Character Study: Lou from ‘Young Riders’

Twenty-one years after her debut, Louise McCloud – better known as “Lou” – from Young Riders remains one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. Note I didn’t say “female fictional characters.” Characterization on Young Riders was above average at the worst of times, so naturally Lou just plain rocked.

The basics: Lou passes herself off as a boy and becomes a rider for the Pony Express. The first member of the group to figure out her secret is another rider called Kid. Then the other boys figure it out. Emma, the woman whose bunkhouse they live in, knows from the beginning. Teaspoon, the man in charge of the riders at this way station, is the last to figure it out – in a very memorable swimming hole scene at the start of Season 2. Lou and Kid have an off-again on-again romantic relationship that’s actually well-written enough not to be annoying (I know, right??), and all of Lou’s relationships are interesting and thought-provoking, just like so many in real life. (I’ll be devoting a couple of articles to these later.)

From my above description, if you haven’t seen the show, you might think Lou’s a tomboy who wants to ride and shoot and maybe even run the country someday. When I was a kid, I really wanted that to be the case, because then Lou would’ve been the only girl (I say girl because she’s under eighteen throughout the show) on TV like me. But it’s not quite that simple. Re-watching the show now, I appreciate who Lou really was more than ever.

Lou isn’t the ambitious feminist gender-transgressor I originally wanted her to be. She likes bubble baths and dresses, and wants to marry and have kids even if it means surrendering some control over her life to her husband (as it usually did mean, in that time period). So why is she living my dream – riding, shooting, adventuring, bunking with six incredibly hot guys (okay, you knew that had to come up) and earning the same as her male colleagues? The answer’s completely pragmatic, and sad, and we learn bits and pieces of it gradually through the three seasons of the show.

Lou, her mother and her younger brother and sister were abandoned by Lou’s gun-running psychopath of a father before the younger siblings were old enough to remember him as he really was. When their mother dies, Lou promises she’ll look after her siblings. The three kids end up in an orphanage, and Lou is determined to get them out of there and into a real home of their own. She’s maybe thirteen or so when she leaves the orphanage to find work. She finally gets it – cleaning in a brothel.

At first, all we learn about this is that it didn’t pay as well as riding for The Express – not nearly enough for any hope of getting her siblings out of the orphanage – and if she could do the work of a man, Lou figured she was entitled to the better job even if she had to lie to get it. But there are hints of something more, perhaps even something not-quite-right, throughout the series. Finally, midway through the third season, we get the full story when a friend from that time period – one of the prostitutes from the brothel – arrives in town to start a dress shop: Lou was sexually assaulted by the man who ran the brothel.

Far from passing herself off as a boy so she could have more adventures in the usual tradition of Girls And Their Horses stories, Lou’s disguise is a matter of personal security. As a boy, not only can she earn a better wage, but she’s less likely to be sexually assaulted again. There’s no hint here of the Psychologically Damaged Girl Experiences Penis Envy trope; out of sheer pragmatism, Lou wants the protection and self-sustenance society affords boys in her race/class and not girls, and she goes about making it happen.

I said above that Lou wouldn’t mind surrendering some control to a husband to get the family life she’s been dreaming of. This isn’t a weakness. It’s a valid choice that’s usually made along gender lines and should instead be made according to personality types. But I can’t see Lou ever surrendering all her power to her husband (she and Kid marry at the very end of the series). She’s wielded considerable control over the relationship since the beginning, and there’s no indication the exchange of wedding vows will change that. It’s more about having someone to lean on – and being able to be publicly female once more without the social isolation that made her a target to her one-time employer.

Instead of a non-traditional feminist girl, Lou’s a traditional girl who’s been abandoned and betrayed by the men who were supposed to – according to tradition – protect and care for her. Lou never mentions suffrage or any other feminist issues of her time, yet she instinctively believes she should have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as men. Maybe it says even more about gender politics for a girl like her to embrace these ideas for their very practical value than for someone versed in feminism, which has always been defined by academics and handed down like the commandments to the rest of us whether it applied to our lives or not. Lou is just a girl dealing with a lot of crap in the smartest way she can figure out.

For those who haven’t seen the show, Lou’s personality is most simply described as “assertive.” She stands up for her opinions and makes it clear to people what she wants from them. She can be very caring and emotionally sensitive, especially with the other riders, but when someone knocks her out of doing something she wanted to do and had earned the right to do, she’s not a bit more forgiving than she should be. When no one’s crossing her, you can forget for long periods just how forceful she’s capable of being. But you always get reminded again sooner or later.


  1. Yatima says

    I was just thinking about her the other day. God, I loved her.

