Moxie stars Hadley Robinson, Nico Hiraga

“Moxie”, Anti-Racism, and the Millennial Gap

“Moxie” is a lot of things, including a generational letter of outrage from Gen X to Gen Z. It centers on 16 year-old Vivian. She’s shy and stays out of the limelight. Lucy is a new transfer to her school. She refuses to simply look the other way when boys at the school harass, abuse, and assault. Vivian is also increasingly aware of her mother’s history of 90s riot grrrl feminism. She decides to start anonymously publishing a zine that calls out the double-standards, hypocrisy, and very real danger posed to women at her school.

I’ll get the typical review stuff out of the way because I think “Moxie” is doing something complex that’s worth getting to – yes, it’s good. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s pointed and poignant. It’s just about everything you want from the experience of watching a movie like this. It immediately fits right into any list of classic teen movies, and it’s more important than a good chunk of them.

I don’t think comparisons are all that useful, because what made films like “The Breakfast Club”, “Pump Up the Volume”, “10 Things I Hate About You”, “Mean Girls”, and “Lady Bird” so good is that they were all breaking new ground. Each of them was a film that wasn’t very comparable to what came before because they set the groundwork for what came after. Some are more recognizable as products of their time now, but each was incisive and confrontational to a set of norms at the time it came out.

You’ll notice that list is awfully white, because the films that also belong here – “Girlhood”, “The Half of It”, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, “Pariah” – they usually get compartmentalized into subgenres or considered as the B-team on Greatest-Of lists so that they don’t take up the same space. I think “Moxie” recognizes that history and its responsibility not to repeat it to some extent. How it does so informs a lot of what the film’s trying to do.

Truly Intersectional or Just Diverse?

First off, I’m a guy. There are some boundaries I should recognize when it comes to assessing “Moxie”. Mine is not the most important voice when it comes to declaring whether it’s doing something well when it comes to feminism. Director Amy Poehler hardly needs my approval. I do think the film is successful in most things across the board, so understand that’s a bias I’m writing with. I’m going to focus on the intersectional aspect, and how I think “Moxie” acknowledges and backfills a significant gap in the 2000s when it comes to mainstream feminist and anti-racist teen movies.

I can discuss intersectionality to a good extent – “Moxie” is inclusive. I am beyond pleased that Alycia Pascual-Peña continues to find success after the surprisingly good 2020 “Saved by the Bell” continuation. There aren’t a lot of major roles where an Afro-Latina gets to play an Afro-Latina. Just witness all the different roles in major franchises where Zoe Saldana gets painted blue or green.

Josie Totah is another actress shared with “Saved by the Bell” (technically, “Moxie” filmed first). Her role here is significantly smaller than it is there, but she’s an exceptional comic actress. There aren’t a lot of Palestinian or Lebanese performers in the industry who get offered anything but the most deeply stereotypical roles. Totah is also trans and she continues spearheading roles in projects that embody the reality that she’s a woman without bullshit, equivocation, or a need to justify or explain it. I hope she never stops.

Lauren Tsai plays a larger role as Vivian’s no-nonsense foil Claudia. Nico Haraga is the skaterly love interest Seth who doubles as an example of a solid male ally. Sydney Park and Anjelika Washington enjoy supporting roles as Kiera and Amaya – members of the school’s overlooked women’s soccer team.

If there’s one piece of representation that deserved more focus, there’s a disabled character who I would have liked to have seen involved more. Meg, played by Emily Hopper, really has no story agency. It would have been so good to see her fit into the film as a whole. While there are cutaways where she’s shown enjoying time with the group, she always seems to be on the outside of it, or somewhat silent within it. Her role feels somewhat tokenized. Everyone else seems to get a moment or makes a major decision except her, and at the very least this feels like a missed opportunity.

A lot of what “Moxie” contends with in talking about how feminism steps forward is its past history as specifically white feminism. Hadley Robinson plays Vivian and Amy Poehler plays her mother Lisa – there’s a frank conversation between the two where Lisa describes the 90s riot grrrl movement as making mistakes when it came to inclusion. Vivian also makes her own oversight borne from privilege, and is called out for it later in the film.

“Moxie” gives a lot of focus to Lucy and Amaya as leaders of the school club that forms around Vivian’s anonymous zine. Vivian may be creating and publishing the magazine, but she doesn’t try to claim leadership. That works in some ways because it lets others lead. It doesn’t work in other ways because when the school and peers look to hold someone accountable, it’s the girls of color they punish first. There’s also an undercurrent where Lucy and Amaya push Kiera into a role she doesn’t want to take.

