Riot Grrrl, Intersectionality and Female Rage in “MOXIE”

TW: Mention of sexual harassment and rape

A generally warm-hearted and seemingly inclusive film premised on a nostalgic ode to the 90s Riot Grrrl era and adapted from a Jennifer Mathieu 2017 novel, “Moxie” follows an initially reserved 16 year-old, Vivian (Hadley Robinson), who begins to produce and distribute feminist zines across her school in response to the institution’s sexist policies on dress codes and dismissal of sexual harassment. Inspired by her mother’s own punk-rock memorabilia, Vivian titles the zines under the name “Moxie” and keeps her identity as founder secret for the majority of the film. Echoing Riot Grrrl’s feminist ephemera, “Moxie” begins to circulate and a few girls begin to mobilise, with the exception of Seth (Nico Hiraga), Vivian’s feminist, albeit idealised, love-interest.

Poehler has made it clear that the film was in no way about the Riot Grrrl movement itself, but rather its music, as a way into an experience between women and a gauge to feminist politics. However, we cannot ignore the film’s implicit praise for the movement. Originating from the punk scene in Olympia, Washington, the underground popularity and subsequent mainstream obsession with the Riot Grrrl movement and the spaces it created for women to participate in the punk rock music scene is often referred to when labelling the movement as an active site of feminism. However, as Poehler’s character mentions, certain intersectional sentiments failed as the movement was led by, represented and catered to white, suburban and middle-class women, making its resources and aesthetics void of revolutionary value. With only one zine being produced by a black woman, namely “GUNK” by Ramdasha Bikceem, Tamar-Kali Brown founded “Sista Grrrl” in response.

“I got what Riot Grrrl was about. I didn’t think it was exclusive, but it didn’t feel inclusive to me…I didn’t see myself or my story, and so that’s why Sista Grrrl came about later on–out of other women of colour that I knew who were punk rock and navigated that scene and had similar feelings about it. Sista Grrrl was my response to Riot Grrrl because it just felt super white…I was just like, I have to survive. I have to defend myself. Riot Grrrl felt really playful, and I wasn’t playing,” Brown says.

The decision to cast a diverse cast, featuring Lauren Tsai, a Chinese American woman who plays Claudia, Alycia Pascual-Peña, an Afro-Latinx woman who plays Lucy Hernandez, Josie Totah, a trans woman who plays CJ and Emily Hopper, whose character, Meg, appears in a wheelchair, attempts to remedy a historical marginalisation but falls short in lending these characters any meaningful development. Whilst I believe the film suffers from “inadvertent tokenism,” and centres the narrative of a white, middle-class girl and her mother, which we should remain highly critical of, the fact is, we don’t often see high-school movies that spotlight transgender characters, black girls or disabled characters without pandering to gendered or culturally insensitive tropes, let alone high-school movies about young feminists mobilising. Saying this, I do recognise the bar for what is considered morally acceptable has become extremely low for Hollywood and we should and can demand for better. Representational politics can only take you so far in these kinds of narratives, but “Moxie” is not without praise for its charming characters.

“Moxie” made some effort to negotiate different femininities through its characters, particularly Claudia, whose character does not participate in public declarations of rebellion due to a number of reasons. Firstly, Claudia does not come to school dressed in a tank top in collective retaliation against the school’s unfair dress codes because her mother forbids it. Secondly, Claudia is afraid of “making a big deal” and is accused of not caring about the movement by Vivian when she does not publicly nominate Kiera for the student athlete award and scholarship at the game. Lastly, after bravely taking the fall as the founder of Moxie and facing suspension, Claudia confronts a myopic Vivian of failing to understand how she does not have the freedom to take the risks Vivian does because she is white.

“I do care okay. You just have to let me do things my way”

I had my reservations about “Moxie” as a “blueprint for revolution” and watching the film confirmed that it was certainly in no position to offer this. However, the film was reminiscent of the high-school experience and “high-school problems”, but in no means dismisses its relevance for wider society, as made evident, for example, when Emma’s character publicly reveals that she anonymously confided in “Moxie” after she was raped by Mitchell Wilson, her at-the-time boyfriend at prom. “Moxie”, in this way, does not shy away from the harsh manifestations of “high-school problems.”

“You know annoying can be more than just annoying right? Like it can be code for worst stuff.”

Also as subtext in “10 Things I Hate About You,” the shrewish portrayal of “female rage” and predictable dogma risks satirising women’s voices. Vivian’s arguably unfounded anger at the dinner table where she accuses her boyfriend of being “too nice” and offers a misguided criticism of her mother and partner after becoming overwhelmed with Moxie’s stunted progress culminates in her storming off and yelling “Fuck the patriarchy!” Poehler has made it clear that she is critical of the mainstream portrayal of “female rage” as distorted, fetishised and undervalued. “On an emotional level, young girls are not encouraged to find out what they are angry about or how to really express anger in a healthy and productive way,” Poehler says.

From this perspective, Vivian’s outburst seems like a purposeful directorial decision and almost an endearing resemblance to her mother’s mention of her own riot grrrl-inspired rebellion to smash the patriarchy at the start of the film, when Vivian asks her mother how to respond to Berkeley’s personal insight question on a passionate cause. However, I cannot help but question who it is that is afforded the space to feel and act on rage. Vivian, as a white, middle-class girl, is granted this space and forgiveness, but we do not see the same opportunity given to Lucy or CJ, for example. What’s more endearing is perhaps watching Vivian, alongside Lucy, Claudia, Emma, Kiera, CJ, Amaya (Anjelika Washington) Meg and a number of students “find their voices and hold their heads up high”, in a perfectly accessible and digestible tone for its target audience. Whilst we are not left with a conclusive or retributive answer regarding Vivian’s Berkeley admission, Kiera’s scholarship, CJ’s audition outcome or Mitchell Wilson, the film’s main antagonist, “Moxie” emanates a sense of optimism for young people that does not compromise on relatability.

My criticism, however, lies firstly with the scenes laced with an orchestrated and awkward “wokeness” that made audiences cringe and ended up satirising the characters’ voices. Secondly, it seems as if Poehler compromised on the enjoyability of the film. As writer and producer of popular American sitcom “Parks and Recreation”, audiences expected a more comedically inclined script and were left disappointed when they just did not receive that. Thirdly, the isolated moments of discrimination fail to suggest how sexist and specifically racist, ableist and transphobic discrimination may be institutionalised. Nonetheless, there is only so much a 2 hour high school movie, distributed by a multinational profit-led platform and production corporation, can cover and tackle. Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say no one expected “Moxie” to lay the foundations for smashing the patriarchy.

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