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November 27, 2012 / Jake Seliger

Dare Me — Megan Abbott

There’s something compelling about Dare Me that shouldn’t be compelling: stripped of its narrative voice, Dare Me is about teenage cheerleaders and their coach, who may as well be a teenager, competing to be the neighborhood’s queen bee. It’s unfair to summarize a novel like this—Lord of the Ring could be reduced to, “Midget chucks ring into mountain; local vagrant crowned king”—but it’s also useful, because interesting novels usually have characters who are trying to learn something about the world and who have larger ambitions to do things that will have more than just local effects.

Addy narrates the novel in an insistent present-tense voice that offers a sense of immediacy. Her primary aspiration, however, is to maintain her status on the cheer squad, chiefly as the “lieutenant” of the captain, Beth, who is the chief bad girl and doer of drugs, men, and deeds that Addy might want to do but can’t bring herself to. Beth, however, is stripped of her captaincy by the new Coach, who demands more from the girls than their previous coach:

Back then, we could hardly care, our moves so sloppy and weak. We’d just streak ourselves with glitter and straddle jump and shake our asses to Kanye. Everybody loved us. They knew we were sexy beyotches. It was enough.

But part of life is the “it” not being enough: skills count, more than merely being admired. Plus, contrary to what Addy thinks, it’s unlikely that “Everybody loved us.” The cheerleaders in Dare Me love themselves much more than any outsiders could possibly love them. And the cheerleaders never quite ask if they should want to be anything more than “sexy beyotches.” They certainly have a strong sense of sexuality, although sexuality in the novel is primarily used to express dominance among the various girls (and their Coach), rather than as an end in itself. The novel’s prime source of antagonism is between Beth and the new Coach, whom Beth describes this way: “Colette French [. . . ] Sounds like a porn star, a classy one who won’t do anal.” Beth tells us more about herself than she does about Coach: that she thinks about porn stars, that she has a dirty yet moralistic streak at the same time.

Most of the girls do. They want what most of us want, but that doesn’t stop them from castigating others. None of them recognize their own hypocrisy, and they probably wouldn’t care if someone did point that hypocrisy out to them. At one moment, Addy says, “Beth and I made loud comments across the gym about how Brinnie’s slutty sister got caught making out with the assistant custodian until Brinnie ran off to the far showers to cry.”

Women really do slut-shame each other much more vigorously than men slut-shame women. Addy doesn’t notice that, however. She only notices how she can use what she perceives to be raw power: the “loud comments” and the derogatory adjective, “slutty,” forming without much thought about what’s underneath her ideas. Despite what the two say about Brinnie’s sister, Addy also reports that “In eighth grade, no, summer after, at a beer party, Beth put her scornful little-girl mouth on Ben Trammel, you know where. I remember the sight.” Why is Beth’s mouth scornful? We don’t find out. But she says a moment later that “We don’t judge,” when the page prior Beth and Addy were judging Brinnie’s sister.

Dare Me, however, isn’t about consistency. It’s about inconsistency, expressed through power and dominance. Beth versus Coach, but sexuality is the weapon—not fists. The girls use it against each other, although I won’t describe how here. The only character who apparently isn’t competing is Addy. She doesn’t really get much in the novel, and she gives a weak excuse about why: “There’s not a lot to interest me at Sutton Grove High.” That’s another way of saying that being alone and being the cheer squad’s resident observer is more valuable to her than the experience of a “real” relationship. About Jordy, a boy at the school, the best Addy can summon is that “He looks like he’s thinking things [. . .] Like maybe he actually thinks about things.” Does that mean Addy and her friends don’t? And, if so, perhaps we again shouldn’t be reading about them. She does get with him, after a fashion, and his giving in disappoints Addy: “His wanting, so easily won—well, it bores me.” Everything does. The boredom she feels at his being “so easily won” is how guys end up affecting cruel uninterest in order to win women. But that’s another thing Addy doesn’t know. Her lack of sophistication is realistic but grating; there are answers to the questions she doesn’t know to ask.

She does know, however, that a military recruiter is aloof and thus desirable. He has a nickname that denotes his position: “Sarge, though, is above all this. All the girls are hurling themselves at him, but he never blinks, not once. He smiles, but his smile doesn’t really seem like a smile but the kind of thing you do with your mouth when you know everyone is watching.” He’s smiling that way because he has to, and he knows that the penalties for indulging in “the girls” who “are hurling themselves at him” is probably worse than the pleasure that he might gain from indulging them. There’s also a link between the two: by apparently standing above the girls making offers, he’s making himself more alluring. He contrasts with the “easily won” Jordy. The harder the prize, the sweeter the accomplishment, at least in Addy’s eyes, and hence the challenge of being a better cheerleader is the challenge of doing harder stunts, of doing more than “shak[ing] our asses to Kanye.”

The physicality of motion counts for a lot, and so does the wanting eyes Addy imagines her body inspiring. Addy thinks, “This is my body, and I can make it do things. I can make it spin, flip, fly.” She can also make it the object of male adoration, which, regardless of what else cheerleading might do, does that first. Addy also doesn’t perceive the way the boredom of her own life is partially of her own making, as when she says

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something—anything—to begin.
‘There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.’

