Girls to the Front: Jennifer Mathieu’s MOXIE

Let’s get one thing out of the way: You write about the rain when it’s sunny. These days, though, it’s always raining, and no one has time to wait for the sun. So you write heartbroken. You write frustrated. And you write angry.

Last year saw a new wave of books that dealt with rape culture and the importance of female voices. This year, the trend continues; books like Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species and E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued By a Bear have paved the way for Kady Cross’s Vigilante, Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, and Amy Reed’s forthcoming The Nowhere Girls, and all books that deal, first and foremost, with girls taking action.

Sure, sometimes those actions may be inadvisable. Vigilante, for instance, centers around Hadley, a girl struggling to deal with the death of her best friend, Magda, who committed suicide after being gang-raped by four boys who still attend Hadley’s high school. Grieving and angry, martial-artist Hadley takes matters into her own hands, donning a pink ski mask and going after the boys that a justice system wouldn’t touch. Reasonable? No. But that’s not really the point.

Let’s talk about Moxie. Out this September, it’s the latest book to wade into the fray, and it’s been met already with both criticism and praise. It’s the story of Vivian Carter, a junior at a small-town Texas high school who’s never been much of a rebel—unlike her mom, a former Riot Grrrl-turned-nurse, who passed on to Viv a love for The Runways and Bikini Kill, but not much fighting spirit. At least not until Viv witnesses an incident in class: football star and principal’s son Mitchell makes a sexist comment toward new-girl Lucy, and nothing happens.

Unsettled, then angry, Viv unearths her mother’s box of old Riot Grrrl keepsakes (labelled, of course, “My Misspent Youth”) and is inspired to create “Moxie,” an anonymous zine protesting the sexist—often aggressively so—actions of the football players at her school and the assistance, unwitting or not, that these boys get from a school administration unwilling to crack down on champions. Timid at first, Viv calls only for small actions from her readers—draw hearts and stars on your hands in solidarity!—and fears that no one, including her friends, will participate. But as the Moxie movement begins to gain popularity around school with girls from varying social groups, Viv, still anonymous, grows bolder, asking girls to wear bathrobes to school to protest a biased dress code (girls aren’t allowed to wear anything that might distract boys) and distributing stickers to be stuck on the lockers of boys who participate in the “bump ‘n’ grab,” a game where unsuspecting girls are groped in the hallways.

If Moxie has faults, it’s that the scenarios Viv and her friends experience are so on-the-nose as to seem old hat to adult readers. But this isn’t a book for adult readers, and a little heavy-handedness is easily forgiven in the face of all it does right. Because Moxie is anonymous, there’s no true leader, which makes it easy for other girls to step up and speak out—including girls from diverse backgrounds. Viv, who’s white, reflects on the failings of the Riot Grrrls:

“My mom talked about how Riot Grrrl was mostly white girls, and she was sorry they weren’t as welcoming to other girls as they could have been. . . East Rockport High isn’t just white girls, for sure. . . I think about how in this one way, maybe Moxie could be even better than the Riot Grrrls. Even stronger.”

Intersectional feminism is at the forefront here, but discussed too is the idea that there’s no one right way to be a feminist. Some of Viv’s friends are more outspoken than others; some are afraid of getting in trouble, and some are simply uncomfortable with the word feminism. There are girls who actually benefit from the system in place. Despite this, the environment Moxie fosters is a welcoming one: this is girl with girl instead of girl on girl. No catfights, no backtalk, just mutual respect.

But that’s not to say there are no boys. At Viv’s side is Seth, the new boy from Austin who made her weak in the knees when he showed up at school after the first Moxie was released with hearts and stars drawn on his hands in solidarity. After he catches her distributing Moxie, Seth becomes the sole keeper of Viv’s secret, and it’s not long before sparks are flying between them. Seth is the kind of boy that YA needs more of: he’s not a villain, but not a knight in shining armor, either. He’s sweet, sensitive, and, yes, deeply flawed. He supports Viv in her endeavor and is disgusted by the behavior of the football players, but hastens to remind Viv that not all guys are like that, and gets defensive when she tries to explain that that’s not the point. Seth is a good ally who has some work to do on himself, and the book doesn’t discount his contributions to Viv’s story—it just puts the female participants of Moxie first.

These books are not how-to guides for the aftermath of an assault.

There’s another layer to these books, of course, and that’s the prevalence of rape culture, especially in high schools. It’s most obvious in Vigilante, which centers on the aftermath of a rape, but there’s an insidious undercurrent in Moxie as well. Girls deal with varying degrees of assault, and one with an attempted rape—all things that the school administration chooses to ignore, even when it’s brought to them directly.

These books are not how-to guides for the aftermath of an assault, although many do come with afterwords that provide information on how to find and use such resources. For some people, the criminal justice system as it exists now is an answer and a life raft. For many more, it’s an unattainable fantasy, or it’s a thing that has failed them. Vivian and her friends break no laws and do no harm; they protest outdated school policies and challenge a biased and willfully blind administration. Does Viv always make the right or smart decision? No. Should she? No, because she’s a fully developed teenage character struggling to learn how to fight and what to fight for, not a cartoon in a self-help pamphlet. That alone makes this an excellent pick for any library looking to host a teen discussion; add in the additional potential for talks about feminism, rape culture, activism, and general humanism, and you’ve got a home run. And that’s without even going into the music side of things: Moxie is a cross-generational book that will inspire playlists containing everything from Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” to Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens To You.”

Valuable literature on rape culture exists right now, and it goes far beyond a nonfiction expose or a handbook on the criminal justice system. For many teens, the most necessary books right now are the kind that show people engaging with the issue in a variety of ways, because there is no single or right way to handle trauma. The right course of action for one person will not be what’s right for another, and a cookie-cutter “right way” approach does nothing but alienate. Often, the most valuable thing a book on this topic can do is show a triumph, something that is often so unattainable in the real world. Books that may do the most good show girls winning, show them facing down a very real problem and surviving it. Stand up if you can, these books say. Be loud if you can, fight back if you can, but above all, be not alone.

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About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

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