In the film adaption of the book with the same title, Moxie (Amy Poehler, 2021) follows 16-year-old Vivian (Hadley Robinson) as she publishes an anonymous zine in response to sexism at her school. The movie begins with Vivian, an introverted junior, struggling to start her college essay. The prompt asks her to:
Reflect on a cause you feel passionate about. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took to make a change.
Frustrated that she seemingly doesn’t have anything she’s passionate about, Vivian shuts her laptop and heads to school for her first day of eleventh grade. There we are introduced to the outspoken biracial new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascaul) and Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who is the epitome of a white, sexist, narcissistic jock. In seconds there is tension between Lucy and Mitchell — and not the good kind. He belittles her opinions in front of the entire class and proceeds to spit in her drink when she doesn’t back down. Vivian witnesses the latter and later tries to convince Lucy that Mitchell is simply an idiot who is nothing more than “annoying.” Lucy ignores Vivian’s attempt to get her to disregard his disgusting behavior, and tells her that she will continue to walk the halls with her head held high.
Later that night, after another unsuccessful attempt at starting her essay, Vivian stumbles upon evidence of her mom Lisa’s (Amy Poehler) rebellious past fighting the patriarchy. If her Riot Grrrl mom wasn’t enough inspiration, Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl blasting in the background propels her to dive into the world of punk feminism and social justice (concepts it seems she’s currently unfamiliar with, if her earlier conversation with Lucy is anything to go by). The next day a list comes out where the girls of Rockport High are given titles like most obedient and most bang-able. To further Lucy’s character as one that doesn’t take anyone’s shit, once she finds out she was labeled a cunt, she immediately approaches the principal and makes her aware of the list. Vivian remains in her seat, always the bystander, but the principal’s reply of “sticks and stones” helps Vivian make up her mind. She creates Moxie, an anonymous zine with feminist rhetoric and imagery of the 90s. She places Moxie in the girls’ bathroom before school, and soon the entire school becomes aware of its message with varying responses.
The rest of the movie follows Vivian as she attempts to spearhead a movement, splitting time between the struggles of her growing friend group (members of the newly formed club Moxie who don’t know that she’s the creator), and her flourishing romance with skater-boy Seth (Nico Hiraga). She remains almost exclusively behind the scenes, not claiming her role as the founder of Moxie the zine until the last five minutes of the film. Private conversations with her mother, Seth, and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai), the latter two of whom are East Asian, are a mixture of Riot Grrrl proclamations and words she directly quotes from her friends of color. In Amy Poehler’s sophomore film (and first time in the young adult genre), she makes a movie that is entertaining, digestible in its feminist message, and full of a diverse cast … at least, that’s what it looks like on the surface. Upon just a little more reflection, Moxie feels more like an outdated take on Riot Grrrl’s third-wave feminism. Vivian’s character as a shy, white, middle-class teenager in search of a passion to write about for her college essay makes her hero’s journey feel particularly disingenuous.
Vivian’s feminism rides on the experiences of her friends of color instead of her own. While the side characters are rewarded for their in-your-face activism with their peers’ increased awareness of the misogyny at their school, Vivian’s prize for being a feminist is forgiveness from her love interest. While their reward is more significant, it doesn’t feel as impactful because Vivian is literally given a man in the end. Throughout the film, we constantly wonder why we followed her as opposed to one of her friends. We don’t solely fault Robinson here, but instead acknowledge that this was a writers’ flaw. Their mistake was writing more interesting characters who are used solely to progress Vivian’s character arc. In comparison, Vivian simply falls flat.
Riding heavily on Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” (even having a group of middle school girls perform the song about half way through the film), Moxie introduces its brand of feminism through shots of Vivian watching punk performances on YouTube, finding a leather jacket in her mom’s closet, and looking through old zines from the ’90s. The Riot Grrrl subculture, starting in and around the Pacific Northwest, is most often identified with third-wave feminism. This third-wave saw the flourishing of the concept of intersectionality — coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw — a term to describe the layers of oppression caused by race, class, and gender. Many of Vivian’s new friends experience intersectionality at play, whether it be through their race, sexuality, or shifting gender identity. It appears that every character except Vivian is dealing with a combination of social and political identities, and because of Moxie, they feel like they have a space to fight back.