This is given like a law of the universe, an ahistorical fact that must be true of all times and places, like respiration. It isn’t. For all I know, in many hunter-gatherer tribes fourteen year olds were often mothers, or members of adult societies: their life had already begun. Addy is really commenting on contemporary Western society, even if she doesn’t have the language to realize it.

Has she read Paul Graham? Boredom is endemic to the high school experience. But boredom itself is dangerous to the mind, because it’s a waste of the planet’s most valuable resource: minds. I don’t need to rely on vague assertions like “There’s something dangerous;” I know what’s dangerous, in part because I was reading enough at the time to eventually learn how to use words to express complex ideas. Addy hasn’t gotten there yet.

That should make her an uncompelling narrator, but she isn’t. She’s naive in some ways, which shouldn’t be a surprise given her age, but she also observes the bad-girl behavior around her, and that bad-girl behavior is underappreciated in much of the larger society. Addy can also see what boys see, at times, as when she describes her teammate: “Emily whose balloony breasts and hip-cascades are the joy of all the boys, their ga-ga throats stretched to follow her gait, to stretch around corridor corners just to see that cheer skirt dance.” Addy’s awareness is a form of power, but it’s a limited form of power, and it’s counteracted by the limits that she accepts. The “endless itchy waiting” is imposed in part because we, collectively, don’t want to believe in the bad girl and want to see fourteen to eighteen year olds of both sexes as children, even when they’re clearly not. So we, collectively, take their autonomy away and are surprised when they’re unhappy. To return to Graham, in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.

Addy doesn’t even bother with the “memorizing meaningless facts,” but she does accept high school as “the most natural thing in the world.” In her own way, she’s a misfit by believing in “this surreal cocktail,” and believing that the world of cheer is the only one that counts.

The only real hope of the society is that the “teenage girls” who Addy represents don’t realize the power of their bodies over men. Addy realizes it. Beth does too. They find cheer to be ridiculously helpful: Addy says that “It made things matter. It put a spine into my spineless life and that spine spread, into backbone, ribs, collarbone, neck held high.” If cheer is enough to make things matter, she must have a dull life—but she’s already established that she does.

She says that “Coach gave it all to us.” Meaning, in other words. And that “She was the one who showed me all the dark wonders of life, the real life, the life I’d only seen flickering from the corner of my eye.” But whose fault is it that Addy hasn’t seen “real life” before? And what is this “real life” that Addy keeps mentioning? It sounds like something she herself has constructed.

The questioning of what is “real,” however, reappears again and again in the novel. Addy says, “Could [Coach] see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made?” Addy’s repeated use of “real” makes her seem convinced of her own unreality (“By Saturday practice [. . .] we’re already—some of us—starting to look forward to that pain, which feels like something real”). If it takes pain to be “real,” something in your life might be amiss. When the girls learn to do a pyramid, Addy says that “the momentum makes you realize that you are part of something. Something real.” Was she not part of something before? Does she have any theory or coherence beyond her theory of reality? She doesn’t, not really, and it takes death and rivalry to make something real.

Addy could say no to cheer and yes to Python, or sculpture, or the guitar, buts he doesn’t. She isn’t really interested in being real, in doing the things that other people might value. The only real value she, and Beth, offer to the world is sexuality, but they don’t even ask, really ask, what their sexuality means. At one point Beth says that “I’m not even interested in our lives.” This, however, raises an important point: Why should readers be? Addy as a narrator is one answer. The fact that she constructs a story out of something other than who gets to take the most popular boy to Prom is another. Her moments of inchoate realization is a third:

We’re all the same under our skin, aren’t we? We’re all wanting things we don’t understand. Things we can’t even name. The yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.

She should learn the names, and the things that most people most desire are obvious, money, sex, and social status, in some tangled, interdependent triangle. For a smaller but still significant number of people, intellectual curiosity is as or more important as those first three. Those things can be understood, especially by people who want to understand them. Addy doesn’t, or doesn’t have the intellectual context she needs to understand them. As someone very happy to be out of high school, I see a lot of the things that Addy doesn’t, though she should: she’s narrating the story from an unnamed future point, even as she drops into the present tense.

One problem with Addy or her narration is that we don’t know what any of these characters are like, other than mean and, in a petty, squabbling fashion, stupid. But Addy’s voice carries the novel, along with her fascination with Beth, which in Addy’s view is like staring at a serpent: fascinating, even as you hope it doesn’t bite. What do Addy and Beth do when they’re not cheerleading? What is Beth’s favorite color? If she had to answer the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up,” what might she say? Is the prospect of college or a technical school anything more than a distant glimmer in their eyes, along with a source of older boys?

To the extent Beth and Addy have character beyond their sexuality and social status, we don’t see it. If the slice of character we see is their primary character, then they’re not very nice people, and, perhaps worse, they’re not very interesting people. Beth is willing to violate taboo by sleeping with older men, which speaks well of her low opinion of convention, but is she willing to extend taboo violation to, say, playing the corporate game as hard as the cheer game, or cutting across gender stereotype to build web apps for bad girls? The interesting thing is not just her as a bad girl, but what she can do with being a bad girl.

