Those scenes are a play on the traditional test of “manliness”. It plays into the usual tropes surrounding the “Nice Guy” and acts as an updated variation of the Damsel in Distress. In story and thematic terms, the scene isn’t about the right or better way to do it. Instead, it’s all about the guy proving his worth to the girl. Even though he loses, he saves her and she feels grateful that someone stepped in. It’s complete with the added bonus of pity because he was beaten up for her sake and now she feels obligated to take care of him. It results in a very cute scene where she bandages him up and fixes his wounds, they connect for the first time, and she sees him in a whole new way. The “weak” guy has proven he’s worthy mate material.
That’s what the scene is about and that’s the purpose it usually serves in the story. My issue with it is that it’s not about the girl, it’s not about the victim, it’s about the guy who jumps in. The scene is all about him showing what a good and worthy person he is to the girl so that she will eventually reward him with sex.
At it’s heart, that’s the problem with the scenario. It’s focus is entirely on the heroism of a singular character. In poorly thought out and written situations, it becomes the video game exchange we see real life guys cling to. “I like you, so I do something nice for you because I did something nice for you, you are obligated to do something nice for me in return (the thing I want)”.
1) The victim is not always grateful, is not required to be grateful, nor are they required to repay that behavior with anything, not even a thank you.
2) It’s different when it’s not a love interest. The problem doesn’t really step in until it’s a unique action. You’ll notice that these often revolve around the “I wouldn’t normally do this for anyone but you”. It’s a grand gesture, the generic/more violent equivalent of a candle light dinner or a carriage ride through Central Park except more acceptably “masculine”.
It’s just a more “realistic” version of guy saves girl from bully (much like guy saves girl from nine foot tall snarling death beast and guy rescues girl from tower) which involves the acknowledgement on the part of the creators that just because one decides to step up doesn’t that they’ll get a Saturday morning cartoon victory.
The thing to remember is that the girl is still usually treated like an object in these scenarios, even if she does run away. Normally though, the creator doesn’t put this in because they want her to actually run. They want her to stay and watch.
On the practical and less meta level:
No, it’s not a good idea to run in swinging. It’s also not a good idea to sneak up behind them. The best thing to do in that kind of scenario is actually to change the dynamics of the situation in such a way that forces the bully to back off via drawing the attention of other people like pulling a fire alarm. Even then, driving a bully off is just a short term solution. Unless the environment that allows the bully to flourish changes and their behavior is no longer tacitly accepted by those in a position of authority, the behavior will continue.
You can’t beat a bully by beating a bully and getting beat up by a bully only stops that single instance, if it stops it at all. It’s not going to stop them from going back after their victim once they’ve finished with the would be rescuer. It’s not going to stop them from going after that victim tomorrow or the day after that. The television version generally assumes that once the bully puts their beat down on someone that they’re done for good or the problem will be solved by the end of the episode.
If you have to choose between the two for a character: any act of surprise which gives the advantage will work. However, this assumes that when give a chance to run most people will. That’s… unfortunately not the case. The best scenario is that the character jumping in provides the victim with the opportunity to fight back.
One of the biggest issues with these scenarios is the assumption that if given the chance to escape, the victim will run. Confusion tends to result in dumbfounded expressions and a deer in the headlights scenario. It also assumes that there’s just one guy you have to worry about: the bully. Bullies often come with friends and they don’t work like a laser pointed hive mind. One of the friends will probably have the presence of mind to grab the girl, given that she was most likely backed into a corner or put with her back to the wall. Bullies like to push their victims into situations where they feel small and powerless, where they feel like they have no room to run.
The second problem is that, when forced into that situation, often the abused will side with their abuser. The one that intercedes provides a clear enemy for the two to unify against. The abused may feel that they are appeasing the bully by siding with them or angry at the one that is interceding because they are interrupting a private moment of shame. It depends on the person in question, but it is always a mistake to assume that the person wants to be saved. The act of stepping in can be just as damaging for their ego, their psyche, their soul as standing by and doing nothing. “Saving” a victim, a person who already feels powerless, isn’t going to help them feel powerful. After all, it isn’t your hero’s fight. It’s theirs. Help them overcome, get out of the way, or accept it may not go to plan. It can easily devolve into a situation where the intended savior is duking it out with the victim while the bully laughs in the background.
When put into a public scenario, bullies generally work in groups unless they have some sort of relationship to the victim or they know no one else is likely to interfere. By their nature a bully is a coward, their own fears are what cause them to lash out. They prefer to play with a stacked deck.
What supports a bully is the surrounding social structure. Bullies will attack from a position of power, they have an ace in the deck which keeps them out of trouble. This could be their position as a favored student, the knowledge that the teachers won’t or can’t intervene, they have a parent on staff (like the Principle’s kid), or some other factor which lets them get away with their actions. Their position attracts friends and toadies who support them.
A bully doesn’t come from nowhere and they don’t thrive just because they are mean. To write situations with them, you really have to sit down and hammer out where they are getting their power from and whose backing they actually have. A student with a parent on the School Board can bully their teacher into giving them preferential treatment by holding their job hostage. This is a scenario that actually happens. The same is true for students who realize that their teacher has no power to actually discipline them.
Who holds the power? Where does that power come from? Once you’ve figured it out, then you can discover how to rid of it or disrupt it.
Fighting is a short term solution, at best. Even if they’re defeated, bullies come back or they move on to other targets. The assumption that just because someone loses it’s over forever is a mistake.
Don’t fall prey to it.