From the beginning of the film, Vivian lacks a single original thought. All her complaints about the oppressive system are regurgitated from the mouths of her friends of color, most specifically Lucy. As previously stated, Lucy is vocal about the sexist literature they must read in class and speaks out against her harassment. Though Vivian simply stands by, she is in awe of Lucy and uses her confident words as constant inspiration for her movement. However, it doesn’t stop with Lucy. Vivian leeches off the traumatic experiences of her friends and frames it as “giving them a voice.” For instance, during a party, a few girls gather and speak about some of the injustices they face in school. Kiera (Sydney Park) publicly gets her ass slapped on multiple occasions and her value in the school stems from her body, not her intelligence or notable athletic ability. Furthermore, CJ (Josie Totah), a trans woman, shares how she is discriminated against during her audition for the school musical. She shares that people are not accepting of her transition and continue deadnaming her, including her teachers. Vivian sits idly by without saying a word. Claudia even tries to coax her to speak up and admit she’s Moxie, but she refuses and lets the other girls take the lead. The problem is that these girls are opening up about how they don’t feel respected or safe, but their objections aren’t genuinely heard until Vivian, a white cishet girl, echoes them. In a way, she’s exploiting their experiences and uses them as a basis for her zine — a zine she profits from because it gets her new friends and a boyfriend. She is willing to let her friends of color be more vocal about the problems in the school, risking their academic standings as she stands in the back and watches it all happen.
Vivian’s problematic actions — mainly that she continually uses her friends while she cowers behind the guise of a fearless revolutionary — are called out by her best friend and boyfriend. When the school starts pushing back against Moxie, Claudia takes the fall to protect Vivian and gets suspended. Failing to appreciate what her friend has sacrificed, Vivian claims that no one asked her to do that. Except in a way she did. Throughout the movie, Vivian criticizes Claudia for never doing “enough,” yet activism held a different meaning for both of them. Unlike Vivian, Claudia’s immigrant parents hold conservative values, and much of her actions reflect that. As a consequence, Claudia struggles to find ways to comfortably engage in the movement without jeopardizing her academic future. Seth, Vivian’s boyfriend, also recognizes her refusal to fully accept the role she has taken on. Instead of standing up for the movement she started, she allows her friends to take all the risk. He becomes frustrated with how she mistreats the people who support her without question. When things go wrong, she reverts to that shy girl and allows her friends to take the blame.
Ultimately, it appears like Vivian’s faults are being identified, that her problematic behavior is being rightfully denounced. With only about fifteen minutes of the movie remaining after Seth’s criticism, what possible steps could Vivian take to right her wrongs? Apparently, not much. After much of the school walks out in protest, Vivian reveals her role in Moxie: “I hate that we are dismissed, shoved aside, ranked, assaulted. And I mean nobody does anything about it. Nobody listens to us. That’s why I walked out today. […] It’s why I started Moxie.” The crowd cheers and Seth and Claudia forgive her. The other girls in Moxie yell in support. Vivian feels no real pushback, no risk. Her behavior is encouraged by her ex-Riot Grrrl mom, and then wrapped up with a neat bow.
Diversity —or more specifically the commodification of it— further adds to the problem of this film. The student body is colorful, and, we will admit, initially we were very excited about the film’s promotion of girl power and racially, culturally, and sexually diverse characters. Unfortunately, we were met with quick disappointment when the inclusion of these characters proved to be performative. With the exception of Vivian, all of the characters, including her friends and boyfriend, were severely underdeveloped. Besides their token hardship, there wasn’t much else to the characters. From the little information we got about these characters, they all appeared to have potential to be more engaging and impactful protagonists than Vivian herself. They were merely tools, however, to support and inspire a spiritless white girl in her journey to end sexism in her school. Their hardships and arcs (if you could even call them that) are solely dedicated to furthering Vivian’s development, and in turn reducing their value moreso. People of color and people with marginalized identities are capable of the initial vehicle of change; they can be the lead. Furthermore, including diverse characters to fill a quota is not enough. It’s not commendable and should not be applauded. Having a wide range of characters means very little if they are used for nothing more than to make her friend group and hallways more colorful. What makes this all the more upsetting is Vivian’s obliviousness to her white privilege and glaring main character syndrome.