Perhaps that kind of question is for the sequel. Dare Me deals in a surprisingly plausible murder plot, with Addy and the reader the last to know what all the other characters seem to. The frustrations of Addy and Beth as characters doesn’t prevent the book from being compelling, in part because the girls’ blindness to anything important seems characteristic of their age, time, and generation. That should be scary.

Coach’s husband, Matt French

There are men in the novel: the aforementioned Sarge, is one. The other major male character, Matt French, is Coach’s husband. He misallocates resources. Coach says, “Oh, you know him, he’s working. He never, ever stops.” On the next page: “He is always on his cell phone and he always looks tired.” Addy says, “He works very hard, and he’s not interesting at all.” This misallocation of time and energy leads his wife to seek sexual solace elsewhere, as it so often does, and Matt apparently doesn’t realize that she, like most women, need tending. If he won’t keep the garden, someone else will.

Predictably, someone else does. When the girls catch Coach in the act with another man, she explains that “what [. . .] I have is a real thing [. . .] A true thing.” By that standard, what she has with Matt must not be a true thing. It must not count. She excuses herself by saying, “I never thought I’d feel like this,” as if the invocation of feelings trumps any and every other consideration. The girls don’t challenge her. They probably believe the same thing.

But the affair is a commentary on Matt’s folly. He should cut work and increase sex. We never learn why he doesn’t, or anything about his job. He’s a pathetic ghost of a man who enables the fake world of high school, which his wife joins. Addy and Beth show little interest in him, while they show a lot of interest in Will. The only exception comes at a moment when Addy tries to imagine what Matt is like:

Poor Matt [French], in some airport or office tower in Georgia, some conference room someplace where men like Matt French go to do whatever it is they do, which is not interesting to any of us, but maybe it would be if we knew. Though I doubt it.

Except sometimes I think of him, and the soulful clutter in his eyes, which is not like Will’s eyes because Will’s eyes always seemed about Will. And Matt French’s seem only about Coach.

That he is only about Coach, and not about anything else, makes him seem weak and replaceable to her; still, Addy’s analysis appears to be wrong because Matt is really about work, at least as measured by time spent doing an activity. We don’t get enough information about Matt French’s thought process to understand why he ignores his wife in favor of constant work that appears to weaken, not strengthen, his relationship, and leave his wife bored and frustrated. It should be obvious to anyone who has observed the people around them or been in serious relationships that bored, sexually frustrated people will find ways to get their needs met.

To return to the point I raised in the first paragraph, the problem with realistic but limited perspective Beth, Addy, and Coach have is with the scope of their vision and concerns. Adam Gopnik’s essay “The Unreal Thing” encapsulates some of their problems:

In a long article on the first “Matrix” film, the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it. “If your ambitions in the Matrix are relatively small-scale, like opening a restaurant or becoming a famous actor, then you may very well be able to achieve them,” Pryor says. “But if your ambitions are larger—e.g., introducing some long-term social change—then whatever progress you make toward that goal will be wiped out when the simulation gets reset. . . . One thing we place a lot of value on is being in charge of our own lives, not being someone else’s slave or plaything. We want to be politically free.”

For Beth, Addy, and Coach, political freedom isn’t important. Competing with each other is the only important thing. Their ambitions are so “small-scale” that they don’t matter. Their achievements will be “wiped out” when they leave high school, which is its own Matrix-like simulation, and the smarter, more aware residents know it. So do adults who remember what high school was like: Paul Graham says in “Lies We Tell Kids:”

By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he uses The Matrix as an analogue for high school. Both high school and The Matrix put a natural cap on ambition, which the better high school students will challenge. Beth, Addy, and Coach don’t challenge that system; Addy even thinks that it’s the only thing that matters: “God it must be terrible not to be on cheer. How would you know what to do?” You wouldn’t know what to do, but pretty much anything you do in lieu of cheer, aside from watching T.V., vegging out, or playing on Facebook is likely to be more substantive than cheer. But Addy is so firmly plugged in that she doesn’t recognize her “fake world,” to use Graham’s term, and maybe she can’t. Maybe, if she were a different sort of person, someone would point it out to her, like the teacher in The Perks of Being a Wallflower implicitly does. Cheer for Addy is a kind of Matrix-within-a-Matrix, a way of further shrinking her social and competitive world. Addy wants to give up the kind of political freedom Gopnik and Pryor are describing. Abrogating freedom makes her seem like a fool, or a slave to the conformity imposed most obviously by Beth; perhaps this is why Addy wants to be Beth’s lieutenant, and why she doesn’t aspire to be the top girl.

Not wanting to be the top girl makes sense. But wanting to be in a social milieu where all that matters is being the top girl makes less sense; it’s like aspiring to slavery, or perpetually wearing glasses with a red tint, such that you can’t experience the full richness of the world. Addy doesn’t realize that she’s wearing those glasses, and that, finally, makes her seem sad. She’s missing so much, and she doesn’t even realize it.

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