These elements breathed a lot of subtlety, texture, and reality into the film. They give it more complexity and acknowledge that activism is a messy process that constantly needs to look inward as well as out. At the same time, I wanted the film to do more with these aspects. They sometimes give flavor to the film’s story about Vivian, without becoming an equal focus. I’ve seen an ongoing conversation about whether the film is truly intersectional, or simply diverse. Both are good, both are steps forward on progress, both push the genre, but when you get a landmark film like “Moxie”, this is a conversation that needs to be had because it clarifies the next landmark that pushes further.

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It tackles intersectional concepts as a movie about activism, but it’s also a coming-of-age story that’s determined to keep its runtime under 2 hours. It’s a meld: one part intersectional film, one part coming-of-age film that’s diverse but doesn’t focus fully on those intersectional concepts. The crux of the matter is that the film is confrontational, celebratory, and critical when it comes to Vivian and her journey – it’s a three-dimensional portrayal. The intersectional elements don’t get the same dimensionality because it’s still ultimately a film about Vivian. They get more than a lot of films give them, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more room for them to get the focus. It’s one part representing these fights themselves and discussing them on their own terms, and it’s one part these fights being repurposed to texture what is ultimately Vivian’s story.

The film’s wildly successful and moving, and I don’t think it’s a massive criticism to say this is how far it goes, and this is how much further we can go. “Moxie” deserves both praise at its inclusive elements and its consideration and criticism of white privilege and racism, and at the same time it’s such a fully realized film that I think it could have successfully explored other elements it brings up in greater depth.

Gen X to Gen Z and the Millennial Gap

I started this article by mentioning the film is something of a letter from Gen X to Gen Z. Why would there need to be a generational letter from Gen X to Gen Z? Because the 2000s dropped the ball. I’m a Millennial – look back at what was made for our consumption: shows like “Scrubs”, “That 70s Show”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “The IT Crowd”, the list goes on…they all feature horrendous levels of misogyny. I’m not saying we can’t like those shows, but there’s a reason the term “problematic fave” exists – so that we can still talk about where they fell so short.

Of course, they all utilized the trick of making us laugh at a misogynist or harasser instead of with them. They all utilized it so much that they lost what the difference was. It disarmed harassment – in the hands of Dr. Kelso on “Scrubs” it was framed as endearing, in the hands of Matt Berry’s Denholm Reynholm on “The IT Crowd”, it was posed as ultimately harmless. The Todd’s handsiness on “Scrubs” was chastised; J.D.’s handsiness on the same show was a constant running joke that every woman he was interested in laughed off. The message was that so long as you were a sad, sensitive manchild about it, groping was OK. There were no consequences; it was just a quirk. In 2000s comedy, harassment was consistently posed as something to laugh off. Since it was an antiquated norm we could be sure was evaporating, shows decided it was OK for it to continue ad nauseam.

The popular media we consumed in the 2000s was in many ways a step back from cultural progress that had been made in the 1990s. As a Millennial interested in screenwriting, the regular casual harassment on “Scrubs” and shows like it was positioned as a shining city on a hill of comedy writing. It wasn’t. It was shitty.

What happened on TV doesn’t even begin to tackle the treatment of women in other mediums, such as in music or film. Sirin Kale wrote “’I was worried Lindsay, Paris or Britney would die’: why the 00s were so toxic for women” just this Saturday in The Guardian. I highly recommend the article. It goes into detail on how the early internet transformed media coverage into an instrument to project abuse onto women. It’s not something the internet changed into; it’s a foundational element of it. Moreover, it influenced and licensed media both old and new to follow suit.

No generation makes the content that’s being fed to it as they become adults. These shows and this coverage wasn’t being produced and written by 18 year-olds; they were being produced and written by older generations. They still have an impact on that generation; they still do damage to it. The shit we got fed as we became adults did not make talking to us men about it any easier for women. Your job – hell, something that shouldn’t have been only your job in the first place – became much more difficult because of the obsessive cruelty of the 2000s.

Whatever progress we could make got delayed. Millennials eventually shifted content made for us toward intersectional feminism, but that was making up a huge amount of ground that had been lost rather than building on top of the foundations of 90s feminism, and a lot of it is due to Gen X taking over some media production from the Boomer generation.

Insofar as a single film can, “Moxie” makes a bridge where there wasn’t one in the mainstream. Gen X had access to popular culture that made advancements on this, and they were doing it uphill against some really Stone Age concepts. Gen Z is lighting the whole place on fire, thank whatever god got sacked with reality this week. Gen Y – Millennials – the mainstream that was introduced to us only advanced on this after taking a huge step back. Something like 2004’s “Mean Girls” wasn’t the norm in coming-of-age storytelling, it was the distant exception. Today, it would be much more of a norm. I think there’s an argument that feminism in our media and storytelling got delayed a decade because of the 2000s. How much more difficult has that made everything since?

