A film by Amy Poehler comes to Netflix, based on a young adult novel about a high school girl rediscovering her mother’s feminist roots and feeling empowered, as a result, to stand up and say something about the atmosphere at her school? Count me in! I really enjoyed Moxie, and overall I would recommend it (especially to a younger audience—of all genders, because men need to learn about these issues too). It is a good movie. However, it is not a great movie. It is a very messy movie that often trips up in its eagerness to tackle as many feminist issues as it can. Moreover, despite its theme that girls and women can be empowered and do anything as long as they take a stand, the movie itself feels limited by the very nature of what Netflix seems to think will sell on its platform.
Spoilers ahead! Also, content warning for the discussion of misogyny, racism, and rape.
Diversity is Not Enough
The movie’s casting is diverse, and the narrative attempts to be inclusive in its portrayal of feminism. Poehler’s character, main character Vivian’s mother, acknowledges that her own experiences of adolescent and young adult feminist movements in the ’90s were very white and even racist. This is an important admission that helps Moxie establish itself as not just a generic “girl power” film but rather something that urges us to see feminism as intersectional.
Issues of race come up often in the film, and characters of colour get the mic on them. This is most notable with the Black characters Lucy, Kiera, and Amaya, who discuss multiple times the ways that Black women’s bodies are treated differently from white women’s. From almost the beginning of the movie, Lucy in particular is established as someone who knows a lot about “the struggle.” She challenges their male English teacher and Mr. Toxic Masculinity Personified, Mitch. Her comments are ultimately what “wake up” Vivian.
Now, I am white, so y’all should turn to Black reviewers for a far more cogent critique. But let me just say that this seems … problematic to me. Cinema has a tradition of Black characters swooping in to help out or inspire white protagonists, who in turn then take on the role of white saviour. This is pretty much how Moxie goes down. While there is some attempt by the movie to show that Lucy is an “equal partner” in the Moxie movement at the school, the problem remains: this movie is not about Lucy, yet maybe it should be.
Maybe we should stop making movies about white girls discovering feminism is still important and instead start championing the Black girls who have been in this fight from the beginning because their skin colour hasn’t given them the luxury of coming around to it.
There’s a similar issue happening with Vivian’s relationship with her best friend, Claudia, who is of Chinese descent. Claudia’s stricter mother means that she is more hesitant to participate as fully in the Moxie movement, something that initially rubs Vivian the wrong way. Towards the climax of the movie, Claudia finally goes off on Vivian, explaining that this is about race and about the sacrifices her mother made as an immigrant, concluding with the precariousness of her situation—she can’t risk as much as Vivian can, with her white privilege.
All of this is true, of course, and throughout the movie I very much sympathized with Claudia’s portrayal and her reaction to how Vivian is changing. Nevertheless, the way the movie deals with this issue over this single scene is so clunky. And again I have to note that, as much as Moxie attempts to be diverse in its cast and representative in its issues, the way it handles that diversity feels squandered.
I will note, as a trans woman, that I fucking loved the presence of trans actor Josie Tatah as CJ, a trans girl. I love how subtly the movie portrays her—pretty much a single line: “some people still refuse to call me by my new name.” In particular, notice that the movie carefully does not deadname CJ. It isn’t important that we know all about who she was prior to her transition: she is CJ, and she damn well deserves to audition to be Audrey if that is what she wants to do!
So Moxie gets points for its trans inclusivity from me. As near as I can tell, however, its use of race is far less impressive.
Rape is Not a Plot Device
Maybe I’d feel differently if I weren’t writing this hot on the heels of the incredibly justified and poignant collective grief and rage emanating from the women of the United Kingdom as a result of the abduction of Sarah Everard. But I am, and this is how I feel: Moxie should not have gone there.
By “there” I am referring to how, in the final act of the movie, Vivian receives an anonymous note in which the writer says she was raped and begs Moxie to do something. This triggers a confrontation in which Moxie urges students to walk out at the attendance bell, leading to the final, climactic scene where Vivian confesses her role as the instigator of this group. Eventually, the anonymous note-writer comes forward, and it is (unsurprisingly) Emma, a “popular girl” who heretofore has eschewed Moxie or its feminist sentiments for fear of how it might disturb her place at school. Perhaps even less surprisingly, she reveals that her rapist is none other than Mitch, who has been the antagonist and bane of every girl’s existence for this entire movie.
Rape and sexual assault are serious and deserve to be discussed in movies. Yet this was shoehorned into the movie in a way that does a disservice to rape victims. We see the principal pull Mitch out of class, the first time she ever shows any backbone or willingness to act. The movie never addresses what happens with Emma’s rape allegation, but the implication seems to be that Mitch will face “justice” somehow. Except, we all know that the process of getting justice for rape victims is far bumpier and less straightforward—but Moxie doesn’t have time to address this, because at this point the movie has about ten minutes left.
Rape should never be a plot device, yet in this case, the movie is using Emma’s rape as a plot device to further Vivian’s development as a revolutionary feminist and tip her over the edge. As with the handling of race, this just feels very clunky and insensitive.
Kara, Did You Like Anything About This Movie?
So up until this point I have been fairly critical, even though in my introduction I claimed to really enjoy the movie. I wanted to get my critiques out of the way first, but yes, there is plenty to like here.
First, the music! A good soundtrack always makes me enjoy a movie more, and Moxie is a great example. This soundtrack is badass and contributes to the overall sense of empowerment I felt as a result of the film. And I, a 31-year-old trans woman, did feel empowered. Whatever its shortcomings, Moxie knows how to hit you in the feels.
Second, the female friendship. Whether it was Vivian and Claudia’s rocky best friendship, or the new friendships Vivian made with Lucy and the others, I loved it all. Yes, there is a romantic subplot in this movie, but it is far from the focus of the movie. This is about women coming together, not just to fight the fight but also to party and celebrate one another, and that is so important.
Third, Seth. He’s a good foil to some of the other male characters and a good example of a male ally: he isn’t perfect, but he is supportive and he acknowledges that he doesn’t know what Vivian and the others experience. Throughout the movie, Seth moves from ally to accomplice: offering to put zines in the boy’s bathroom, standing to nominate Kiera for student athlete of the year, etc. These are small but important moments, and hopefully the boys and men who watch this movie take note.
Finally, aside from the various missteps I noted above, I want to acknowledge that this movie tries its best to balance funny with furiousness. This is something Amy Poehler has basically done her entire career, somehow managing to transmute the anger of sexism and misogyny into pointed and hilarious critiques of the patriarchy. Having not read Jennifer Mathieu’s novel on which this movie is based, I don’t know how much is coming from the book and how much is the result of Poehler and her crew. Regardless, this is a movie that will have you laughing even as you are shaking your head, and that is a tricky balance to pull off.
Moxie is a good enough movie for all that it attempts to do. It is progressive. But is it progress?
Very little about this movie is truly revolutionary despite its revolutionary attitude. The protagonist is an attractive white girl who actually risks very little while the characters of colour risk more. The message of female empowerment is cranked up to 11, yet we fail to see the outcome—did this result in any structural and cultural changes at Rockport High?
If we look past how much we enjoy the movie for the sake of enjoyment, we need to reckon with the fact that for all of its attempts at inclusivity, Moxie is just another example of how the movie industry is happy to pump out films about feminism and revolution as long as they are safe. Moxie is high on rhetoric but low on bite. I had a good time watching it, and I felt empowered afterwards—but we’ll need to do a lot better than this if we can claim we are making progress. This film is an example of why the real revolution will not be televised.