Megan Abbott's Mean Girls

Megan Abbott examines the cult of the American cheerleader in her new novel

Girl power is an understatement when summarising Megan Abbott’s new novel Dare Me. “Marines”, or even “warriors”, is how Abbott herself describes the girls in her book—which isn’t how one would usually describe cheerleaders; less sugar, spice and all things nice - more blood, sweat and tearing each other's hair out.

Dare Me follows a group of high-school cheerleaders. Under their sparkly eyeshadow and lacquered ponytails they are hiding hormonal turmoil that can only be expressed through physical exertion. “When I was a teenager,” Abbott says, “cheerleading was very much mostly dancing and shaking pompoms. It really wasn’t sport. But in the past 20 years or so it’s become a really dangerous competitive sport, and the girls who do it are really into the risk-taking element. It started to fascinate me what might be driving that.”
Addy is the 16-year-old heroine who has lived in her best friend Beth’s shadow for her whole life. Beth is the cheerleading captain and Queen Bee of the school, able to wrap girls, boys and teachers around her little finger. But then the cheerleading squad gets a new, young, glamorous coach, and when a man connected to the school is killed, their adolescent web becomes even more tangled. 
Abbott says cheerleaders are the “icon” of all-American girliness. “They’re perfect looking and really just designed to please men, to please everybody, to be a kind of accessory to male achievement.” Was Abbott a cheerleader? “No, I thought they were silly I guess. I had this idea that they were very vacant people, and it’s interesting . . .  in writing Dare Me, I started to see that as a mask that they might wear to protect themselves.
“I think that anyone who was a teenage girl can probably identify with those feelings. I think there’s something really essential to teenage girls about those feelings, so cheerleading enables me to do an extreme version of that, a really hyped version. I must admit I was fascinated by the girls who actually do it and their rigour and their intensity.” Abbott took inspiration from Lord of the Flies and Richard III for Dare Me. “One of my first readers said [it] is more like Fight Club for girls,” she adds. 
Addy, Beth and their comrades see cheerleading as a craft; a specially honed set of skills that pushes them to their physical limits. The emotional repercussions of being an all-American girl with a glued-on smile come outside the gym. Addy frequently holds back the hair of a bulimic cheerleader who was told to lose more weight by the coach; they surf “thinspiration” websites in the library for tips on how to starve themselves, and have the dependable yet fragile friendships typical of teenage girls. 
“I feel that we’ve all either been one of those girls, or been a friend of one of those girls, and I do think there’s something so unique about female friendship at that age; the intensity of it . . . and the cruelty of it as well; somebody’s always on their way out, and there’s always the power struggle that becomes really pressing when you have this added thing of competition. And the coach is so glamorous, and I think we’ve all been in that position with someone you’re sort of idolising, who is a little older than you, who you wish you could be, and how complicated that can become—the power of that person.”
One thing that Abbott found fascinating when researching the book was the battle scars real American cheerleaders boast to prove how far they go for their sport. “I did a lot of internet research, a lot of going into message boards and Facebook and seeing the way they talk to each other, which was really illuminating, because they would be talking about their costumes, the way they were doing their hair, and at the same time they would also post pictures of their wounds from ‘cheer’. They would be really proud of them. I couldn’t believe it—it was fascinating.
“There was this one that kind of propelled the book; [a picture] of this girl’s shoulder, it looked like she had been branded, and then I realised that it was a shoe tread . . . someone had stood on her shoulder so hard in a pyramid [manouevre] that it had left this tread mark on her shoulder. And the girl was so proud of it; everybody was thrilled when she posted it.”
Abbott had huge success with her last novel, The End of Everything: “I was thrilled. You never really know, it’s always a roll of the dice. But it’s a dark book and I think people like dark books. The End of Everything is a lot about teenage girl desire; Dare Me is about teenage girl aggression.”
Dare Me is out now, published by Picador. Read our review here and in the latest issue of We Love This Book