The inner life of a teenage girl is a feral thing: slippery, wild, inscrutable, and deep as a crater. In her novels, Megan Abbott translates that mystery onto the page through a filter of noir suspense. And now, in the USA series Dare Me, she brings female adolescence to the screen in all its pulsing, glittering glory. As one of the characters explains in voiceover early on, “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls."
There is a murder mystery at the heart of Dare Me, but the real suspense comes from watching the characters interact. In a struggling Midwestern town, Beth (Marlo Kelly) and her best friend Addy (Herizen Guardiola) rule a competitive cheerleading squad that has long outshined the high school's football team. But when Colette (Willa Fitzgerald), the new cheer coach, is brought in, she topples the fragile hierarchy — with deadly results.
Refinery29: Dare Me is adapted from from your crime novel of the same name — so many of your books are about teenage girls. Why do you think you return to that subject in books, film, and TV?
Megan Abbott: "I think we're all in some ways haunted by our adolescence. It is sort of that moment, especially for women, when you really decide who you are and what you want and what you don't want. Teenage girls are just on the cusp of adulthood and they crave experience, but might not always be quite ready for it when it comes. And it just is such a precipice age and just so ripe for drama. And I think as a culture, we so mistreated the subject and are so diminishing of young women. There’s a stereotype of these selfie-taking, vapid girls we see so much in media and in film and TV, but we know it’s obviously not true. Adolescence is a time of roaring complexity for young women. It's endlessly fascinating. I would really only write about teenage girls."
Visually the show is so stunning. The girls are shot covered in glitter but it looks like war paint. What was behind that aesthetic choice?
"Well, the 'war paint' thing comes straight from the book. And my novels are so influenced by movies. So I do think when I’m writing, I’m also creating a visual image. But it really was so much a part of a pilot director, Steph Green, who really established the look, and our director of photography on the pilot, Zoe White, who does handmade palettes. And together with Gina Fattore, my co-showrunner, we really had all these visual ideas that we wanted to use to tell a story that is very internal. We really wanted to find a way to convey these inner feelings through visuals because you're not always really able to articulate those feelings at that age.
"So we wanted to go with a slightly elevated style to reflect how it feels to be a teenage girl, where the colors are even brighter and the world is more intoxicating and mysterious. All of that was part of the very first discussion, even when we were pitching the show. we really wanted this to be, you know, Virgin Suicides-esque: that kind of dreaming, moody, murky, dark. We had this amazing production designer, Michael Bricker, who also did Russian Doll. And he had this great idea that the girls would be the one pop of color in this sort of gray, muddy-looking, weary city. And so it was this great collaborative effort to try to bring this interior life of teenage girls to a visual form."
What were some of the differences in adapting the book you wrote in 2012 for a show in 2020?
"Things like social media and texting were obviously a big part already in 2012 but now, you know, really it's a big tidal shift in terms of the way communication works. But I also think these are the realities of being a young woman. I think that these mechanisms for communication may change, but all those core feelings of those really intense female friendships at that age, that can often have all these erotic and romantic shadings — that never changes. I had to explain that to people a lot less in 2018 when we were selling the pilot than I did in 2012, when I felt like I was always explaining to some, like, executives who didn't understand that these friendships could be so full of what seemed, from the outside, to be contradictory feelings.
"I would have to explain about words being this armor but that the love is always there. And, that relationships will really form the basis of every relationship to come thereafter for young women. So I do think something exciting about this moment is that we no longer have to be, like, subterranean about these complex feelings. It’s all right there, much more openly on the surface. And I do think in this moment of extreme anxiety, I think there's much less stigma about that too. So I think there is more of this open-heartedness and vulnerability for millennial and younger women and that's very encouraging. We don't have to silo off all of these feelings and pretend these things never happened anymore, which is great."
Can you tell us a bit about your cultural inspirations?
"I'm very influenced by classic Hollywood and film noir and especially the sense of the 'fallen' women who embody all of these cultural contradictions and sort of the messiness of being a woman. It’s just sort of a guiding fascination and everything I've worked on is reflected in it, even my social media. I'm actively interested in the way that this notion of femininity as a masquerade and the masks women wear and the things we have to hide about ourselves — any forbidden feelings of progression and ambition and competition we have and somehow we still have to find a way to make it nice. I think that's why cheerleaders always fascinated me as an image, because they're doing this brutal, extremely dangerous sport, but they have to wear this smile. It’s just endlessly fascinating. That was something that we talked about so much on the show, but it's something that really I think is in the DNA of everything that I write."