Dare Me: Lust, Lies, and Lesbian Love in a Cheer Squad

As they announced the TV adaptation of Dare Me, my heart skipped a beat. Several summers ago, I devoured Megan Abbott’s novel about a dysfunctional cheer squad and their fierce, unfulfilled young coach in the space of a day. But the story has always stayed with me. Dare Me is one of my favorite books – partly for the sensational storytelling, and partly because of the lesbian romance at the novel’s heart. Would they – I wondered – have the courage to explore the relationship between Beth, who rules the squad with an iron fist, and Addy, her bad lieutenant?

Let’s face it, we’re all familiar with the pain of having the lesbian love written out of our favorite stories to make them more ‘family friendly’ on screen. From The Color Purple to Fried Green Tomatoes, we’ve all seen it happen. Even modern blockbusters like Black Panther are guilty of straightwashing; the love between Ayo and Okoye was not only erased, but Okoye was given a male love interest in the film. Still, I have some good news for potential views: Dare Me delivered!

The intensity of Beth’s relationship with Addy is never downplayed; it’s center stage, at the heart of the story, right where it belongs. The two are so familiar they know each other’s tampon preferences, sleep spooned together in a bed, communicate almost by telepathy as they take down rivals keen to usurp Beth as top girl. A sexy ballad plays, sensual and caressing, as Addy and Beth massage one another after a hard day’s practice. They slow dance together, in public, at a party. There’s even a glorious kiss in the rain – a romance sealed and symbolized by the hamsa bracelet Beth slips onto Addy’s wrist.

The drama in Dare Me kicks off because Addy gives that bracelet, along with the love and loyalty it represents, to someone else: Coach Colette French. As Addy tells us in the opening scene, “there’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.” Addy keeps her coach’s darkest secrets. Colette takes advantage of Addy’s allegiance, using it to cover up her affair with military recruiter Sarge Will. And Beth is intensely jealous.

The dysfunction of small town life coupled with the desperation of a recession have turned Sutton Grove into a powder keg. And sparks fly as the hungry, ambitious young women of the cheer squad take the first steps towards greatness, led by Coach French.

What makes Dare Me exciting is the flipped gender script. Big shot Bert Cassidy headhunted Colette, desperate to secure the perfect coach to whip the squad into shape. The role he offered her husband Matt in developing the stadium was an afterthought, his shiny corporate job a way of drawing Colette to the sleepy little town. Sure enough, Matt French spends most of the series being called ‘Mr Coach’ – when anybody notices him at all. And it’s the girls on the cheer squad, not the boys of the football team, who are Sutton Grove’s great hope.

Dare Me shines because of its relentless focus on young women’s inner-lives. It tells the story of hungry, ambitious girls; the complex network of trust and betrayal that thrums between them. Cheer is never treated dismissively – the power of these athletes is celebrated in montage after montage. And the drama between the girls is never reduced to mere bitchiness, but accorded the dignity of Achilles battling Hector. This approach allows for some subtly radical storytelling.

Dare Me contains references to sexual violence. For all its brashness, the series deals very sensitively with the aftermath of a rape. The assault itself is not shown. Our first clue that something is amiss comes when Beth goes missing at a party. She’s found passed out in the back seat of a car, bare legs hanging out of the open door. With her usual forensic precision, Beth photographs the savage bite marks on her lips and tongue, the bruising on her neck and thighs. But the buzzing in Beth’s ears, the flashbacks, and the panic attacks make it painfully clear that the attack has taken a toll on her.

In a series that thrives on moral grey areas, it is refreshing to see a rapist held to account – made to acknowledge what he did to his victim, forced to help her or face the law. Though Beth suffered something terrible, the writers never strip Beth of the power that defines her – the driving force that makes her Cap’n Beth. Although Dare Me isn’t primarily about sexual violence, is not an explicitly feminist show, it’s encouraging to see mainstream television step away from using rape as a way of punishing or diminishing strong female characters.

Dare Me airs on USA and is now streaming on Hulu in the US and Netflix in the UK.