Hello, everyone! I binge-watched Netflix’s new show Dare Me this week, and I think I’ve found my new favorite type of television drama: the ones that take the emotions of teenage girls seriously. Yes, I know it’s a tall-order to write tv shows about teenage girls without making them into narcissistic boy-crazed sex kittens, but Dare Me is proof that it can be done, and done well. From the show’s beautifully morbid aesthetic, to the terrific acting, to the nuanced exploration of bisexuality, Dare Me brings the teen drama into the 21st century.
Quick synopsis: Based on Megan Abbott’s novel of the same name, Dare Me follows the story of cheerleaders Addy and Beth, whose close friendship starts to fray when their new coach Collette French takes over the squad. Collette is beautiful and confident, and Addy quickly grows enamored with her. While Addy falls deeper under the mysterious Collette’s spell, sharp-tongued Beth struggles to keep Addy close, but her efforts to keep Addy under her control only push her away. When a sudden death occurs, their relationship faces the ultimate test, as jealousy, obsession, and secrecy threaten to tear them apart.
My thoughts: Watching Dare Me was an emotional experience. The show is adept at highlighting the subtle undercurrents of jealousy, control, and tension that simmer beneath the surface of teenage friendships. “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls,” declares Addy during the opening scene of the first episode. Beneath her voice, a slick, almost neo-noir montage plays: a car driving silently in the night, cheerleaders flipping sinuously though the air in slow-mo, glitter washing down the drain of a locker-room shower. Cheerleading may be seen as silly by some, but in Dare Me, it’s a brutal act of death-defying athletics. As we watch the girls sprinting up bleachers, balancing in impossible poses, and doing rigorous conditioning, we become spectators to the inner-workings of a sport that requires just as much dedication as traditional male sports, but receives none of that same respect. Fittingly, the first emotion I felt watching Dare Me was awe. The show wants to impress you with the jaw-dropping athleticism of its main characters. But the second emotion I felt, then and thereafter, was anxiety. Because Dare Me is not about cheerleading, not really. It’s about the intensity of the emotions of teenage girls, and how the pressurized atmosphere of competitive sports can push those girls over the edge.
Nothing in Dare Me is as it seems. First, we have the show itself: gorgeous cinematography, with a color palette of deep purples, pinks, and silvers accented with glittery sparkles and neon lights. Contrasting that, however, is the shocking instances of gore. In one scene, jet-black blood pools around broken teeth. In another, a character photographs vicious bite-marks on her tongue and neck. Then there’s the violence lurking at the corner of every frame of the cheerleading sequences, as the viewer watches each gravity-defying stunt with more and more anxiety. With a sport as risky as cheerleading, accidents are routine, but Dare Me views the violence as something inherent to cheerleading, almost as if by engaging in the sport, the girls are sacrificing their bodies for perfection. Especially unique is the fact that these girls are not sexualized for being cheerleaders. In male-driven movies, cheerleaders are often portrayed as sexy window dressing, but in Dare Me, they are seen as athletes, and the camera focuses on their blood, sweat, and tears, rather than the skimpiness of their skirts.
The two characters who most embody the inherent contradictions of violent femininity are Collette and Beth. Collette is stunningly beautiful and perfect, with a handsome husband, nice house, and beautiful baby. Addy, desperate to leave Sutton Grove, sees Collette as some sort of savior. Yet Collette is no vapid Barbie, and her lack of boundaries with the girls, especially Addy, shows her behavior in a dark light. On the other side of the spectrum is Beth, whose caustic remarks and controlling behavior make her seem like the show’s villain. It’s only when we see deeper into her character, and the trauma that has forged her, that we realize her inner fragility. As two women fighting to control Addy, Collette and Beth are like two faces of the same coin. Rare is a show that digs deep into the predatory relationships between women, but Dare Me doesn’t shy away from any of it. As the relationships between the three women shift from friendly, to romantic, to sexual, to hostile, to violent, and back again, the show demonstrates the myriad complexities that govern female relationships.
The relationships in Dare Me are like none I’ve really seen before on television. Coach Collette walks the line between ice-queen and damsel in distress. Her ability to manipulate those around her is chilling, and her predatory, almost seductive relationship with her student Addy is a fascinating twist on the usual male teacher/female student relationship we see in pop culture. The characters’ sexuality is never explicitly stated in this show, but there is an electric current of romance running between Beth, Addy, and Collette. Does Dare Me prove that a modern television show no longer needs to speak specifically about sexuality at all? I think yes. Not once are the characters’ sexual preferences nor their lack of heterosexual love interests made an issue. In fact, men are more of an afterthought in this show than a main component. Although one male character in particular causes major plot events to occur, the show focuses almost entirely on the homosocial relationships between its female characters, which is still a rare occurrence in a television show.
Dare Me is only ten episodes long, and so far, no Season 2 has been announced. The complex relationships between the three women, as well as the murder mystery in the back half of the season, needed more narrative time than one season could give them, and I hope that its new home on Netflix will earn it a renewal. There are few shows that I think compare to this one in terms of subject material and narrative focus. The closest show I can think of is UnReal, which also focused on the complicated relationship between two competing women, and coincidentally, Dare Me’s showrunner Gina Fattore was a producer on that show, too. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s not a coincidence that two incredibly dark female-centric shows are made by the same person, as it seems like no one else in Hollywood is interested in making them. So if you like cheerleading, death, and shows that treat teenage girls like real people, Dare Me might be your new obsession.