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.
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.