[23 October 2013]
“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned,” goes a rather famous line from English playwright William Congreve, and the second part of that turn of phrase could be easily attributed to at least one of the characters from Megan Abbott’s 2012 book (now in paperback) Dare Me. While, on the surface, Dare Me is a novel about high school cheerleading, this is not the cheerleading that you may have grown up with, if you are of a certain age.
When I was in high school, and I’m pushing 40, cheerleaders were pretty much all about shaking pom-poms and rear ends, and the most daring stunt that they were probably asked to pull was to do a cartwheel. These days, as Abbott’s book points out, cheerleading squads are almost militant in asking girls to perform towering achievements, such as human pyramids, and then tend to function as boot camps. In fact, cheerleading is just as much about athletic performance as the sports squads, usually male, that they are asked to support these days.
So it should come as no surprise that Dare Me has been compared to everything from Fight Club to Lord of the Flies. Dare Me is just as overtly masculine and dark as those two noted novels, and the teenaged girls that populate the book might as well have testicles instead of ovaries. While they might also have tans and wear glitter, those items are used as war paint: “You may have the bodies of young girls,” says a character at one point near the novel’s end, “but you have the hearts of warriors.” So if you think girls are all sugar and spice and everything nice, you’ve got another thing coming in Dare Me.
As a male, I’m of two minds about this: I found the book to be quite daring in its reversal of female stereotypes, but I also worry that some readers may just attribute the characters’ overall cattiness to be very bitchy and filed under See You Next Tuesday territory. I suppose there might be women like those in Dare Me, but the psychological warfare they conduct might be a stereotype on the other side of the fence, and something taken to extremes. That said, I did describe the contents of this novel to a female friend, and she seemed to agree that while men can be abusive in a physical, punishing way, women have the capacity to be bullying in a more psychological way – which, of course, is a tactic that Dare Me practically wallows in.
While Dare Me is about life on a modern-day cheer squad, it’s a fluffed up mystery story inspired by the likes of Chandler as well. At the core of the novel are two characters: Beth, who is the captain of the squad, and Addy, who is Beth’s second-in-command and something of a loyal friend. This dynamic is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of a new coach, who is tough as nails and almost immediately demotes Beth into little more of a supporting role.
This causes Beth, in the hell hath no fury department, to go out and try to ruin the life of the new coach as best as she can in the most punitive way possible – even if it costs her her friendships – and it’s not long before the coach (and Addy, who becomes very enamoured of this coach) are implicated in a murder plot. While the murder mystery and solving the whodunit makes up a large portion of Dare Me, it is probably the least satisfying angle of the book. Where the book works remarkably well is probing female power dynamics and the bonds of girlhood friendships, if not understanding modern womanhood in general. At one point, Addy, our narrator, remarks:
For much of the school year, the rest of the student body views us as something like lacquered lollipops, tiara-ed princesses, spirit whores, chiclet-toothed bronze bitches. But we never care because we know what we are. And at Homecoming, we are given full rein. At the pep rally, they see our swagger, our balls, our badassery. They get to see what we can do, how our bodies are not paper dolls and how our tans are our armor. How we defy everything, including the remorseless sugar maple floor planks nailed a half century ago, 10 feet below, our bodies tilting, curving, arcing, whipping through the air, fearless.
Naturally, feminists will have much to chew on with Dare Me, which additionally details the preparation, mental and physical, for a big rally at a game where cheerleading scouts are to show up, and have the potential to promote these girls to the next level. As the coach notes of this final, important rally, “After all this, I want you to be able to speak proudly, to strip your sleeves and show your scars, and talk about what you did tonight.” This is interesting, for I recall sitting in a film studies class in university, and, in talking about a pivotal scene in Jaws, where the characters show their scars of tussles with sharks as a means of showing their vulnerability, it appears that what Dare Me is doing is doing the actual inverse. Scars are a weapon here, not some kind of adornment or decorative beauty mark. It’s a bonding symbol of sisterhood, and the punishment these girls take is ritualized.
So there’s a lot of really interesting, meaty stuff going on in Dare Me, and it pains me to note that the plot is wafer-thin and the characters are so brazenly male-like that they veer almost into caricature. This book is set over the course of a few months of high school, but the kind of interaction these characters have – such as how Addy seemingly bonds with her coach – would have been much more believable had it progressed over a number of years. And, as such, the revenge that Beth takes over her demotion on the cheer squad becomes almost a laughable parody, although the obliviousness of the lives she sets out to ruin is conversely a very believable aspect.
That all said, Dare Me is still engaging for offering a role reversal in gender relations. Men are the objects of desire here, even if they are largely portrayed as goofs or, worse yet, rapists, potential or otherwise. In Dare Me, female sexuality is as dangerous as it is in a noir film: “As for RiRi,” one character notes of a colleague, “her cheer skirt tugged heavenward, waistband high enough to show what her mama gave her.” Such women are, as the novel quotes, “dangerous”, namely for what they can arouse in men. And while 10,000 Maniacs have a famous song about the dangers of young pregnancy (“Eat for Two”) with a line that goes, “Pride is for men, young girls should run and hide instead”, the inverse appears to be happening in this novel: “The more we try, the less interested he [a particular male character central to the plot] seems. Most days, he seems to be some other place entirely, some place in which girls like us have no place at all.” And then, more to the point, one of the young female characters is described thusly: “[she] isn’t like a girl at all. The squall in her, you can’t ever peer through all that, can you?”
Dare is also a portrait of a subset of young girls who work hard and party harder: their lives are full of drunken underage debauchery that nobody in the adult world blinks an eyelash at. “This hot, sloshing feeling low in me, I’ve known it before, at house parties, at bonfires on the ridge with clanking kegs and plastic cups, and every boy becomes the prettiest I ever saw.”
Naturally, the new coach attempts to purify the bodies of these young girls, but eventually falls prey to the wayward nature of such vice herself, as her home eventually becomes the host of such parties. This is the natural chink in the armor of these women, though the book only really uses this as a means of setting up various plot devices and not really exploring in depth the price these women pay for abusing their bodies on the gym floor to the point where they would want to medicate themselves.
Still, Dare Me is a fascinating book despite its warts, as it shows the changes that are happening to young women at this point in time: a heady zone where they might feel that they have to act like men in order to obtain any sort of power in their relationships. At one point, one character says, “It’s hard being a girl.” Dare Me is ultimately the proof of that, and that’s what makes it so appealing. As the book wryly notes, “God, it must be terrible not to be on cheer. How would you know what to do?” For that, Dare Me is bold and navigates what it means to be a young woman in today’s society, and how confusing and tumultuous that position really must be.