Enola’s fierce personality to take the ideas of family legacy and patriarchy and reconfigure them to better suit my lifestyle and preferences.

In the final scenes of the film, Enola declines Tewkesbury’s invitation for her to live on his property. Her rejection is another example of Enola’s defiance of the stereotype that the final search for happiness for a woman includes finding love or a husband. Enola confidently chooses herself and her ambition to become a detective over her romantic interests, something that was rarely shown on the Telugu soap operas and television shows I grew up watching. My parents gave me the “arranged marriage” talk the same month I watched ‘Enola Holmes’ – the idea that they wanted to put forth prospective husbands for me when I “come of age.” I was taken out of sex education in elementary school, but apparently it was time for me to start thinking about marriage. Why must girls be seen as items to be bartered away? To be given to another family? If I were a man, I would not have this talk; no, they would allow me to live how I wanted and marry whenever I choose. However, ‘Enola Holmes’ made me realize that I did not have to remain constrained by these ideals; like how Enola’s mother Eudoria advises, “There are two paths you can take, Enola. Yours… or the path others choose for you.” I will be on the path I choose because I know that does not mean that I am less Indian but that I am more confident in myself.

Vishnupriya Alavala was born and raised in South Riding, Virginia and is currently a second-year Biology major and Chemistry minor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Vishnu is an aspiring surgeon in the Guaranteed Admission Program for Medicine Class of 2026. Vishnu is passionate about addressing global healthcare inequities by treating diverse patients and implementing accessible technologies in underserved communities. As an avid researcher, Vishnu hopes to discover more about the brain and advance medical interventions. Through her experiences serving in tutoring and community organizations, Vishnu prioritizes strengthening communication across people of different races, income levels, and demographics. Vishnu is an avid reader, baker, and artist. She has been dancing for over ten years and enjoys making earrings and acrylic paintings. She also operates a food Instagram and is always on the lookout for recommendations to satisfy her sweet tooth!