What Happens When Movies are Produced Past their ‘Best Before’ Date: A Review of Amy Poehler’s Moxie
By Swonshutaa Dash and C. Chandrawala
If I were to tweet a review of the new Netflix release Moxie, it would likely look something like this: Dear Moxie, 1992 called - they’d like their feminism back. Sincerely, We’ve Moved On.
While in any other year of the century, Moxie might float by as an average coming of age teenage confection, it’s half-hearted attempt at injecting “feminism” into the Netflix pre-teen line-up paired with the mind-numbing boredom of half the world as we enter month 8 or 10 or 318 of a lockdown, has meant that 1) there are more of us watching whatever Netflix is willing to put out, and 2) we have a bit more time on our hands, and thus, can hold what we watch to somewhat higher standards.
Enter: Moxie. Touted as Amy Poehler’s foray into the world of teen feminism, it sounded promising. Uplifting even, at a time when we could all use a bit of a lift. And for that intention alone, I salute Ms. Poehler. And in her efforts to put out a pre-teen confection that doesn’t hypersexualize females and draws attention to the idea of there being a male gaze in a market whose niche is premised around those two exact things - well done.
But it’s 2021, and we’ve come a long way since the first wave of Feminism. Poehler’s return to the bra-burning brand of feminism from the early 70’s made me wonder, do I have to watch sci-fi or fantasy in order to see a version of feminism that actually represents the modern day? Women and many supporting men have fought causes like the Suffragette Movement in Britain to the Equal Rights Amendment Act in North America. Most recently we have witnessed the Shaheen Bagh Movement, a protest against India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act, led by thousands of women. We’ve had countless such movements in between all over the world including the MeToo Movement that brought together women from across the globe.
There has never been a better time to be a feminist, mainly because with the advent of internet and social media, not only is the world finally listening but the sense of urgency too, is palpable.
If Moxie comes up as a suggestion on your next movie night, and you look up its meaning, be prepared to facepalm yourself because you just set off a domino of cliches. The oxford dictionary defines moxie as ‘force of character, determination, or nerve’. What’s egregious though is the movie’s punchline right below “When you've got the moxie, you need the clothes to match.” Congratulations, we have successfully taught a generation that their clothes determine their character!
The movie is primarily a motley of 20-year-olds playing teenagers on-screen teaching cishet males about feminism. It plays into the stereotype of how feminism is about ‘out-of-control’ women who secretly aim at destroying the precious rituals of the aeons old regressive patriarchal society, which all men believe to be ‘culture and tradition.’ All but one non white, second generation, immigrant male student. For a minute, I had to double check that they weren’t all wearing bell bottoms and talking about things being groovy and psychedelic, because I was sure that this was written to be a revolutionary movie - in the 70’s.
Imagine a high school hide-in-the-corner type of teenage girl, who has zero social life and no driving force in life apart from getting into UCB. While struggling to write a college admission essay, she inadvertently finds a deeper cause, to rebel against the ubiquitous sexism and misogyny at her school. If Karan Johar tried his hand at a female-centric movie that tried to apprise and indoctrinate feminism, we would have Bollywood Moxie! Depicting the ordeal of a heterogeneous group of teenage girls and their starry-eyed triumph over patriarchy, the movie begins with a stereotype and ends with a desperate effort.
This is precisely how the first minute runs: (spoiler alert!) “Leaves crunch under my feet, crushing my hope with each step. The rustling of the trees isn't helping. I almost trip twice, even at this rate it feels closer. I can't feel my legs anymore. Then I realize, these are the same trees that I came across a while ago. Fear grips the veins of my neck squeezing the life out with every second. My screams are inaudible, I try harder to no avail. slowly my body falls limp, my presence dissolving from the face of the world. We are then introduced to the protagonist of the movie. She is a white, heterosexual, cisgender teenage girl, living in a suburban duplex with a driveway, staring at her personal computer screen and attempting to write an essay for her dream university. Please take a moment to process that.
