Enola Holmes makes the classic female-led movie error
Enola Holmes spoilers follow.
Netflix’s new mystery adventure Enola Holmes puts an unexpected spin on the story of a famous super-sleuth, allowing Sherlock’s younger sister to take on the mantle of detective.
Her tale is one that is becoming increasingly popular in cinema, recounting her journey of self-discovery, liberation and empowerment.
These female-led movies are made to be relatable and encouraging for the women in the audience, but Enola Holmes makes the same mistake that many of them do: pitting women against men.
As the movie is set in the Victorian era, you might think that the tension between the two simply reflects history, and to an extent this is true.
Much of Enola’s initial oppression stems from the upholding of traditional gender roles and the lack of womens’ rights that severely limited their freedom. This comes in the form of her strictly conservative brother Mycroft enrolling her in a finishing schools for girls.
As Enola runs away to pursue the mystery of her missing mother, there’s a chance to move away from this, but much of the movie then becomes focused on her evasion of Mycroft and the competition between them.
For a movie that is telling a story of female empowerment, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
For one, the competition is not between two well-written characters with a variety of both flaws and redeeming qualities. If anything, the writing of Enola and Mycroft could be seen as reductive.
Being the heroine of the movie, Enola is capable of doing pretty much anything she sets her mind to, from puzzle solving to hand-to-hand combat, and she doesn’t seem to have any personal flaws besides her defiance, which is only perceived as a failing by Mycroft because it inconveniences him.
Mycroft is perhaps the most two-dimensional character of them all. He is purely defined by his conservative values, political ambition and the stream of offensive comments that leave his mouth. He is so unequivocally easy to hate that it would be near-impossible not to side with Enola when watching the film.
However, it is the issue of ‘sides’ that is exactly the problem here. Enola and Mycroft are positioned as rivals in direct conflict and this conflict is one of the most prominent parts of the movie, sometimes overshadowing even the main plot.
In doing this, there are clear distinctions made between the two of them. Their fight is split into female versus male, which becomes almost synonymous with good versus evil. Their fundamental differences tie in with the movie’s general portrayal of feminism as being a sometimes violent power struggle between men and women.
Not only is this a terribly outdated view of feminism, it also causes us to root for the female protagonist for all of the wrong reasons.
Given Enola’s intelligence, fighting prowess and exceedingly likeable nature, it should be easy to admire her independence and to want her to succeed. All of these qualities make her an ideal character for women to root for and see as emblematic of empowerment.
However, it is her conflict with Mycroft that really tips the scales in her favour. A lot of the actions she takes throughout the movie serve to outsmart or outrun her brother, and his hateful disposition often means that we want to see Enola succeed so that we can see him fail.
Ultimately the choice to focus on the conflict between the siblings means that we only care more about Enola’s success because it leads to Mycroft’s failure. His misogynistic views evoke a strong emotional reaction, and the feelings of disgust aimed at him are far more powerful than Enola’s sweet and simple likeability.
Another issue with having the female protagonist compete against a man is that it creates the sense that she has something to prove.
In the movie, Enola is Mycroft’s ward. He is charged with her care, but this also involves making important decisions for her.
The act of running away to pursue her own life in London is not just an act of rebellion against her lack of free will, but an attempt to show her brothers that she can live independently in the hope that if she succeeds she will be allowed to make her own choices.
This is emphasised by the movie’s ending, where Mycroft becomes tired of being evaded by Enola and passes his responsibilities on to Sherlock. By this time Enola has proven her ingenuity to her eldest brother to the point that he reluctantly allows her to escape him.
The notion that female characters should have to prove themselves to their male adversaries in order to gain their freedom is an unsettling one.
It carries the implication that women can only empower themselves by ‘beating’ men in competition, lifting themselves up at the others’ expense. Instead of viewing the subject as a competition, for the film to be truly feminist, the focus should be on the development and growth that she undergoes.
If Enola had been a better-written character with a few more flaws and room to grow, then she could have been much more relatable and realistic, and Enola Holmes would have been significantly more successful in conveying its message of empowerment.
Fingers crossed that the potential sequel does just that.