In “Moxie,” Riot Grrrl Inspires Gen Z Feminism Too Safely

Photo from Colleen Hayes/Netflix.

Michaela Wang; Livingston, NJ—

Moxie defines Gen Z feminism: it takes moxie for victims of sexual abuse to decry their offenders and for women of color to call out the lack of intersectionality within the feminist movement. 

But Amy Poehler’s 2021 film “Moxie” suggests less than its title: it argues that unidimensional teens, tank tops and punk-rock anthems of the 1990’s Riot Grrrl era can rectify high school harassment and inspire bold activism among even the most introverted. Despite being an attempt to connect feminism across generations, “Moxie” misses its opportunity to amplify crucial feminist narratives from its own generation.

Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, “Moxie” chronicles the political, personal and sexual coming-of-age of Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson), a high school junior raised by a single mother (Amy Poehler) in small town Texas. Vivian is not the image of a brazen feminist: she keeps her head down and is brutally insecure over her own self image. She counts down the days until she can join her equally quiet friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) at Berkeley… in a science lab. The arrival of new student Lucy Hernandez (Alycia Pascual Peña) destabilizes Rockport High; Lucy’s bold voice exposes the fractures of their patriarchal school—dominated by football players who avoid the consequences of their problematic actions by swaying the school’s staff members. 

Awakened by Lucy and inspired by her mother’s riot grrrl activism during the ‘90s, Vivian anonymously creates a feminist zine (yes, it’s called Moxie!) highlighting the patriarchy of Rockport High. She forms a legion of followers, encouraging her classmates to wear stars on their arms in solidarity and to wear tank tops in protest of the school’s sexist dress codes. Of course, these supercuts of Vivian’s newfound activism are accompanied by signature riot grrrl tracks, such as “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill. Through music and costuming, the film transcends frustration at the patriarchy from the 1990s rioot grrl to 2020 Gen Z. 

Although Moxie portrays the trepidation, excitement and unity of feminist activism, the film entraps itself in a feel-good tone that perennially lowers the stakes. Certainly, the director allocates significant time to examining the pushback against Moxie!, whether from the arrogant football players or the nervous school administrators. 

However, I felt that Vivian—with a white voice, supported by her mother and peers—would never get into real trouble. More screen time should be allocated to diverse feminist perspectives who held greater stakes: for example, Claudia, an Asian American girl restricted by her immigrant mother’s rigidity. These characters not only have to break free from their own fears but also from the confines set by their ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Overall, the film compromises Gen Z narratives in order to further develop Vivian’s character progression—from political novice to headstrong activist and unnoticed nerd to lover. For example, Claudia’s ethical dilemma between supporting a crucial social movement and being supported by her mother is left unfinished. Meanwhile, it is only towards the last fifteen minutes of the film that a cheerleader (Josephine Langford) publicly announces that she was raped by Mitchell, though the character barely speaks a word before or afterwards. In several instances, the film misses opportunities to spotlight underlooked feminist perspectives, such as that of a transgender teen (Josie Totah), yet again to prioritize the white, cisgender Vivian––a perspective that the film industry has already extensively explored by the 21st century. 

The disproportion between Vivian and other characters’ narratives also forces the film to inadvertently rely upon racial stereotypes. Claudia is the Asian girl who rigidly follows the rules. The football player and sex offender Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is a white, self-involved, Daddy’s money alpha male. I don’t think stereotypes are at all what Amy Poehler or the casting directors intended; however, when a single two-hour film attempts to fully and richly display the cross-sections of feminist experiences, stereotypes leap off the screen. Again, crucial narratives—purported to more accurately reflect Gen Z—are left incomplete.

Nevertheless, while the focus on Vivian is the crux of “Moxie’s issues, I do have to say that there is a quality of her character pertinent to many in our generation: the peril of social silence. The film’s pièce de résistance occurs near the beginning, when Lucy’s irreverence towards traditional classics renders her a target of harassment from the attractive football player Mitchell. As Vivian witnesses Lucy’s harassment, she realizes the dangers of her passivity: if Vivian continues to keep her head down, she permits the patriarchal system to perpetuate. Vivian’s breaking from social silence encourages Claudia to join the fight, and the once apolitical English teacher to too draws hearts and stars on his hands. 

At its best, “Moxie” suggests that everyone has an inner activist––it’s whether or not we have the moxie to bring it out.

If “Moxie” targets elementary or middle schoolers trying out the idea of a political self, then the film is an effective introduction into recognizing misogyny in our daily lives and gathering the courage to stand up. However, if the film is trying to encapsulate the intersectionalities of Gen Z feminism while spewing cultural wokeness within two hours—as I believe it does—it fails disappointingly because the film itself lacks the moxie. 

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