In 1913, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst famously said, “You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs.”
The protagonist of Moxie, Amy Poehler’s new film on Netflix, doesn’t break any eggs, but she does smash the principal’s “Best Principal” trophy, en route to “smashing the patriarchy.” Vivian (Hadley Robinson) learns this phrase – and goal – from her mother (Amy Poehler), who was part of the riot grrrl movement back in the 1990s. Moxie is based on the 2017 novel by Jennifer Mathieu, although screenwriter Tamara Chestna has made some significant changes.
Moxie was directed and produced by Poehler, whose Smart Girls organization encourages young women to “change the world just by being yourself.” The film follows Vivian’s fight against ignorant, annoying, possibly abusive boys and institutional patriarchy. Here the patriarchy is represented in part by a female principal, Principal Shelly (played gamely by Marcia Gay Harden), who is conflict-averse because it creates more work for her. She is too interested in pep rallies and marching band to take seriously her female students’ demands for respect. And this is really the crux of the battle, as depicted in Moxie – the rights of young women to be taken seriously, to be treated as individuals, and to be given respect.
The film begins with Vivian and her best friend Claudia (played by Lauren Tsai, who is a dead ringer for a young Olivia Munn), approaching Rockport High School on the first day of their junior year. The camera pans as Vivian surveys the student body separated into their groups: soccer girls, drama geeks, goths, cheerleaders. Vivian remarks with no apparent irony, “It’s so nice not to be on anyone’s radar.” She is referring to the annual list, compiled by the boys, that awards such superlatives as “Best Ass,” “Most Bangable,” and “Best Rack,” to the girls in the school. While Vivian is mildly annoyed that The List is being compiled on the first day of school, Claudia seems titillated by the whole thing.
The list – or its low-tech forerunner, ink on the bathroom wall – is a common trope in high school films and is still actually happening.
Here in 21st century Rockport High, the list and all of its misogynistic poison is unleashed on the entire school through a click of the “post” button. With the advent of social media, bullying has taken on a new efficiency, if not a new guise. Most educational institutions now have policies to discourage, if not prevent this behavior, and that such an obvious act of cyberbullying would indeed be punished. But in Moxie, when new girl, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), calls attention to her mention on the list – which involves the “c” word – Principal Shelly tells her to get back to rallying the pep for the football team.
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, Moxie’s primary villain is the captain of the football team, Mitchell (played by Patrick Schwarzenegger); when it comes out that he has committed date rape, I was not surprised. (I was, however, surprised that Schwarzenegger was cast in the role, remembering that his father admitted in 2018 to “stepping over the line.”)
Black female characters play a more significant role in the narrative, including soccer players Kiera (Sydney Park) and Amaya (Anjelika Washington) and Lucy, whose refusal to put up with Mitchell’s harassment inspires Vivian’s feminist activism. But even Lucy’s character is underdeveloped. We learn nothing about her life – why she moved there, what her family is like, or most importantly, what experiences have made her such a badass. Characterizations of most of the other girls, aside from Vivian, are thin, with the possible exception of Claudia, whose Asian mother is seen scolding her (in Chinese) for wearing a tank top to school. This is a blatant Tiger Mom stereotype. We learn that Claudia is under a lot of pressure to succeed because of the sacrifices her family made when they came to America; as a result, she does not feel able to participate in the militant actions that her friend initiates. When Vivian is disappointed in Claudia for her inaction, Claudia remarks that Vivian doesn’t understand because she is white. This exchange is valuable for its recognition of cultural differences among women (and its evocation of intersectionality), but it is a familiar story. Other tropes in Moxie include the requisite cheerleader, trans drama geek, wheelchair girl, and fast girl (these characters all have names in the credits, but most are not used in the film). While Moxie is to be applauded for its diversity, the cast seems to have been assembled through a kind of “Glee” DEI formula.
In its opening scenes, the film paints Vivian as a sort of oblivious young woman, who can’t come up with something she is passionate about for her college application. Her superlative on The List is “Most Obedient.” But Lucy’s bold self-confidence inspires Vivian. Lucy’s first act of “rebellion” is in English class, when she questions why people are still reading The Great Gatsby. Her astute critique of the white-male-centered literary canon gets Vivian’s attention.
