Photo by Charlotte Turner
I was predisposed to like Netflix’s latest original film “Moxie.” An adaptation of a novel by Jennifer Mathieu, it follows teen girl Vivian as she discovers her mom’s past involvement in the 90s riot grrrl scene, and creates her own feminist zine taking down the sexism of her high school. I’m a big fan of riot grrrl, and I was excited to see how director and star Amy Poehler would tackle the subject.
Riot grrrl is a feminist punk movement and genre established in the early 1990s. Bands like Bikini Kill (which features prominently in the film), Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy made space for women in the male-dominated punk scene, and created zines, aka DIY self-published magazines. It was a deeply influential part of third-wave feminism, but has also been criticized for a lack of intersectionality.
Poehler generally did a good job with the material. It’s a largely lighthearted film, with a focus on feminism that’s in some ways more intersectional and radical than mainstream feminism, and is at its best when allowing Vivian and her friends to find community in their experiences of sexism, racism, misogynoir, and transphobia. But it also suffers in terms of general filmmaking quality, and in its attempts at diversity and intersectionality.
One of the problems facing this film is the characteristic clumsiness of Netflix originals. There’s some strange dialogue, inaccurate depictions of high schoolers, and a few plotlines were reduced from how they appeared in the novel, hurting their impact. The tension between the main character and her feminist boyfriend was tactfully explored in the book, while here her anger at his mostly innocuous behaviour just comes across as ridiculous.
All of these problems aside, the main issue with “Moxie” is how marginalized characters are treated. There are plenty of characters of colour, as well as a trans character, and the film allows them to discuss their identities and how that influences the oppression they face. But at the same time, it feels like the writers said “we’ll get the Black characters to mention their Blackness, and that’ll be intersectional enough.”
Lucy, Vivian’s friend who introduces her to feminism, is a really interesting character, but is mostly sidelined in favour of Vivian’s journey from normal white girl to feminist. The same goes for Keira and Amaya, two Black girls on the soccer team, who seem cool but their inner lives are never explored. Trans character CJ talks about how teachers aren’t respecting her new name, but the subplot doesn’t go anywhere. There’s even a lesbian kiss between two main characters that is never commented on or discussed. And finally, Vivian’s best friend Claudia tells her that as an Asian woman, she feels like she can’t outwardly rebel like Vivian can, but it’s not clear if Vivian ever learns anything from it.
Throughout the film, these Black and marginalized characters seem to exist only to help Vivian on her journey. A film about Lucy fighting oppression as a Black woman would be a much more interesting and meaningful story, but instead, we only get glimpses of her life and experiences. “Moxie” might be slightly more intersectional and radical than mainstream, lean-in, and girlboss style feminism, but it certainly is not perfect.
Where it does flourish, however, is in scenes of the girls sharing their experiences with oppression and working together. I love scenes of friends just hanging out in film and TV, and “Moxie” definitely delivered. It allows the actors to shine, and brings a lot of heart to the film. It was in these moments that I really liked Moxie, and improved it beyond standard pseudo-feminist media. I also hope this film introduces a wider audience to riot grrrl, a movement that’s done a lot of good, and helps to influence new perspectives and action in actually intersectional feminism.
“Moxie” is a fun, but deeply flawed film. It works on some levels, and will hopefully act as a gateway to feminist thought, but still reflects the general lack of intersectionality in the mainstream.