"Moxie," White Silence, and the Punk Aesthetic
Amy Poehler's latest film falls short of its affected politics. Surprise!
Moxie really wants to be a movie that gets it right. It’s got a feminist message, a diverse cast, and a strong punk lineage to pull from. But instead of an inspirational coming-of-age film about a young girl finding her voice, Moxie feels more like a parody of the politics it is trying to imitate. I’m not even trying to be mean when I say that; who didn’t watch the opening scene of a white girl feeling voiceless and find it a little tone-deaf? White women—whose voices instead of being silenced usually tend to drown out everyone else’s—complaining about being voiceless? The truth is that Vivian, the protagonist, isn’t being silenced so much as she is just being silent.
Moxie itself posits that rather than having her voice taken away, Vivian just doesn’t really have much to say at all. Her failed attempts at answering a UC Berkley personal question (“Reflect on a cause you feel passionate about. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took to make a change.”) reflect that. Her silence is pronounced throughout the film. She only starts to find “her voice” when new student Lucy, an Afro-Latina from the Bay Area, points out literature’s incredibly white and male canon.
It's Lucy's words that Vivian will return to when drafting her college essay, but Vivian will watch Lucy be harassed and bullied on three separate occasions without saying a thing. Vivian will also defend Lucy’s harasser, football captain Mitchell, and downplays his actions more than once. Vivian never seems to internalize any of her newly-learned political vocabulary, instead weaponizing it to defend herself when convenient.
The fact that these actions are never problematized was actually baffling; it felt too perfect of an example of the way that white feminists act to ignore, almost like a fourth-wall-breaking wink from the writers. But while Moxie repeatedly provides us with true-to-life parallels of the violence of white feminism, it seems entirely disinterested in doing anything with it.
This is supposed to be Vivian’s big political consciousness moment, the first time she sees herself as affected by sexism...by proxy. She’s finding the voice she thinks she never had but she only is able to do this after being a voyeur to Black pain. She’s not so much gaining her own voice as stealing Lucy’s, and this won’t be the first time Vivian’s personal journey will come at the expense of the people of color in this movie.
People of color are peripheral, sidelined when convenient, and paraded out to educate Vivian about their plight. Black women’s unique relation to sexism is shoe-horned into this movie to virtue signal to the viewers that Moxie ~cares~. But how come Moxie never turns a critical eye inwards and questions white women’s unique relation to sexism? Vivian is all too happy to let Black characters like Lucy and Kiera become the public face of the school’s feminist club, hiding behind anonymity even when she stands to lose the least from this visibility.
Claudia gets close to calling Vivian out for this in the final act—the only time Vivian’s whiteness is directly mentioned—but instead of connecting her whiteness with her cowardice, Claudia tells her “I don't have the freedom to take the risks that you do.” But the wild thing is that Vivian hasn’t taken any risks! She’s repeatedly let her friends take the fall for Moxie, lashed out at them, and—once popular support is on her side at the end—goes the martyr route and takes credit for everything.
All of this gets written off as a part of Vivian’s journey—but what about the people Vivian has hurt? Why do white women get to “grow” at the expense of Black women and other people of color? Each time there’s a prime opportunity to interrogate Vivian’s whiteness, to complicate her actions in the eyes of the viewer, the movie fails to take advantage.
Moxie presents us with underbaked characters of color as almost as a concession while remaining committed to centering a white perspective. While watching the movie I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if Lucy was the protagonist instead of Vivian. Lucy—a natural leader well-versed in politics and punk alike—for some reason plays second fiddle to Vivian, whose political awareness only started in the 11th grade.
(Side Note: We’re supposed to believe that Vivian never identified as a feminist before this, despite the fact that her mother Lily has an entire freaking room dedicated to riot grrrl memorabilia? No, but seriously, did she just choose not to care about sexism until it started to affect her semi-personally?)
Lucy’s arrival is what sets the events of Moxie in motion, but it’s Vivian who is credited with “start[ing] a revolt,” as Claudia says. It’s Vivian who announces to the school at the end that she “is Moxie.” This feels like a slap in the face, a very real mirror image of the way that white women take credit for the work that Black women do, as throughout this movie we watched Lucy be the first to speak up and take a lead role in organizing the other girls. In fact, any of the other girls would make good protagonists; all of them had existing grievances and were outspoken before Moxie started, unlike Vivian. But somehow it's Vivian who raises their consciousness enough for them to take action. White saviorism at its finest.
Moxie fails in a myriad of other ways. A disabled character serves as nothing more than brief comic relief before disappearing for most of the movie. A scene where CJ, a trans girl, talks about how teachers and students alike won’t call her by her name gets undermined a few lines later when another character announces that the Queen card should be worth more than the King because “the Queen can have children.” Amaya and Lucy kiss briefly during a party scene, but we never get to see that relationship develop and it’s the only queer “representation” the movie offers.
For a movie that so desperately wants to involve itself in modern feminist debates (intersectionality, #MeToo, etc), Moxie shows a glaring lack of foresight into how modern feminists would interpret this its hybrid of pop and girl boss feminism. The movie has gutted and hollowed out the riot grrrl ethos into a kind of detached “girl power” message—but its fatal flaw is turning white women into victims. Who makes a movie in 2021 where the primary anxiety is white silence and then has the audacity to try to tell me I should feel empowered by it?
Early on Lily (Amy Poehler) reminisces on her days in the riot grrrl scene, lamenting that “we weren’t intersectional enough.” This attempt at self-awareness backfires. Watching Moxie, it feels like white women and punks alike haven’t really learned a thing. Instead, Moxie goes through the paces of being feminist without actually committing to it: saying the right words, playing the right music, wearing the right thing, but never do the right thing. Less a celebration of riot grrrl and more a tired repetition of the scene’s own faults, this movie reduces an entire tradition of political punk into nothing more than an aesthetic, forgetting that the most important part isn’t what you say, but what you do.