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Amy Poehler’s new movie Moxie arrived on Netflix last week and has secured its place on the streamer’s Top 10 list. As a longtime Poehler fan, I thought it would be an easy watch. So one night, I got cozy on the couch and settled in—ready to be lulled to sleep after a long day of work. Instead, as the movie progressed, I found myself very awake and very upset.
Moxie follows a young white teen named Vivian (Hadley Robinson) on her journey to find feminism, but Vivian’s revelations come at the expense of her classmates and friends who are people of color.
In the process of exploring what a “feminist awakening” looks like for a white teenager, Vivian’s classmate Lucy (Alycia Pascual), who is Afro-Latina, is both exploited and ignored—by teachers, by peers, and, most importantly, by Vivian. Vivian doesn’t speak up when Lucy is interrupted by a white male peer after questioning the diversity of the syllabus, and Vivian hangs her head low when she is the only one who witnesses the same white male spit in Lucy’s drink after she denies his sexual advances. Vivian even goes so far as to approach Lucy one on one in the hallway and tell her to ignore this behavior. That is, until they become the best of friends after Lucy tells Vivian she won’t ignore chauvinistic comments and behavior, inspiring feminist ideas in Vivian.
It’s only when someone releases a sexist list about Vivian and her female classmates (most of whom are predominantly white) that Vivian slides into her mom’s old leather jacket and decides she will publish an anonymous zine calling out the misogynistic behavior in their high school—all after remaining silent as a fellow classmate, who is a person of color, was harassed.
This kind of selective white feminism is seen throughout Moxie. While no one stood up for Lucy in the very first classroom scene, a later scene shows white female students calling out the boys in the class for their misogynistic Britney Spears comments. Why was no one there to do the same for Lucy?
Whiteness is centered in most spaces in America, including schools. And as a by-product, white people very often center themselves in conversations about equality. It has to happen to them to matter. And that’s exactly what happens in this film.
In Moxie, like so many other movies with white protagonists, it’s hard not to feel like the people of color are there to serve as springboards for the betterment of white characters. And to be honest, this movie is not too far off from the landscape of feminism today.
Intersectionality is crucial to feminism, but the growing pains oftentimes come at a greater cost for people of color. It’s painful for young women of color to inadvertently suffer the missteps white girls make as they’re learning to be feminist or anti-racist. While those lessons may be a part of white girls’ stories, they leave scars on ours. I know this because I’ve lived this.
As a Black woman, I’ve been brushed away by teachers, gone unsupported by white friends and classmates, and had my contributions diminished.
It was painful to see Vivian portrayed as the centrifugal force of this “revolution” after we watched Lucy lay the groundwork for it with no support or credit. It was hurtful to watch Vivian stay quiet while classmates and teachers who looked like her attacked and dismissed Lucy. It was angering to witness Vivian’s character arc go from meek to powerful while Lucy’s went from powerful to palatable. To me, Lucy was the real star of this story. But here we are with another movie about a white girl written by a white woman.
When Vivian asks her mom, Lisa (Amy Poehler), about her early days as a rebel and feminist, she tells her, “We made a ton of mistakes. We argued with each other. We weren’t intersectional enough.”
Well, history seems to be repeating itself.
Vivian asks her mom if she’s glad she rebelled despite her lapse in understanding intersectionality. Her mom responds, “Of course. What are you going to do? Nothing?” It’s true, but this moment is a revealing one: They both don’t even realize that as white women, they have the luxury of messing up and excluding others.
The movie broaches its faultiness with one line uttered by Vivian’s best friend, Claudia, who is of Asian descent: “You don’t get what’s going on with me because you’re white.” After this confrontation, Vivian goes home, throws a screaming fit at dinner, then has a teary meltdown. Instead of being there for Claudia or reporting Lucy’s harasser to a teacher, Vivian centers her experience and is concerned only with protecting herself. Her mom consoles her, and the topic goes unexplored and unaddressed throughout the rest of the movie. Vivian never reflects on or reckons with her whiteness or how her white privilege played a part in her friends’ experiences.
The discourse (or lack thereof) skates over the gravity of these neglectful moments and the heaviness of their impact with no ramifications, no apologies, and no credit given where it’s due—especially to Lucy.
Of course, Lucy is expected to—and does—stand strong, which is a problematic cycle imposed on Black women and girls. When she’s called names, she’s told to toughen up. When she’s interrupted, she’s told to ignore toxic male behavior. Viewers get to know Lucy only as a resilient character who’s strong, unbothered, and unshaken, but she shouldn’t have to be. When will the responsibility to bear and heal from this excruciating behavior end?
Black girls don’t need saving, but we do need people to stand up for us and stand by us. To undo a racist system we didn’t create, we need real allies—not white feminist friends and colleagues who only come to our aid in the safety of a private text or conversation after the fact.
If Moxie ended with Vivian having a true reckoning with herself instead of giving a brave, heroic speech, it would have made for a revolutionary and necessary intersectional lesson for young girls and boys across the globe. Instead, it became another coming-of-age story about a white girl.
In a weird way, Moxie might be the movie we needed. I think we all know a Vivian, or maybe you are a Vivian yourself. A lot can be learned from Vivian’s missteps, silence, and mistakes. The younger we are when we learn these lessons, the less girls of color are left scarred and standing alone in the fight for a better future.
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