In today’s political climate, it is nearly impossible to avoid at least hinting at current social issues when making a film. Just take a look at this award season’s most celebrated titles: Minari, for instance, delves into critiques of class structure in America; and there’s Promising Young Woman, which looks at the horrific realities of rape culture. The prevalence of social commentary in film is very often a good thing; it brings attention to important topics while also hopefully crafting a timely narrative full of tension and essential reflection. But some new films fall into the trap of constructing their stories around relevant social issues for the mere sake of it and subsequently end up not really say anything at all. Or, in the worst-case scenario, a film such as Amy Poehler’s Moxie actually does more harm than good.
The Netflix Original, which is scripted by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer based on the 2015 novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, follows Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson), a sixteen-year-old who becomes increasingly troubled with sexism at her high school. Inspired by her new, outspoken Black classmate Lucy (Alycia Pascual) and the stories of her own mother (Poehler) being involved in rebellious acts of feminism in the 1990s, Vivian starts an anonymous zine called “Moxie!” that inspires her classmates to start something of a high school girl power revolution. Soon enough, things begin to spin out of control, and Vivian and her friends are forced to confront the endurance of sexism, as well as the inner turmoil they are experiencing as teens.
Although Moxie is undoubtedly well-intended, the film enters dubious territory as soon as Vivian commences her feminist awakening. At the start of the story, Vivian is a happily oblivious teen. When her school assigns a writing prompt asking her to discuss something she cares about, she has no idea how to answer. And when football captain mega-bully Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) harasses Lucy, Vivian instructs her to simply “keep her head down.” But then Vivian’s world is flipped upside down when Lucy stands up to their English teacher (Ike Barinholtz) after he asks her to share her thoughts on their summer reading book, The Great Gatsby. Lucy raises a point that is pretty common these days when discussing the canon: why is our idea of “good literature” so consistently shaped by white men?
The problem is Moxie expects us to believe that, in her contemporary California high school, Vivian has previously been blind to ideas of gender inequality. More incredible, perhaps, is the idea that Vivan’s resilient, hard-working single mother, would never have successfully opened her eyes to the fact that men are, indeed, treated differently than women. Worse than the suspense of disbelief demanded here, though, is the idea that the burden of educating is inherently placed on the shoulders of the Black character. Indeed, it is often the case that people of color are forced to educate their white peers on issues of inequality, as it tends to be less of a life-and-death issue for the latter.
Vivian then takes the inspiration she has seized from Lucy and sets on a journey to learn everything she can about feminism. But, instead of recruiting the insight of Lucy or someone with more modern interpretations of the topic, she looks through her mom’s old magazines from three decades ago. It should go without saying that this gives Vivian an outdated look at the very institution of feminism, to say the least, and her actions reflect that.
Once her feminist club, also called “Moxie,” takes off at her school, Vivian starts assigning tasks to her classmates to honor the movement. First, she has students draw stars and hearts on their hands to show their support. Then, she suggests every girl wear a tank top to show support for Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett), who was sent home for wearing a shirt that was deemed too revealing. Moxie is ripe with these symbolic yet predominantly meaningless and affectless gestures, which ultimately epitomize the principles of white feminism. Meanwhile, important — and relevant — women’s issues, such as income inequality and the silencing of women in academic settings, are, for the most part, ignored by the film.
Vivian’s well-meaning actions are unfortunately reminiscent of hollow gestures that often land themselves at the center of the women’s equality movement, such as the “pussy hat” that millions of people sported during the 2017 women’s marches, and corporate companies using the ideals of feminism to advertise their products.
That’s not to say it isn’t encouraging to see the direction teen movies have moved toward in the past couple of decades in regards to women’s issues. Older fan favorites have recently been re-evaluated and critiqued for elements that are problematic. The iconic ending of Grease finds Sandy transforming herself head to toe to win over Danny by becoming a “hot chick,” for example. Or, for a more recent case, the 1999 high school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You revolves around a woman whose audacious, free-spirited nature must be subdued in order for her to be suitable for a male partner. Indeed, the crux of many teen movies has historically been either the “ugly duckling” making a transformation into what is considered a conventional, viable young woman, or an already attractive woman being chronically objectified.
In recent years, teen movies have worked to correct these old, problematic habits. The 2018 comedy Blockers, for instance, focuses on the issue of consent, while the following year’s Booksmart is about two young women dedicated to their education — and the film doesn’t look at that as an issue to be fixed. Most importantly, these films have something important to say about women’s issues and how we should view women as subjects in cinema. But the ending of Moxie leaves its audience cold. Perhaps the moralistic and heavy-handed elements of the film would have worked better if it had been accompanied by some of Poehler’s typical sharp wit and humor that she has displayed so impeccably in episodes of Parks and Recreation. Instead, Moxie fails as an addition to the modern feminist film subgenre.