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.