Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.
The slogan “Moxie Girls Fight Back!” is a call to arms for all the girls slipping quietly through the halls, biting their lips to contain their anger, striving to keep invisible and get through the day.
Vivian Carter is one of those girls. She just wants to keep her head down and avoid the notice of the football jocks who rule her small town and harass her and her classmates. The system doesn’t care, and she is focused on ignoring it and sustaining as little damage as possible until she is free to move on with her life.
But the chauvinist garbage grows hard to ignore. After witnessing several upsetting incidents, Vivian finds herself digging through a box from her mom’s Riot Grrrl past. Maybe what her school needs is a feminist zine. The idea excites her, but Vivian is a nice girl. She doesn’t want to be the face of a rebellion. So she prints her zine in secret, pretending to be as surprised by the appearance of Moxie as everyone else.
At first, the response is small. Then more and more girls start to align themselves with Moxie and speak out against the harassment they face. When the school tries to enforce the status quo by engaging in a series of girl-shaming dress code raids, Vivian and the other Moxie ladies refuse to let it stand. The fight is on, and Moxie is growing.
But before long, everything spirals out of Vivian’s control. She is forced to decide what she is willing to fight for, and what she is willing to risk.
Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie works on a pure, wish-fulfillment level. Many young women have struggled to ignore daily harassment and walked shamefaced out of the principal’s office, giant sweatshirts pulled forcibly over tank tops. But how many of us found our voices in high school and walked out en masse to give the finger to the patriarchy? Not enough. Which is why it’s undeniably satisfying to watch it unfold and live vicariously through Vivian as she faces down her fear and takes a stand, shoulder to shoulder with her peers. That moment alone is enough to make Moxie a winner.
Moxie also isn’t afraid to address some of the more difficult quandaries of feminist activism. Vivian struggles to balance her own self-interest and fear with her rage and desire to help others. How can she be a good girl and an angry feminist? She doesn’t always get it right. And when her new boyfriend doesn’t provide the kind of support she is looking for, she gets pissed and lets him know it. It feels genuine and satisfying to see a girl willing to risk newfound romance to stand up for what she believes in.
Where Moxie falls short is in its efforts at intersectionality. Girls from diverse backgrounds and identities get in on the Moxie fight; some do point out to Vivian that they face struggles she hasn’t even considered. But ultimately, the view of feminism that we get from Moxie is predominately white, straight and cisgendered. For this reason, it feels like Moxie isn’t really meant for the teenage women who are already out there marching and signing petitions. It’s for the girls like Vivian, who can get by without too much damage if they stay quiet and avoid the fight. They need something to light a fire in their hearts, and maybe Moxie can provide that spark. Here’s hoping they take to the streets.
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