After the list gets distributed and Mitchell continues to harass Lucy, Vivian doesn’t know what to do with her rage. It might be the first time she has felt such strong feelings or noticed the general lack of respect for women in her immediate milieu. Searching for an outlet, Vivian learns that her mother was involved in the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s and that in high school all she wanted to do was “smash the patriarchy.” After finding her mom’s old Riot Grrrl ‘zines and donning a button-bedecked denim jacket, Vivian sits down to create her own ‘zine: “Moxie.” Cue upbeat montage of cutting, pasting, and writing with Sharpies.
Riot Grrrl activism was rooted in creative expression, growing out of young women’s dissatisfaction with the male-dominated punk movement of the 1990s. Musicians like Bikini Kill spearheaded the revolt, inviting “girls to the front” at their live shows and singing songs like “Rebel Girl,” which celebrated bold women who challenged cultural norms. Fans began creating ‘zines, constructing them in groups, and circulating them by hand and by mail. They contained manifestos for claiming pride in girlhood, candid reports of sexism, calls for solidarity, and general affirmations. Overall, these collaborative rhetorical utterances used art, self-expression, and a DIY aesthetic to challenge existing power structures. The Riot Grrrl movement was in many ways a reincarnation of the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s.
Although the act of making the ‘zine is inspiring for Vivian and for the audience, it is disappointing that she made it herself, in secret, and then kept her authorship a secret. This plot point negates the collaborative power of creating the ‘zines – the camaraderie of being together cutting, pasting, drawing, and talking – the creative solidarity that the Riot Grrrl ‘zines fostered. Moreover, the secret creates tension between Vivian and Claudia, almost destroying their long-standing friendship.
In the novel, other girls take up the “Moxie” mantle, making fliers and organizing bake sales, but in the film, Vivian is the sole creator, with Lucy as muse. “Moxie” publishes its own List, written by Vivian, of the most awful boys at the school. While the Riot Grrrl ‘zines called out misogyny and patriarchal cultural norms, they were largely affirmative rather than reactive in their strategies. Their focus was on building up self-esteem and sisterhood to promote “revolution girl-style now!”
I was also disappointed that Moxie left important plot elements unexplored. A subplot about a lucrative scholarship for athletes sees the girls band together to support Keira, the captain of the soccer team, who is pitted against Mitchell for the award. This subplot is abandoned after Keira loses to Mitchell, despite the fact that half the school is female and presumably voted for Kiera. Maybe this assumption is a statement in itself – not all female-bodied (or identified) people think alike or are moved by feminist causes. Other potentially meaningful elements are glossed over, like Vivian’s despair over the fact that her father does not want to spend Christmas with her.
Despite its missteps, the film gets a lot right.
What I think Moxie gets right is its twofold message about sisterhood and voice. By using the word “sisterhood” I do not mean to embrace a false universal ideal of womanhood. Instead, I want to call attention to the value of getting together with others, who might be a little like us, sitting in a room together and talking about our experiences, even the most thinly-shared experiences as women. The young women in Moxie are different, but they realize that they have things in common: being groped in the hallways, being talked over, being devalued and ignored. This realization is powerful – it bonds them. In the film, they end up in the basement at someone’s party, lamenting what’s “messed up” about their treatment at school. Taking refuge together from typical high school party antics becomes the “official first Moxie meeting.” Their delight in being with each other and being honest with each other is evident as Lucy says, “I’m just glad that we’re talking.”
This kind of realization was perhaps the most powerful contribution of the second-wave feminists: the consciousness-raising group. Yes, the movement had serious challenges surrounding race and class and was blind to its own privilege, but sharing experiences and finding out that you are not alone is life-changing. Its impact is vividly captured in The Woman’s Film, released fifty years ago and collectively made by women in the San Francisco Newsreel group.
For young women today to support each other, to band together in solidarity, rather than competing with each other, judging each other, or judging themselves – this is a powerful and urgent message.
The film gestures toward some of the differences within this sisterhood. Kiera protests against her superlative, “Best Ass” because, as Amaya explains, “historically Black women have been judged by their asses and their hair.” Lucy speaks Spanish occasionally throughout the film and another young Black woman talks about her hair at the final rally: “No, you can’t touch it!” Still, I wanted the “girl in the wheelchair” to have more of a role in the action, in addition to handing out a “Vote for Keira” button and pumping her fist. She does have a sarcastic one-liner about how difficult it is to move through the crowds at school – this is a challenge she shares with the able-bodied young women at Rockport.
