When I explain to a good friend that Jennifer Mathieu’s third young adult novel Moxie is about a sixteen-year-old girl who accidentally starts a feminist revolution at her high school, he tenses a little. It’s the f-bomb that puts him slightly on edge. He once told me that he would consider identifying as a feminist if he knew “what he was signing up for,” implying that the movement/philosophy is amorphous and incoherent.
He should read Moxie, which offers an inspiring image of feminism: hundreds of teenage girls fighting for equality in a school that discriminates against them and favors male students. At East Rockport High, the center of the fictitious Texas town East Rockport where high school football season is the apex of life, an all-male administration lets the boys (especially the football players) run amuck at the girls’ expense.
And Vivian, a diffident and responsible junior who keeps a low profile, is fed up with it. Inspired by her mother’s riot grrrl zines (which she finds in a shoebox labelled “my misspent youth”) and the riot grrrl bands of the 90s, Vivian decides to make her own zine called “Moxie” to denounce the treatment of women at East Rockport High. She sneaks into her school one early morning before anyone has arrived, and leaves copies of the anonymous zine in all the girls bathrooms. The zine unites the girls of East Rockport High in ways that Vivian never imagined.
Like Vivian, Mathieu learned about feminism through riot grrrl, and she has never looked back. Now a wife, mother, and high school English teacher, Mathieu is still punk rock and looks the part. As we chat at Brazos Bookstore where she is to give a brief talk on Moxie, I notice a faded streak of red (maybe pink) in her hair, and wish I had one. I’m already impressed, but then I learn that she runs the feminist club at her school and teaches kids how to make their own zines.
When I asked Mathieu why she wrote Moxie, she told me that she wanted to share with young women the joys of feminism and the ways it has enriched her life. She went on to explain that many teenage girls (and boys) think feminism is a scary word, one that should only be spoken in hushed whispers like “Voldemort” (that equal rights movement which must not be named). Cultural misconceptions tell young people that a feminist is an embittered woman whose self-seriousness and militancy fuel her vision of a revolution that will culminate in the subjugation of men, who will then be kept below ground and valued only for their contribution to the propagation of woman.
Which is why Mathieu calls Moxie a “fun” book about feminism, and it is. The novel dispels ridiculous myths about feminism, while maintaining a general mood of giggly giddiness that comes with being young and discovering the world and yourself. It even includes illustrations of the zines that Vivian makes. But the bubbliness doesn’t detract from the indignation that the female characters (and the reader, for that matter) feel as they confront the patriarchy.
Moxie may be fiction, but the issues it raises are real. Mathieu, who grew up in Washington DC and attended college in Chicago before migrating south to Houston, has never lived in a small Texas town, but she gets them right. I recognized my own one-horse town in the pages of Moxie. My female friends were often pulled out of class or out of the hallway to go cover themselves and their dress code infractions in a baggy school t-shirt or hoodie. And so it is at East Rockport High, where male administrators punish girls for violating an ambiguous dress code, while letting boys wear shirts that invite women to perform oral sex on them. Of course, the problem is not that there’s a dress code, but rather that there is a blatant double-standard.
Just as problematic is the administrators’ imploring girls to dress modestly for the sake of the boys’ purity, something my female friends heard at nauseam. This is clearly frat boy logic: had she not been wearing that outfit, I, a carnal beast that is incapable of exercising self-control and practicing basic human decency, would not have been provoked to attack her. Of course, telling young women that they are to blame is not only unfair, it perpetuates violence against women.
I know that we should be beyond having to make these worthy but tired points. Though, a glance at the news verifies that we are not. When someone during Mathieu’s talk at Brazos Bookstore asked if and how the situation of teenage girls and young women has changed since her discovery of feminism, she replied that many of the issues her female students and other young women raise are the same. Interestingly, Moxie happens to be published at a time when adolescents can watch a video of our president stating that his wealth allows him to do anything to a woman regardless of her consent. And then they can hear his response to the criticism: “locker room talk,” a swift “justification” that normalizes the objectification of women and the unimportance of a woman’s will.
Still, Mathieu is heartened by certain developments within this generation of feminists. Riot grrrl, she explains, was mostly white. Today, feminists are deeply concerned with inclusivity, or intersectionality, which is reflected in Moxie. The students of East Rockport High voluntarily segregate themselves, yet girls of all races and cliques unite under the banner of Moxie, which evolves into a sisterhood.
Interwoven throughout the novel is an endearing romance. As Vivian grows into a feminist, she dates her first boyfriend Seth, an Austin transplant whose parents are abstract artists seeking inspiration in small town life. Seth is cool and says “cool” a lot. He wears skinny jeans and a Black Flag t-shirt, and thinks Vivian’s zine is cool. But calling something “cool” is a far cry from the passion of conviction that burns inside Vivian and other East Rockport girls. Sure, Seth finds the sexist jocks of East Rockport High apish, but more than once does he fail to see and appreciate Vivian’s perspective as a woman. Mathieu encouraged her audience at Brazos Bookstore to take Seth’s shortcomings in stride. If well-meaning men are to become allies, they have to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, the author explained during her talk.
Moxie may eventually come to life on the silver screen. Paper Kite, Amy Poehler’s production company, has bought the rights to the story, which is now being adapted to script. Mathieu, however, was a little skeptical that the movie star, writer, comedian, and all around badass read the book herself. But over a phone conversation with Mathieu, Poehler chatted excitedly about all her favorite parts, heaping praise on the author.
Moxie has the Amy Poehler stamp of approval. Need I say more?