Attraction to bad guys, written properly

Few tropes anger me like “Woman Of Allegedly Sound Mind Falls For Murderous Thug, Knowing He Is Murderous Thug.” It bothers me because, as far as I can tell from my experience, the experiences of people I’ve known, and basic logic, a person’s survival drive always takes precedence over her sex drive. No matter how attractive someone may be in some ways, once she knows he is a murderous thug who won’t hesitate to, for example, knock her frail father halfway across a room when he’s irritable, the correctly wired brain crowds out thoughts of sex with thoughts of survival. You cannot be telling me your leading lady is savvy and sensible and not sociopathic herself, then have her swoon at someone who, just for an example, leaves his own unwanted baby to die in the forest in episode four. I mean, c’mon.

51D8G0XB4XL._SL500_AA240_But there is a proper way to write a savvy, sensible woman falling for an abusive thug. Young Riders does it in the season one episode, “Lady for a Night.”

Louise McCloud is a Pony Express Rider who’s passing herself off as a boy to keep the job. The other riders at her station and Emma (their female caretaker) know she’s a girl and respect her abilities, but no one else in the outfit does. One day she finds herself spending the night at another Express bunkhouse with a bunch of strange men. She decides to ride into town, buy herself a dress and take a hotel room instead. It’s rare she gets to dress or behave like a girl, and she’s really enjoying this treat.

Then a charming man asks her to dinner. He’s very smooth, and things seem to be going well. At the end of the evening, she rejects his request to see her again on the basis that she’ll be leaving town in the morning, and he reacts strongly, even grabbing her and kissing her forcefully. Is it passion, or something she should be worried about?

We know he’s abusive because we saw earlier that he beat the crap out of a prostitute at a brothel, and had to pay the brothel proprietor extra for that, um, service. But Lou doesn’t know this, and even so, she’s wondering if the way this is all making her feel is the way it’s supposed to feel.

The man ends up traveling to Sweetwater, where Lou lives, and she again tries to make him understand they simply can’t continue to date. He becomes a bit more aggressive, and she gets scared. She opens up to Emma, telling her what happened and that it kind of “scared” her how much he wanted her, and yet she remained intrigued. How was she supposed to tell if this was a potential relationship or a recipe for disaster?

Emma told Lou, in essence, that it was something every woman had to learn on her own through experience, and Lou decided to proceed with caution. In the end, the man turned out to be involved in some bank robberies and murders, and Lou took it upon herself to stop him. By the time he caught her (dressed as a boy), realized who she was and tied her to a tree, she had figured out something important. She gave him a bored look as he menaced her, and he demanded to know why she wasn’t afraid of him. She explained that it was because he thrived on fear, so she wasn’t going to give it to him. It was this delay, while he stood there frustrated as his inability to get what he most needed from a woman, that saved Lou’s life.

The reason this story works is that Lou is young and inexperienced in dating, and feeling her way through it on instinct. You may not like hearing it, but every human being, male or female, is vulnerable to abuse. You cannot guarantee you will never experience it because abusers look like everyone else, you know? Knowledge and experience can help you recognize abuse when you see it (not always as straightforward as it sounds), and a healthy sense of entitlement can help you make the right moves to get away from it before you’re ensnared in an abusive relationship (though even that’s not always enough). Lou is doing everything that a sensible but inexperienced young woman can do to avoid abuse, and the ultimate result speaks for itself.

Comments

  1. says

    I feel like a lot of TV writers ignore the most basic thing about abusers: that they don’t abuse everyone. That they have a public (charming) face to go with the private (abusive) face. They can even be charming to their victims, which is what leaves them confused and frequently unable to see what is transpiring as abuse.

    Instead we see female characters swooning (or refusing to leave) male “bad guys” without any rationale as to why they might be doing so. It’s lazy writing, IMHO.

  2. says

    Anemone, it really was good – better than I recalled on gender stuff, since I wasn’t watching specifically for that years ago – and I think I’ll be writing more articles about it.

    Biku said: “Instead we see female characters swooning (or refusing to leave) male “bad guys” without any rationale as to why they might be doing so. It’s lazy writing, IMHO.”

    Exactly. Going all unthinky in the presence of Mr. Scary is a really dangerous thing to do, not unlike lighting your hair on fire, so any viewer who comprehends the danger requires an explanation as to why the character would do this. If the script doesn’t provide one, the answer is “lazy writing,” but the implication about the character is clearly that the writers think she is insane or foolish. Because that’s what you’d think if you were shown someone lighting her own hair on fire, and given no explanation as to why she would do that.