“Moxie” makes that bridge we never got to have, initially between Vivian and her mother, but also as a theme of the film as a whole. That’s needed now and it was needed in a place and time where Millennials really didn’t get it. And to say Gen X is bridging to Gen Z, firstly that’s a generational translation that’s difficult to make. Screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, Jennifer Mathieu who wrote the original novel, director Amy Poehler – they’re all translating something across multiple generations and I don’t know that they’re going to get the credit for just how tough a job that is.

Secondly, that doesn’t mean Millennials aren’t part of that translation. We can’t have access to that mainstream bridge if it doesn’t exist in the first place. We’re a generation that was often baited into fighting against itself to make up that ground rather than build something on it. Though “Moxie” might primarily center on Gen X and Gen Z realizations of feminism, the generation that might be most in need of seeing that bridge – of having access to it – is Millennials. At least when it comes to Millennial men and the mainstream dismantling of feminism that we were fed in media, there’s a developmental step that as a generation we skipped and have had to go back and make up, even as we take new steps forward.

Is “Moxie” too Idealized?

That brings us to one of the bigger criticisms about “Moxie”. I wouldn’t say any direct plot spoilers follow, but I will refer to the general tone of how the film concludes.

Reviews are generally positive, but many also highlight that the film is too neatly wrapped up. They have a point. They’re not wrong. It’s way too neatly wrapped up for a depiction of activism. I’m just not sure “Moxie” is only a depiction of activism. I think it’s also a fantasy representation of that – not a fantasy as in something that’s inaccurate, but the kind of cinematic fantasy that embodies the ideal of something, that lends the power of storytelling, of heroes overcoming something and celebrating that act, having things work out because they acted like heroes.

“Hero’s journey” is a term that’s problematic in and of itself. It’s too often applied reductively to a global history of indigenous stories that can’t be boiled down so simply. At the same time, there’s no denying that the concept is a major component of modern Western storytelling. There aren’t many heroes’ journeys when it comes to portrayals of feminism or activism. Conclusions often show protagonists suffering or hopelessly witnessing that the change they made is a drop in a wider sea. Those are absolutely necessary and real and legitimate presentations. They speak to a long history of women sacrificing to make any step of progress.

Yet no one complains when Han and Luke get medals around their neck while Vader and the Empire are still out there and more powerful. Why? They sacrificed, changed for the better, and completed one lap of the hero’s journey. They have a new community now, and they lead within it. As a culture, we reward that and want to see it rewarded. It’s an element of power fantasy.

Yet if a woman is successful at one step of activism – if she has a moment of progress, change for the better, is accepted by those she loves, forms a community, yet still faces a range of repercussions and even potential prosecution, that’s too saccharine for our norms? Really?

I could be missing something coming to it as a man, but I think that sort of mythic power of the heroes marking a space of progress and being acknowledged that it should be recognized and valued by society? We need that in some of these films, too. We’re fine with it when men engage in any kind of power fantasy in a movie, no matter how fantastical, and they’re rewarded. But when women reach that point as they’re fighting for their own agency, suddenly it’s a flaw in a movie?

Furthermore, not every movie about activism should end in everybody being broken and demoralized, because movies are supposed to be about aspirations sometimes. And certainly there are moments in activism where you celebrate, where you breathe a sigh of relief and recognize a community has coalesced where there wasn’t one before. It doesn’t mean that the job’s done or you’ve reached the end goal, or that you deserve a proverbial cookie. It doesn’t mean that activism has reached its apex and is no longer needed. But it absolutely means you take a breath and celebrate and inhabit that moment as one success – because otherwise, the next one is that much harder to reach.

As a guy who came of age in the 2000s, I needed to see this movie. We needed to see it in the form of multiple mainstream movies and shows every year. We didn’t get it. It’s important that it’s there. It’s important that it recognizes that gap and seeks to bridge it. It’s important that representations of activism can be realistic and messy and tragic and unfinished because the work obviously is, and that’s what activism is. And it’s important that representations of activism also get their heroes’ journeys and idealistic moments and cinematic stories where a success gets to be – even in that moment – a success.

“Moxie” is part of a larger movement that got delayed. “Moxie”, “Never Have I Ever”, “The Half of It”, the new “Saved by the Bell”, “Love, Victor”, the list goes on – the last few years have been revolutionary when it comes to mainstream teen and coming-of-age projects that focus on feminism, anti-racism, and LGBTQ equality, works that call out and educate about bigotry and even discuss how it can be disarmed.

That doesn’t mean this moment is perfect or that it’s come close to any kind of apex or what’s needed. What we needed was the moment that’s currently happening in coming-of-age film and TV to have happened 15 years ago. Part of me wonders how the U.S. as a whole might be different if we were getting these projects regularly in the mainstream then. I’m just happy that moment is finally here for the genre, and that there’s one more immediate, funny, and moving classic in it.

You can watch “Moxie” on Netflix.

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