Young girls need to know that they can make a difference. That’s the main takeaway from “Moxie,” a new teen movie on Netflix. Based on the YA novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, the film tells the story of Vivian, a 16-year-old girl who is tired of the status quo in her high school. After a list circulates among the school ranking girls based on things like their chest size and if they’re “bangable,” she gets fed up. Inspired by her mom, she begins a ’90s-style feminist ‘zine, the titular “Moxie,” in secret. As it grows in popularity, Vivian learns the power of girls, but experiences a few missteps.
“Moxie” director Amy Poehler is featured as Vivian’s mom Lisa. I really enjoy her character, but found her to be a little heavy handed. For example, she goes off on a feminist rant when a male grocery store employee tells her how to bag her eggs. A snide comment was sufficient, but she takes it too far. Same when Vivian’s boyfriend Seth asks her if she and her daughter have different last names. It feels weirdly performative sometimes, especially because of how quickly she gives it all up for a guy she likes. But I love her character, and wish we got to see her more. I feel like she could have been the voice of reason her daughter desperately needed.
Lisa was a member of the ’90s Riot Grrrl movement. It’s a very culturally-specific movement that centers a certain subset of feminism steeped in whiteness. While some of the music did deal with the universal struggle of women, the vessels through which the message was being delivered was largely white. And while some people will say these things don’t matter, they absolutely do. Lisa explains that her brand of feminism wasn’t intersectional enough. It’s great that she acknowledges the movement’s shortcomings. But one of the other issues is that though “Moxie” as a movie tries to atone for some of the Riot Grrl movement’s shortcomings, it falls short itself. However, it makes a very solid effort, and largely succeeds.
To her credit, Vivian does step aside and allow the other girls in the group to share the mic. And in doing that, it shows how glaring the blindspots are, not only on Vivan’s part, but the whole story as well. I understand that the characters are teens, but how hard could it have been for Vivian to do a little research into what intersectionality is and try to understand how things are different for her friends? Gen Z is so much more aware of things than previous generations. And I’m not saying all of them, and especially not this particular character, but it feels like a really conscious choice to remain willfully ignorant. Vivian is open about her shortcomings and lack of understanding. So why couldn’t we have a quick scene of her trying to educate herself?
Why do the BIPOC girls get to do the legwork with none of the reward? Yes it’s great that “Moxie” makes an effort at intersectional feminism. But that effort is tired and stale at a time when there’s no excuse. It’s one thing to have Vivian learn from the Black girls at her school. But it’s another for them to take all the risks while she gets to reap the benefits. It’s not enough anymore to be a little bit better than the generation that came before you. Not when there’s so much access to information to make you better.
It really makes me really wish that we could move past framing these stories through a white lens. Because when you do, you often lose a lot of the nuance that these conversations fail to have. Even though newcomer Lucy, an Afro-Dominican girl who takes no shit, isn’t the one who starts “Moxie,” she is the heart. The first time you see her, she is being harassed by Mitchell Wilson, the school’s star football player. Mitchell is the walking definition of white male privilege and goes out of his way to continually harass Lucy. But she never lets him think he has any power over her. When the school’s principal makes it clear that she’s not going to keep him in check, it’s Lucy who decides to. How dope would it be to finally have a movie where a girl like Lucy is the main character?
“Moxie” is a great introduction for young girls to what getting involved looks like. All of the girls in the film feel powerless, and it’s easy to see why when you see the school’s administration. (Fun fact: they changed the principal’s gender for the film, which adds a layer of nuance.) Watching them realize that they have some sort of power is amazing. Not enough girls realize that they have the power to make a difference. So in that regard, the film does exactly what it sets out to do. Empowering the next generation is so incredibly important. But you don’t need a meek, clueless white girl to make that point. Because they’re not the only girls who need to feel empowered. The girls who look like Lucy, Claudia, and Kiera need to know that they don’t have to play the sidekick anymore.
There were a few moments featuring the marginalized characters that were frustrating. “Moxie” has Josie Totah, the foremost young, trans actress, and grossly underuses her. There’s a scene where she explains that none of the adults acknowledge her by her new name. Deadnaming is incredibly painful for trans folks, and she gets nothing more than a sympathetic “aww” and pat on the back. One girl, Meg, is a wheelchair user, and all of her jokes revolve around her disability. But no one engages with her about it. In another scene, Lucy, in a burst of excitement, kisses Amaya, one of the Black girls. Amaya excitedly kisses her back, but then that’s it. The kiss is never acknowledged physically or verbally ever again. I hate to call it queer baiting, but why do it if it’s not going to be explained or explored?
Because “Moxie” is still a teen movie, of course there’s a romantic interest. Seth is an adorable Latinx boy who Vivian has known since elementary school. But over the summer he’s shot up five inches and it’s obvious they’re into each other. Seth is the idealized version of the perfect feminist boyfriend. It’s a movie, so they can do that. He is enthusiastically supportive of Vivian and the group, but never oversteps a boundary. He wants to make it clear he respects her, but also wants to do boyfriend things. He really is just a good guy, and it’s actually quite sweet.
All in all, I actually enjoyed “Moxie” a lot. It has a solid cast of actors, and the Riot Grrrl soundtrack is killer. (The band in the film, The Linda Lindas, is real!) It’s a great jumping off point to many important conversations you can have with your teens. Especially if they’re teen girls. Vivian is a great lead character — it’s just that her story has been told many times before. Acknowledging that it’s time to step aside and let other girls have the mic is important. And that’s what this film aims to do. It only narrowly misses the mark.
“Moxie” is now streaming on Netflix.
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