  3. Nialla says

    I loved this show when it was on, and this was a fave episode.

    There was the predictable “will they won’t they” with Lou and Kid, but I really liked that the guys generally accepted she was a girl who could do the same job they did.

  4. Bailey Kier says

    I loved this show.It will be interesting to see it as an adult for its scripts of gender, sexuality, violence, and conquest. I’m especially interested to see if Lou’s boy-dom is assumed to “attract” violence through the “deception” narrative. My sister will also love the fact that this show is now on DVD. We’ll watch it during the holiday break. Thanks for the review.

    • Maria V. says

      Hi Bailey!!! :D

      I’d also be curious to see whether Lou’s “boyness” is seen as something she’s supposed to grow out of… I’ve never heard of the show but it sounds incredibly fun.

  5. sbg says

    1) I had no idea this show was out on DVD. W00t!

    2) It’s been 20 years? Really? Holy shit, I’m older than I feel is possible.

    3) Yes. Yes to all of this and to Lou for kicking ass just by being herself, and that the attraction wasn’t portrayed as an epic love we should all hope to achieve some day but as something as messed up as all get out.

    It bothers me because, as far as I can tell from my experience, the experiences of people I’ve known, and basic logic, a person’s survival drive always takes precedence over her sex drive. No matter how attractive someone may be in some ways, once she knows he is a murderous thug who won’t hesitate to, for example, knock her frail father halfway across a room when he’s irritable, the correctly wired brain crowds out thoughts of sex with thoughts of survival.

    One would think, but having been in a relationship with someone I am now convinced would have eventually abused me (actually, emotionally I think he already was), I will admit that it took me a much longer time to figure this out than it should have. I’m a very logical, straightforward person, but I stayed months even after a pretty horrible incident.

    I’m not sure what my point was, and I know that was TMI.

  6. says

    Only Season 1 is out on DVD, and MGM is likely never to release the rest.

    I’m especially interested to see if Lou’s boy-dom is assumed to “attract” violence through the “deception” narrative.

    I don’t think so – I definitely didn’t read season 1 that way. If I’m remembering the other two seasons correctly, the boy disguise actually protected Lou. She encountered impersonal violence now and then as part of the job, like all the riders. But this episode is the only one where I recall someone trying to harm her personally and specifically, and it would never have happened had she maintained the boy disguise.

    I’d also be curious to see whether Lou’s “boyness” is seen as something she’s supposed to grow out of…

    In S1, Lou is passing as a boy because the Pony Express is only open to boys, and this job pays better than any job open to a young woman. It’s not that she’s rejecting all the trappings of femininity – she quite likes many of those “trappings.” She’s just rejecting her earning opportunities being limited by her gender rather than her abilities.

    I will admit that it took me a much longer time to figure this out than it should have. I’m a very logical, straightforward person, but I stayed months even after a pretty horrible incident.

    In the cases of Lou and Marion, they got indications of the abusive personality before any relationship had really begun, which is a little different. I’m gathering from your remarks that you were already in the relationship before the “horrible incident”, and that’s what I was talking about in the last paragraph, albeit not in enough detail to be clear: when abusers are competent at disguising abuse as mistakes, misunderstandings or your fault, and you live in a culture that says we must work on relationships and compromise more and be forgiving, it’s not as hard to get confused as people think.

  7. Robin says

    Although I haven’t seen the show since it was first broadcast, I do kind of remember this episode. I also remember my grade-school self having a deep and abiding admiration for Lou (and a crush on Stephen Baldwin before he went crazy). I loved that she could do the job as well as the boys and still got to dress up in frilly things every now and then. ‘Cause, well, that’s kind of who I was at that age.

  8. sbg says

    In the cases of Lou and Marion, they got indications of the abusive personality before any relationship had really begun, which is a little different. I’m gathering from your remarks that you were already in the relationship before the “horrible incident”, and that’s what I was talking about in the last paragraph, albeit not in enough detail to be clear: when abusers are competent at disguising abuse as mistakes, misunderstandings or your fault, and you live in a culture that says we must work on relationships and compromise more and be forgiving, it’s not as hard to get confused as people think.

    Okay, that I can totally support. I didn’t quite get that from the initial reading. The regular jerks you don’t have to worry about – they’re obvious. It’s the closet jerks that you don’t ever want to date.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.