Mean Boys, #Metoo, and White Girl Feminism


There’s good news and bad news about Moxie.  The good news is that somehow, despite significant flaws, Moxie is a fun watch.  It’s got a strong cast, a great soundtrack, and a bright energy that allowed me to enjoy the movie, even though I rolled my eyes several times.  Also, the movie means well and I’ll give it some points for trying.

Vivian (Hadley Robinson) is a bookish, timid high schooler junior with a lifelong best friend in Claudia (Lauren Tsai), the daughter of a Chinese immigrant mother.  The two of them plan to pass through the last two years of high  school as they have the previous years – trying to remain invisible to the predatory jocks who rule the campus and treat female students as objects for conquest, harassment, or abuse.  Vivian’s plan is almost immediately disrupted by seeing a new student, Lucy, stand up against the worst of the jocks,  Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger).  After seeing Lucy targeted by Mitchell a few times, Vivian tries to helpfully advise her to ignore him and keep her head down until Mitchell moves on to a new victim.  Lucy rejects this counsel and says she’s going “keep my head up high”.  Vivian recognizes this as a reference to the song “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill (a stretch, given how common that phrasing is), a song her mother used to play for her, and goes home to learn the ways of the riot grrrl from her formerly badass mom, played by Amy Poehler.

When the boys at Rockport High release their annual ranking of female students (via a notification that goes out to all the students in the middle of a pep assembly) giving titles such as “Best Rack”, “Best Ass”, “Most Bangable”,  this is largely accepted as the-way-its-always-been.  But a new category has been added, with Lucy named “Biggest C***”.  This is a breaking point for Vivian, who finally asks the obvious question:  “Why do we accept this?”

Soon Vivian is printing a rad 90s-style feminist zine, Moxie, patterned after her mom’s trunkful of youthful memorabilia; swiping her mom’s old button covered leather jacket; and listening to lots of Bikini Kill.  She keeps the zines anonymous, but begins organizing feminist protests with Lucy and other girls who are ready to smash the patriarchy, notably two members of the school’s winning soccer team, tired of being underfunded and ignored compared to the losing football team.  Soon Moxie is a full blown movement, fighting the school’s dress code and campaigning to see the girls’ soccer captain, Kierra, win a student-athlete scholarship (rather than football captain Mitchell).  Claudia is initially skeptical of Vivian’s activism, but eventually comes around enough to get suspended for her own involvement with Moxie. By the end of the movie, Vivian is leading a walkout to protest sexual assault and is standing elevated over the crowd identifying herself as the creator of Moxie.

Did I mention that along the way Vivian finds her first love with Seth (Nico Hiraga), a skateboarder who is so sweet and supportive that he gives Llloyd Dobler a run for his money? Seth is also extremely down for the cause, and when the girls protest the dress code by wearing tank tops to school, Seth does, too.  “I wore blue, too!” Seth says to Vivian.  “We’re tank top twins!

Moxie is about as subtle in its messaging as a street corner preacher. It seems to want to be an updated take on Mean Girls – only here the girls find solidarity and it’s the guys who are the problem.  Alas, it’s not nearly as funny as Mean Girls.  However,  I was more bothered by something that is not clear from what I have written so far.  Everyone I have mentioned who joins with Vivian in the fight against the patriarchy is a person of color.  Everyone, except for Vivian, who is very white.  Vivian doesn’t realize how wrong the gender dynamics at her school are until she sees Lucy stand up for herself.  She is ready to give up on Moxie until the soccer players, Kiera and Amaya, show solidarity.  And yet it is Vivian who becomes the white feminist face of the revolution at Rockport High.  It reminded me of Stonewall, in which Roland Emmerich centered the most traditionally masculine white guy as the catalyst for the riot because he thought it would be more relatable to audiences.  White writers and a white director wrote a story making a white girl the revolutionary savior of her very multiracial school.  That’s what I call “yikes”.

To be fair, someone involved with Moxie seems to have recognized the problem and made a couple of small efforts to address it. Vivian’s mom mentions intersectionality and cultural appropriation.  Claudia tells Vivian that her whiteness is blinding her to the challenges Claudia faces as the child of immigrants.  At the walkout rally, a Black student admonishes white students to stop touching her hair.  But it’s all very little, really.  All Vivian needed to become a liberator was a pile of zines and the right songs in her headphones.

Okay, listen, I know this is supposed to be a lighthearted column about teen movies and this is a a bit heavy.  It’s just a bummer that Moxie is such a swing and a miss, especially when it has a charming cast and what is, truly, a great soundtrack.  The Linda Lindas even perform in this movie! 

I know you mean well, Vivian. But the next time you are tempted to put yourself at the front of a march, may I suggest letting some of the friends who’ve inspired you take the lead?  Just a tip from a much, much older white feminist.

One last thing:  Patrick Schwarzenegger makes a fantastic handsome sociopath.  I wonder if he has more range than that?  See him in an even scarier version in the horror film Daniel Isn’t Real.

Most Typical Teen Movie Moment: Shy, nerdy teens try to act natural and fit in at an out of control house party. See Mean Girls, Book Smart, Love, Simon, and countless other examples.