And voice – finding and using your voice as a tool for personal expression and social change is another main theme of the film. Voice and self-confidence go hand in hand. Throughout the film, Vivian begins to stand up straighter and hold her head higher. Finding her voice is the solution to the nightmare that starts the film, where she is being chased through the woods and tries to scream for help, but nothing comes out. Gaining the confidence to speak up and speak out, to fight and demand change makes her into a new person.
Alice Walker said the most common way you give up your power is by thinking that you don’t have any. The young women at Rockport assumed they had no power – teachers washed their hands of difficult issues and even their principal just wanted to keep the peace. Moxie offers a smart critique of Principal Shelley’s brand of lean-in feminism that faults women themselves for not “pulling up a chair” when the system has historically pulled that chair right out from under them over and over. Blaming women for not getting ahead because they don’t ask is ridiculous. Instead, we should offer education, inspiration and support for women to develop their voices and use them strategically.
Sidebar on strategy – we can look back at the Women’s Suffrage Movement for comparison. For many different reasons that have to do with historical context, national identity, and existing political norms, British suffragettes and American suffragists adopted different methods of agitating for change. The suffragettes favored tactics that scholars have described as “militant.”
These confrontational and combative actions included threatening speech and violent destruction of private property, such as bombing and smashing windows. Emily Davison even threw herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
American suffrage tactics have been described as “adjustive,” more along the lines of petitioning, orderly marches, and the protest of the Silent Sentinels. Organized by Alice Paul, these women stood silently outside the White House six days a week between 1917 and 1919, holding banners to advocate for women’s suffrage.
Despite these differences, women in both movements were often beaten and arrested, driven to the last resort – a hunger strike – when they were imprisoned with nothing but their bodies to use as a rhetorical tool. And then they were force-fed, which is a horrible form of torture and bodily invasion, a demeaning denial of agency.
Luckily, the Moxie girls don’t have to go as far as hunger strikes, although Vivian does protest her mom’s new boyfriend by leaving a family dinner. What finally rattles Vivian’s school is a single word: “Rapeport.” After someone leaves an anonymous note for Moxie detailing her rape, Vivian takes it upon herself (again) to act. She paints the steps and calls for a walk-out, which is well-attended by the female students, and Vivian’s new boyfriend, Sean, of course. This is also when Vivian smashes Principal Shelly’s trophy, which she stole from Shelly’s office. Although it is probably not the most productive act, I like the sense of desperation it suggests. Vivian feels like all she’s done up to that point has not resulted in actual change and in such a situation what is left, but to rise up (as Christabel Pankhurst would say).
A rally on the front lawn of the school gets Shelly’s attention, or perhaps it is the alarming word painted in large, red block caps on the front steps. Either way, she finally acknowledges the demands and takes action. The film ends here, most likely to avoid getting mired in the sorting out of accusations (the “he said she said”), for which some critics have faulted Mathieu’s book. Overall, the message harks back to the Pankhursts, specifically Christabel’s reminder that voting rights for working-class men in Britain did not happen by persuading legislators, but by “alarming” them. Moxie shows us that when the powerful are alarmed, change happens.
Overall, I enjoyed the film – I laughed, I cried and I thought. Bringing Mathieu’s book to Netflix puts a contemporary face on feminism for millennials who might resist the label. It shows that individuals coming together can make a difference. Moxie offers a glimpse that a feminist life informed by a social conscience can also be fun. As viewers watch Vivian find a rich community of young women who support each other and fight for justice, we understand that girl power can change lives (and the world).
JENNIFER L. GAUTHIER is a professor of media and culture at Randolph College in Southwestern Virginia. Her media commentary can be found on Pop Matters.com and The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature and Culture. She has poems published or forthcoming in Tiny Seed Literary Journal, South 85, Gyroscope Review, Nightingale & Swallow, River River, The Bookends Review, little somethings press, and HerWords Magazine. Her poetry collection, naked: a chapbook of poetry inspired by remarkable women, was recently chosen as third runner-up in the New Women’s Voices poetry competition sponsored by Finishing Line Press.