Directed by Amy Poehler
Commentary by Rev. Dr. Christy Gunter Sim Hailey
Fifteen minutes into the movie Moxie (Netflix) and I announced on Facebook that everyone should watch it. I knew, from the very beginning, that this film was amazing. I have watched it twice now, and in every moment of viewing it, I noticed something new and exciting. This film is a must see.
Throughout the film, we get a glimpse into some of the common experiences of women in America.
- There is the grocery store scene where the nice man offers to help with the groceries but backhandedly actually perpetuates the notion that women are not smart enough or capable enough to pack their own groceries. Then, when a woman decides to handle it on her own, she gets branded as one of those women who is a problem and cannot accept help.
- We see girls being ranked by their bodies and voices. The best butt, most bangable, best rack, and so forth.
- We see a student forced to go home because her “collarbone” shows in a tank top, while the girl sitting next to her, in the same tank top but with a smaller chest, gets to stay.
- We see a white man offer to buy a woman of color a drink, and when she says she has it, he tries to make her feel bad for not accepting his offer; when she says no again, he gets violent.
All these are examples of women’s experiences in the United States. Women’s quite common experiences.
I am Vivian
The character development of Vivian is one of the most obvious points to the movie but is worth noting. The main character, the whitest, blondest, plainest character possible, shifts and grows throughout the film. In the opening scene, she is dreaming of running through a forest alone, trying to scream, but nothing comes out of her mouth. She is voiceless. Then, at the end, we see Vivian screaming at the top of her lungs her truth to the people of her school, and there is a flashback to the dream scene where she actually does scream with a voice.
We get to watch Vivian find inspiration from her mother’s feminist work to create a movement in her school and, even better, her mother is played by Amy Poehler (who also directs the film). At one point, we see the material from her mother’s advocacy days (a protest sign) go from Vivian’s hands to hanging on her own wall, showing the progression from Vivian observing her mother’s strength to living into it.
We all get to live through Vivian’s growth and find our own voice alongside her.
When the character Seth encourages Vivian to stand with him (during morning announcements) and see how much he’s grown over the summer, we get a foreshadowing into what is coming. Seth says standing taller came with growing pains, and we see that play out in Vivian’s feminist voice as well.
Character Representation in Moxie
Several of the characters represent many of the major problematic issues in patriarchy today as well as what is developing and progressing in current feminism.
Mitchell Wilson, the captain of the football team, embodies everything that is the worst part of masculine entitlement and privilege. At several points, he interrupts a woman speaking, talks over her, says things for her, and interprets her words in a way that is best for him. We see that, although on the surface he seems nice, gorgeous even, he is obnoxious. He is called “annoying,” but other characters let us know that annoying is never the full reality and is probably an indication of something very dangerous underneath.
The character development of the teacher Mr. Davies is fascinating. At first, we see him say that in his class he has to ask questions about women in the assigned reading because that is what we do for equality. In this scene, he is trying to do what is right but completely misses the mark. Another character says the point is that they are reading a book by a rich white guy that asks us to feel bad for a rich white guy who cannot get a woman. In a second scene, Mr. Davies hands out pom-poms. He gets to decide who gets the joy and who does not. The male teacher controls who of the students receives privilege. Before long, in another scene, Mr. Davies declares he has no comment about the students wearing tank tops because it is a women’s issue, and he will respectfully stay out of it. But again, a student educates him that it is convenient for him to say it is a women’s issue and to stay out of it, thus doing nothing, and that is part of the problem. In one of the final scenes, a fourth glimpse at Mr. Davies shows him actually doing something. He verbally reads the school policy, but written in marker on the inside of his hands, there is obvious support of the students and their march out of school. His students had educated him, and it changed him (in small ways). They made a difference for this one.
The female principle, Marlene Shelly, is a fascinating character. On the surface, she seems to be supportive of her own gender, a female leader who receives awards. However, we quickly see that she represents women who have internalized patriarchal views, and she wants to maintain the status quo. She does not want to do the paperwork for harassment, so she minimizes the issue, denies it, and claims that all these girls just want to express their discontent. Then she talks about how the student is new and, thus, emotional, and so she should just go off and join the marching band. That will fix all the problems. She also calls the ranking list the boys wrote about girl’s bodies “sticks and stones,” and tells students to sit down and get over it.
Lucy is an dynamic, powerful woman of color. She is the inspiration and heart of feminism, and is representative of inner strength and power. She is, at first, the only one who can see through the façade of niceness. She declares she will not keep her head down but will, instead, keep it high. She wants an animal print tank top to remind everyone she has claws and is not afraid to use them.
Claudia, Vivian’s best friend, seems to want to be all in the feminist work but is held back by cultural expectations and the need to succeed on the shoulders of the women who sacrificed everything for her. She needs to be status quo because that will get her ahead. But this fascinating character is still trying, and makes huge contributions when she understands it and when she can.