    My little kid is going through a princess phase and insists that princesses don’t fight. My big girl is into the Greek Gods (thank you, Percy Jackson!) My finest recent parenting moment was plunking them in front of Xena: Warrior Princess. It stands up surprisingly well.

  2. Brand Robins says


    This post made me remember that the first time I ever had a terrible, terrible crush on a fictional character it was with Lou.

  3. photondancer says

    You refer to the tradition of Girls and Their Horses having adventures (it’s not a genre I ever got into) but it seems to me that having your heroine act as she does because she was sexually assaulted has become a tradition, or at least a trope, too. Why can’t the writers just have given Lou the sense to see that becoming a boy offered her more freedom and security, without having that rammed down her throat? From what I’ve read, not a few girls in the past did figure that out and subsequently pass as boys/men and I doubt every one of them had been assaulted.

  4. says

    having your heroine act as she does because she was sexually assaulted has become a tradition, or at least a trope, too.

    I tried to make it clear that’s not what this is. Lou is being entirely pragmatic. She’s not passing as a boy because Her Dreadful Assault left her All Traumatized And Stuff, in the grand tradition of tropes which insist everything women do has to do with men. Lou has a psycho father to save her siblings from, she’s lost a mother… the assault may not even have been the biggest trauma she ever faced. I think she’s passing as a boy for many pragmatic reasons. The assault is not “the” reason, but it was hard to recount that part of her story without making it sound that way.

    Additionally, while I generally think as you do – “why does this character need rape in her background” – the fact is, 1 in 6 of us have it. Women and girls who’ve experienced assault have so few decent representations of assault in their pop culture (most representations of rape find a way to revolve around men, once again) that I can’t begrudge them Lou.

    It’s really not a big part of her character, just as in real life, rape doesn’t define its survivors because they are full human beings with a lot else going on.

    Mickey, sadly, MGM won’t release more than the first season. You, uh, have to get creative to see the second and third. /eye-roll

  5. photondancer says

    No, you didn’t present Lou as being traumatised etc., but there are days when it seems like every damn fictional woman who’s the least bit interesting, especially in historical fiction, has been sexually assaulted and it bugs me. Too often it comes across as a lazy way to ‘add character’. Lou already has enough reasons to become a pony rider without having to throw in rape too. Fictional males hardly ever get sodomised, or have I just not read/viewed enough?
    I take your point about the need to represent women who’ve been raped in pop culture.

  6. Brand Robins says

    “Fictional males hardly ever get sodomised, or have I just not read/viewed enough?”

    It does happen here and there, but almost never to protagonists. Sometimes to the friends of protagonists who have their lives ruined by it because you just can’t be a man anymore once that’s happened to you.

    Once upon a time I wrote a story for an anthology in which the main character (male) had been raped (by another male) in the past. It was never shown on screen but was alluded to. The editor loved the story, but insisted that part be taken out because it “castrates the character’s credibility as a hard-ass.” (He wasn’t really supposed to be a hardass, but….)

  7. scarlett says

    Getting off-topic, but there was a storyline on an Aus soap opera where a male main character was sexually abused as a teenager. They used terms like ‘molested’ and ‘abused’ the whole way through the story arc, and only in a very roundabout way alluded to his being raped. That pissed me off to no end. Is it THAT demeaning to have a male being raped?

  8. sbg says

    Is it THAT demeaning to have a male being raped?

    No, but yes according to everything we’re taught. A male being raped makes him less than a man, right? Haven’t we all heard that or versions of it?

    Whereas a woman who gets raped is still just a woman.

  9. scarlett says

    Reminds me of something I learnt in one of my uni units – that being gay is SO much worse than being a lesbian because a ‘woman giving up her femininity’ was so much worse thatr a ‘man giving up his masculinity’.

    At the time, the roundabout way they went of saying he’d been raped pissed me off ‘cos it was so dumb but now I’m thinking more of how shocking it’s considered that a man be raped.

  10. says

    Photondancer, I hear you.

    Originally Posted By sbg
    Whereas a woman who gets raped is still just a woman.

    Right. Because people think sex is something men take/receive from women, everyone’s still in their proper gender roles when men take sex from women by force. But for a man to have sex taken from him, that puts him in a female gender role and damages his manhood.

    A gentle reminder, everyone: the word “dumb” is against our comment policy.

  11. Rosie says

    One of the things I have liked about Lou, along with Emma and Rachel, is that they were pragmatic women, who were also survivors.

    [“Mickey, sadly, MGM won’t release more than the first season. You, uh, have to get creative to see the second and third.”]

    All three seasons are now available on DVD.

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