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'Moxie' Says Some Things, But Not Everything, About High School Feminists

Hadley Robinson as Vivian in <em>Moxie</em>.
Hadley Robinson as Vivian in Moxie.

The new Netflix film Moxie, directed by Amy Poehler from the book by Jennifer Mathieu, tries to stuff a lot of things into two hours. It's a story about Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a 16-year-old girl trying out the idea of a political self for the first time via a feminist zine (the titular Moxie) that she secretly begins publishing and stacking up on top of the hand dryers in the school bathrooms. The zine leads to the formation of a Moxie club, and then to something of a movement.

It's also a story about Vivian as the child of a single mom (played by Poehler), and how she struggles with her mom's desire to date. And there's more! Vivian is getting involved with her first boyfriend, Seth (Nico Haraga), a guy who knows about and digs her secret work. She's having some growing pains with her longtime best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai), in part because she's making a bunch of new Moxie friends including Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), whose boldness in standing up to jerks is part of what gets Vivian going in the first place.

But Moxiealso tries to tell a story about feminism more broadly; Poehler plays Vivian's mom, Lisa, as a onetime '90s riot grrrl who knows that her own feminism wasn't "intersectional enough." The film answers this, to a degree, with the fact that the Moxie club is a lot more inclusive than Lisa's circles sound like they were: it includes students of color, and a girl who uses a wheelchair (though her role is very small), and a girl who's transgender, played briefly but memorably by the wonderful Josie Totah. (It's worth noting that both Totah and Pascual-Peña played more fully developed characters in the revival of Saved By The Bellearlier this year; that's the difference between a movie and a series, but also the difference between playing a supporting role in the story of one character on one hand and being part of an ensemble on the other.)

Poehler has spoken about wanting the film to be sensitive to the limitations of her own perspective as well as Vivian's, and the script by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer does make mention of Vivian's inability to fully understand, for instance, how the fact that Claudia's parents are immigrants affects the difference between her path to rebellion and Vivian's. And to be sure, Vivian's efforts at changing the culture of her school only work when the group is inclusive of all these young women. And she doesn't even admit that she started the zine until close to the end, meaning she doesn't drive the events of the story with some personal and singular appeal and she spends a lot of time letting other girls lead conversations and meetings. These are good things.

Still, there's an awful lot more to intersectionality than associating yourself with a diverse group of allies, particularly if they're organized around your own founding document (in this case, the Moxiezine). It was probably never within reach to create a single two-hour film that focused on Vivian's personal story to this degree and also felt fully and richly representative of some cross-section of young feminist experiences. It would at least have required a series rather than a movie to explore at any length, for instance, how high school misogyny affects transgender girls differently from cisgender girls, or Black girls differently from white girls. The Moxie girls unite primarily around things that affect them broadly, mostly independently of these other differences: boys who rank girls by how "bangable" they are, a school that polices their clothes so they don't "distract" boys with their bodies, and the general bully pulpit the school affords athletes, especially Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), a cartoonishly evil football player. The things that affect them in ways that are particular are mentioned from time to time, but briefly, and perhaps a little dutifully. (One further note: The diversity on display here doesn't really include body type. Moxie doesn't seem to make its emotional merch in plus sizes, if you get my drift.)

It's hard not to be distracted by the limitations of this story, in part because it reflects a production ethos that wants so badly to do so much. And there are indeed things here that a lot of girls, particularly girls whose experiences line up with Vivian's, may respond to and learn from: the need to stand up for yourself, the formation of a political and personal identity, the power of protest. Furthermore, this really is a solid introduction to some of the gender issues the Moxie girls are concerned about. It really islousy that girls experience the policing and the bullying that these girls do. It really islousy that athletes get near-total freedom in some places to do whatever they want. And it really can be complicated to figure out when it's productive to stand up and yell about the patriarchy at dinner.

But in the end, Moxieworks best within its own limitations, when it's personal to Vivian. Her developing relationship with Seth is charming (even if he's a bit of an idealized feminist boyfriend), and her combination of excitement and horror about making authority figures angry comes through in both her scenes with her mom and her scenes with her odious school principal, played by Marcia Gay Harden. The moment in which you begin to explore your own tolerance for risks and consequences in the interest of things you think are important is indeed a rite of passage; this is one story about how that plays out for one young woman. It works on this smaller and more intimate scale better than it does when it pulls its focus out to the entire population of her high school.

To the degree Moxieis meant to be a feminist project, what the failures and limitations of '90s feminism (and many white women's feminism generally) call for isn't for Moxieto successfully get its arms around everybody's experiences and tell everybody's story. It's for Netflix (and other outlets) to also bring audiences stories that aren't about the world's Vivians and don't need to be shepherded by the world's Amy Poehlers to see the light of day. If you think about it as a story about Vivian most useful to girls who share her experiences, Moxieis a charming film that does have something to say about learning how to use your voice. But it will represent more progress to get the Josie Totah movie, the Alycia Pascual-Peña movie, and the movie about the girls who aren't seen here, even in the background.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.