Seth is an ally. He’s a “Ladies first. I mean – if you want” kind of guy. He draws stars and hearts on his hands with the girls, he wears a sleeveless tank top, and he puts up material in the boy’s room. He is the male ally we all love. He even becomes the fifth (of five needed) to nominate a woman for a scholarship.
Jay struggles as a man of color, and he obviously is second fiddle to the powerful white man. Even so, he joins in being able to benefit from the patriarchy. He can wear sleeveless shirts without consequence. He can smack girls around and touch them inappropriately. He is the oppressed but oppressor character.
There are so many other amazing characters; too many to analyze in this short written piece.
The imagery and hidden feminist nuggets are the most fun to find. After Vivian’s dream, she goes to school and we observe her eating an apple. It’s not a hard leap to make here. Eve . . . apple. The movie starts with her screaming without voice and moves to her eating the knowledge of good and evil and it being something that begins to shift her entirely.
There is the scene with eggs in the grocery store. What is more feminine than eggs? And what happens in the grocery store? A man offers to help and bypasses the woman’s ability to take care of and be responsible for her own eggs. Fertility and women being in charge of their own bodies comes through if you’re clever enough to see it.
The school’s mascot is, literally, a Pirate. Pirates are those who generally are known for raping and pillaging, and being rich with materialistic, unfair advantages. Surely that is not a coincidence, since the film is about smashing the patriarchy. In one of the morning announcements, a guy tries to be more equal by saying “pirates and mermaids” and is quickly corrected that girls can be pirates, too.
I found myself smiling about little things in the background—the NPR bag that hangs in the background with the artichoke bag; the cucumbers that support farmers . . . all little hat tips at the interconnection of it all.
The Feeling of Failure
The movie’s feminist work is not all positive. We see the pain and the struggle, too. Not everything works out, and the fight sometimes comes out empty.
Mitchell, the embodiment of patriarchy, gives a speech that paints himself as the victim and elicits fear in the hearts of everyone in order to manipulate things to his advantage. It works.
Any of us who have given our all to smashing the patriarchy felt it when the tears slid down the girls’ faces when their fight to get the girls’ soccer captain a scholarship fails and Mitchell is selected instead. Vivian gives words to it for us. She says, “I mean you try, and you try and you try and nothing happens and nothing works,” and then she pukes.
How true is that response?
The girls have all the reasons in the world to be angry. They screamed and no one heard. They fought and lost. They cried and no one cared. They tried their hardest and the white, rich, powerful male still got everything. They were filled with a holy anger.
But as the ally Seth points out, maybe the anger’s behavior was not all that helpful to the cause. Moxie seems to ask: What good does calling everyone an asshole do? Anger is a real and important emotion, but the behaviors we choose to display it can do harm.
When Vivian rides her bike home in extreme anger, there’s a view of a street sign: Hemlock; the poison. It is almost a foreshadowing that she is about to drink the poison of her anger. She goes home and yells at her ally, verbally assaults everyone who is not trying to oppress her, and lashes out. Everyone is an asshole.
But there were other things that rose up from anger that did make a difference. It seems to posit a choice. Use your anger for good (give voice to the violated woman) or for evil (yell at people and call them assholes). Let that anger fuel you for good or drink the poison. Eventually, Vivian leads the school into shouting support and belief for the girl who was raped. That was using her anger for good.
Through the voice of Vivian’s mother, we see the places where feminism acknowledges the mistakes of the past. She says they weren’t culturally sensitive (they called their meetings “pow wows”) and they were not intersectional enough. But she still celebrates what they did accomplish.
This is a film that works hard to be intersectional, to be sure to correct those errors of feminism’s past. At one point, one of the girls mentions not being called by her new name, indicating she is a transgender woman. The patriarchy hurts all who identify as women.
At several points, we see a member of the marching band in a wheelchair, which communicates that ableism is part of problem.
There even is a glimpse into lesbian feminism when two of the main characters kiss during the Moxie celebration.
There is also mention of those who immigrated to the United States, and how Vivian, the white blond, has the freedom to do more because she is under less pressure. Claudia, her best friend, must honor the sacrifices of her mother and get into college.
We see women of color take center stage. At the end, we hear a speech about hair. The girl says, “My hair is not a wig. It’s not nappy. Its thick, curly, and it’s who I am! And no, you cannot touch it!” At another point, we get to feel a bit of women of color being ignored and made secondary through the girls’ soccer team.
A Critique of Moxie
I do have one critique. I would have loved it so much if anytime someone kissed, they asked consent. In some ways, there were hints at consent, but it was not explicit. I would have jumped for joy and probably cheered if that had been included in the film.
Call to Join Vivian’s Voice
Overall, Moxie is a game changer, and everyone needs to see it.
May we all join with Vivian and say, “I hate that we are shoved aside. That we are dismissed, ranked, assaulted, and I mean nobody does anything about it. Nobody listens to us. And that is why I walked out today. That’s why I’m standing up here, yelling at all of you.”
© 2021 by Christian Feminism Today.
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