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How Amy Poehler’s ‘Moxie’ Is Bringing Riot Grrrl — and Bikini Kill — to a New Generation

Hadley Robinson had never heard of Bikini Kill before she was cast in Moxie. Directed by Amy Poehler and based on Jennifer Mathieu’s 2017 young adult novel of the same name, the Netflix movie follows Robinson’s Vivian, a shy 16-year-old who sparks a rebellion at her high school when she starts anonymously publishing a feminist zine. Vivian is inspired, in part, by her discovery of a box in her mom’s closet loaded with riot grrrl paraphernalia — and the moment she hears the opening screech of feedback in the band’s iconic anthem “Rebel Girl,” followed by Kathleen Hanna’s signature howl, she thrashes around her room like it’s 1993. As Robinson tells it, the acting wasn’t much of a reach.

“The first [Bikini Kill song] I listened to was ‘Rebel Girl,’ and a very similar thing happened to me that happened to Vivian,” she says. “I watched a YouTube video of Kathleen Hanna singing, and it completely took me over. It was a visceral reaction. I immediately fell in love with the music.” 

Robinson, who’s in her twenties and no stranger to activism, did a deeper dive into riot grrrl and found herself “really surprised” that she’d never heard of the feminist punk movement created in the early Nineties by Hanna and her contemporaries. “It’s such a pivotal moment in history in terms of feminism,” she says. That’s exactly the kind of awakening Poehler and Mathieu are hoping to inspire in a younger generation — as well as the motivation to build on its principles and take the movement into a new era. And Hanna, for one, is all for it.

“I’d love to see kids take the good stuff from riot grrrl [and] enact intersectionality better than we [did], and that the punk scene becomes less straight, white, cis male-dominated,” she says. “I hope kids critique it and build better more interesting things as a result.”

Moxie the film hews pretty closely to Mathieu’s book. Vivian becomes fed up with the sexist treatment of girls at her school: harassment at the hands of jocks, unfair dress codes, a ranked list of bangability, etc. Although she usually operates under the radar, she decides to take action when a new student, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), becomes a target for the boys’ ire. After finding her mom’s old zines, she secretly starts her own, which she titles Moxie, to call out the injustices she sees in the halls. Pretty quickly, her pet project balloons into a movement, something owned by all the girls in her school.

Mathieu’s own love of riot girrrl started, oddly enough, with a pretty mainstream source: “I remember reading about riot grrrl for the first time in Seventeen magazine [in the early Nineties],” she tells Rolling Stone. “Looking back now, I’m sure that the riot grrrls didn’t like [being in that kind of magazine], but for girls like me, who didn’t have any access to that scene, it was exciting. I went to this very conservative Catholic high school, and I remember reading the article and just being intrigued.”

When she started college in Chicago, Mathieu immersed herself even deeper in the scene, making her own zine, Jennifer, and finding kinship in the music of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. Now she’s carrying their mission forward as an author and a teacher, sponsoring the feminist club at the high school in Texas where she works. “I see young feminists in action and what they care about,” she says. “To me, feminism — ever since I discovered it through riot grrrl — the words that come to mind are ‘joy’ and ‘liberation’. It’s liberating ourselves from pre-packaged societal norms — and what a better world it would be if we could all just be our full and complete selves.”

Poehler, who plays Vivian’s mom in the movie, saw a lot of herself in the pages of Mathieu’s book. And she came to the music and the movement much in the same way. As a young student and comedian, she used to troll Chicago music stores in search of zines, and found strength in the music of Hanna and her cohorts. “That music was a soundtrack for a time when women in the music industry were figuring out how to find their voices and talk about what they cared about in a real activist way,” she says. As she was putting the film together, she knew the sound would be a key part of the story. “[In the film] the music is used as like a bridge,” Poehler says. “We wanted to capture that feeling of that moment when you’re a young person and you listen to music for the first time and you actually understand it in a much bigger sense.”

But it was also essential, as Mathieu’s book sets up, for Vivian and her classmates to evolve the idea of what feminism can be. As Poehler explains, her character, who’s in her forties, “learns from her daughter that there’s so much still left to learn.”

And that’s the crux of Moxie: It’s not just about harking back to riot grrrl, playing dress-up in leather jackets and making zines (although that’s definitely a really big, fun part of it). It’s about ferreting out the faults in this early brand of feminism: Mainly that it was largely a movement embraced by white women. In the context of the movie, Lisa stands in for that Nineties version of riot grrrl, while Vivian is a kind of midway point. As a young, white woman, her early attempts at protest are limited to her own worldview: guys harassing girls, double standards. Along the way, she comes to see the flaws in that way of thinking — namely that it excludes the unique issues non-white women (and trans women, for that matter) have to grapple with, including her new friend Lucy, who is black, and her best friend Claudia, who is Asian. Vivian’s whiteness protects her from a lot of the fallout her rebellion; the same can’t be said for her friends.

“I think this movie is important because it’s not just about sexism, but it’s about racism and it’s about privilege,” Robinson says. “It addresses so many different topics. I think that’s the new wave of feminism. And it’s going to be a long journey, but I think the girls who are involved now are in it for the long haul.” Still, she gives credit to her feminist forbears: “I walked away feeling like I truly had not just been on set but being a part of a master class where I learned from all the people around me.”

“The idea of Moxie becomes bigger than Vivian, and other people get to own it,” Poehler adds. “And it symbolizes what activism is all about. It’s recognizing the people that get to name things, the access that people have, the privilege that people have. And I think that our generation, early Nineties feminists, didn’t take that into consideration. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We have a lot to unlearn. A character in Moxie talks about not being intersectional enough and misappropriating terms and appropriating culture, all stuff that we know now that we should be doing better at — what the young generation instinctively understands.”

As for what Hanna hopes young viewers take away from the film — and her music as it exists in this framework? “I love that kids may get turned onto Bikini Kill and other feminist bands through the movie. Hopefully, some kids will be like ‘This sucks,’ and write their own songs.”

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