The movie runs through a miscellany of intersectional feminism ideals from transgenderism to LGBTI issues to the plethora of issues associated with the immigrant-daughter paradigm, but ultimately superficial and deeply stereotypical depictions of these read more like the writers were trying to play intersetcional feminist bingo rather than just trying ot understand the human stories of thier own characters. It provides a privileged perspective of feminism through the lens of the protagonist Vivian Carter, who is shy yet committed to the cause, inspired by her free spirited mother. On the other hand, her intelligent but unsure of herself Asian best friend, is shown to have a strict and conservative mother. The protagonist’s mom represents a parenting style that empowers her child while the Asian mom’s parenting style is depicted as one that stifles her daughter.
The movie also briefly flashes other actors of colour, who aid in the advancement of the plot but does not delve into the intricacies of intersectional obstacles faced by them. While it is an excellent effort at raising awareness and mobilizing cis and trans girls, and propagating that one is never too young to start fighting against discrimination or xenophobia, it still falls grossly short.
Vivian’s love interest Seth Acosta is shown to be a walking-talking feminism 101 guide, every other male in the movie from the school teacher to the grocery guy are shown to be misogynistic jerks with the exception of an older white man, who unsurprisingly, is the boyfriend of Vivian’s mother Lisa. On the other hand, Mitchell Wilson, the popular jock, antagonist and epitome of toxic masculinity in the film, is an absolute cliche! In fact none of the male actors have enough screen time to ascertain a character arcs or influences, making them utterly one dimensional. I’m not usually concerned about the fate of men in the media, but I have to say, this movie had me looking up whether there actually was a male equivalent of the Bechdel test (there isn’t, but maybe we should make one.) Not to propagate #notallmen, but seriously there must be some other decent men around non white women!
Welcome to 2021
The thing is, had I watched this movie even 2 years ago, I would have been bored yes - but not angry. But the past two years have seen massive movements in the Black and Latinx communities, have seen a huge improvement in LGBTI issues (even in India), and have seen mainstream feminism - the kind you talk about with your dad over the dinner table - even that has moved ahead. And this movie, with it’s lack of all of the above somehow managed to hit the mark on being both tone-deaf and incredibly dismissive.
With this new found momentum, it is even more imperative now more than ever, for the feminist movement to be the voice of not just women at the forefront but of ALL women. In order for us to succeed, we must open our minds and awareness to the various intersectionalities that impact women. Race, class, socio-economic status and culture are just some of the ways women experience compounding, overlapping and concurrent forms of marginalization, beyond gender. It is therefore extremely important to understand the contextual depth and interrelationship of various facets that impact a woman’s place in society. Inextricable from this understanding, is the representation of these women and the importance of capturing those nuances that may slip through, but all contribute to how we view and stereotype women. And in that respect, Moxie fails terribly. While it checks all the boxes - many of the cast members are racially and physically diverse, POC and non-heterosexual stories also figure somewhere into the mix, you can’t help but leave the story with the feeling that the entire story is still be written, read, and viewed through a distinctly white female lens. Who knew that the answer to Gayatri Spivak’s question “Can the subaltern speak?” would find its answer in a Poehler’s Netflix Movie, according to which the answer is “yes, but no one will bother to listen unless a Karen writes it down.”
In the end, however, the movie is a strong-willed attempt at feminism and prevalent feminist standards, waivered by deeply imbibed fallacious misogyny and societal perceptions of ‘real problems’. I believe young adults play the most important role in bringing about any real change in society. It is their ability to absorb and make indelible impressions that empower them most. Definitely more, than adults who have a lot of unlearning to do, before they make space for a more evolved mindset. Which in turn brings me to the latest ‘female centred’ movie offering from Hollywood, a film called Moxie, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu. It is also directorial debut of actor and comedienne Amy Poehler, a very vocal feminist herself. The movie depicts the story of a white female high school student calling out sexism at her school and despite it’s best intentions, the movie has more misses than hits, playing into the intersectional stereotypes about women. It reinforces how much ‘homework’ we still have left to do in cohesively representing womankind, as opposed to limiting feminism to a suburban, middle class, educated white female narrative.
About the author
Swonshutaa Dash is a student from Mumbai, India. She is an aspiring journalist and a trained professional Bharatnatyam dancer and debate enthusiast. Follow her blog on @stressedkanya on Instagram for more!