‘Moxie’ Provides White Girls an (Imperfect) Guide to Activism
Amy Poehler’s Moxie is the narrative version of Feminist Organizing 101, made with the white, teenage set in mind. If that sounds tiring, know that Poehler brings her singular ability to make do-gooding fun and while its white feminist reach is limited, Moxie manages to inspire.
The film follows Vivian, played by the very blond Hadley Robinson, as she embarks on a feminist journey to improve her school and her self. There’s a lot wrong with Rockport High: a racist, misogynist white quarterback, Mitchell, played by ultra white Patrick Schwarzenegger, rules the student body, harassing any girl in his path, including new student Lucy, played by Afrolatina Alycia Pascual-Peña. Rockport’s boys annually publish “the list,” assigning girls superlatives, like “most bangable” and “best butt.” And the administration does nothing, thus condoning the bad behaviors through their inaction.
On “the list,” Vivian ranks as “most obedient” and decides it’s time to change. She dives into memorabilia from her mom’s Riot grrrl days, making and distributing an anonymous feminist zine called “Moxie.” Using the publication as a jumping-off point, the other girls start organizing, and together, they finally topple Mitchell, getting him sent to the principal’s office in the film’s finale.
Along the way, there’s a lot to pick up about how to create institutional and cultural change but the film’s focus on Vivian is borderline damning. Take the social justice principle that we each should bring our own talents, skills, and perspectives to the work, that together, we can use these different pieces to build a dynamic movement. It’s on full display in Moxie with each girl contributing in her own way. Vivian makes the zine but Lucy gets everyone together. Others add ideas and points of focus while Vivian’s best friend, Claudia, played by Chinese American Lauren Tsai, does the paperwork, registering Moxie as a school club. It’s only together that they build to the walkout at the end and finally push the administration to act. But why does the film have to focus on Vivian’s progression? Arguably, Lucy’s contribution is more interesting. She has the ability to bring together girls who previously didn’t talk and calls out the administration for their failures from the get-go. Plus Pascual-Peña dazzles onscreen in ways her costars can only dream of.
But the film sticks with Vivian, focusing on her personal development, for example by exploring her sexuality with Seth, played by Japanese American Nico Haraga. I love seeing an Asian man as the romantic lead and Seth is a fantasy boyfriend, charming, feminist, romantic, and supportive and also able to call out Vivian when she’s being a jerk. It’s not so much that she doesn’t deserve him – they seem well-matched – as that we spend so much time with them, we don’t get to see the other girls’ progression. So while Lucy lands a surprise kiss on Amaya, played by Anjelika Washington, a Black girl, we learn little to nothing about their romance. The events leading up to that kiss aren’t represented. Why can’t we get that story instead of the standard (and constantly told) girl-meets-boy narrative? Wouldn’t that better live up to the film’s feminist values?
Likewise, we see Vivian’s family life a lot, centering interactions with her mom Lisa, played by Poehler. It’s just the two of them at home and Vivian has some anguish about her missing dad, her mom’s new boyfriend, and the general limitations of being a teenager. But she’s blessed with a kind, compassionate, and perceptive mom who deals with her teenage rebellion admirably.
The only other homelife we see belongs to Claudia whose Chinese immigrant mom is very different, not allowing her daughter the freedom Vivian enjoys. It’s Claudia who gets punished, expelled for all of the feminist agitating, because she took a risk by putting her name down on the club paperwork. She could have named Vivian as the author of Moxie (she knows her childhood best friend’s voice without Vivian saying anything) but she doesn’t, even though the consequences she faces at home are more severe (I imagine Poehler’s Lisa would be proud rather than punishing).
When Vivian goes to comfort her, Claudia straight up tells her “you don’t get what’s going on with me because you’re white.” It’s true but I couldn’t help but wish the film did more to underscore rather than undermine that particular statement. We as the audience have to spend time with Vivian’s hurt feelings. Then, we have to follow her as she learns from Claudia’s predicament instead of focusing on the actual experiences of girls of color. Plus the very fact that the white mom gets to be the good mother while the Chinese mom is portrayed as the bad one reinforces racist narratives. We don’t see Lucy or the other girls’ home lives so nothing in the film counteracts the tired idea that collective-oriented families of color are inferior to individualistic white ones.
Moxie is clearly trying to do good. At one point, recalling her own youthful feminist work, white mom Lisa recounts, “we made lots of mistakes… we weren’t intersectional enough.” And that’s easy to believe because Moxie isn’t either. It includes Black and brown characters but doesn’t center them. The same goes for disabled and queer teens. It shows Afrolatina Lucy speaking Spanish but who is she talking to? Moxie uses people of color to propel the story of a white protagonist. While it makes an attempt to include women of color, it fails to critique whiteness. Worse yet, the filmmakers seem to know that their limited perspective is a weakness but they lack the courage to change it.
There is some utility in the film, especially for young audiences or budding activists. Moxie illustrates the importance of social justice maxims like “listen as much as you talk,” “you need a tribe” (although “tribe” can be problematic), and “there will be setbacks,” and I can picture the accompanying curriculum, no problem. Nor is it that I expect anyone’s feminism to be perfect – there’s no such thing and that’s as it should be. It’s just that Moxie seems like a missed opportunity – with Lucy and Claudia right there, why spend so much time with Vivian? Doing so gives the false impression that feminism is led by AND primarily benefits white women and that’s no feminism at all.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. A rehabilitated English major, she’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Her words can be found in Glamour, Latino Rebels, Remezcla, Shondaland, and lost grocery lists. Finally and most importantly, her abuelita made the best tamales this world has ever seen. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @cescobarandrade.