They're looking for 'fun and friendship' from younger men, and are found on TV, movies and in a bar near you. The 'C' word has caught on, but not everyone is happy about it, says Susan Daly.
The popularity of the term 'cougar' - used to describe older women who pursue younger men for 'fun and friendship' - has been growing for years.
The term has long been in use on the American dating scene where there are whole websites dedicated to hooking up 20-something men with women in their 40s or older.
An Irishman who lived as a 20-something inCanada in the early Noughties once told me that the watchword among his pals when an older woman would eye up their group in a bar was: Spot the cougar. Five months ago, I wrote a piece in this paper on how the cougar phenomenon - or at least the word itself - had begun to escape from dark drinking dens to infiltrate popular TV culture. At the time, ABC was preparing to launch a new sitcom starring Courteney Cox Arquette in which she would play a 40-something divorcee on the prowl for a young lover.
Five months ago, I wrote a piece in this paper on how the cougar phenomenon - or at least the word itself - had begun to escape from dark drinking dens to infiltrate popular TV culture. At the time, ABC was preparing to launch a new sitcom starring Courteney Cox Arquette in which she would play a 40-something divorcee on the prowl for a young lover.
Producers had initially played around with safe titles like 40 and Single or The Courteney Cox Show. But by the time it was slated into the schedules it was called Cougar Town, an acknowledgment by TV bosses that the word is now common parlance. This followed on from a reality dating show called The Cougar earlier in the year, which itself drew comparisons to a 2006 show called Ivana Young Man, presented by - of course - Ivana Trump.
Those last two were aired on smaller networks, and neither attracted a large audience share. By comparison, when Cougar Town debuted on September 23, it pulled in over 11 million viewers, coming first in its timeslot. As predicted, cougars are now officially hot on our screens.
Another former TV sitcom star, Jenna Elfman of Dharma and Greg, has also debuted a new show in which she finds herself in her late 30s juggling two children in her life: her new baby and its 20-something father. Cox's Friends co-star Jennifer Aniston has similarly jumped on the cougar bandwagon. She has signed on to star in an upcoming film called Pumas, in which she and a co-star play hot women in their 30s with a predilection for much younger men.
Her description of pumas (as a kind of 'cougar-in-waiting') went as follows: "Young party girls who just find hot young guys to play with and then dump them. Why can't women do it?" It's an unfortunate rallying cry from a woman who has complained of the media's obsession with her relationships with younger men like musician John Mayer.
Aniston must wonder where she is going wrong when Madonna and Demi Moore are both lauded for their ability to snare a younger man. Madonna's current post-divorce squeeze is Jesus Luz, a model 28 years her junior. The 15-year difference between Demi and her husband Ashton Kutcher is one of the most talked-about age gaps in Hollywood, although they seem to be sailing steadily along in their marriage.
But Aniston is not alone in being caught up in the backlash against the cougar label. While viewer ratings for Cougar Town were high, it has social commentators up in arms. The New York Times website called it "girls-gone-wild feminism for 40-somethings" and branded it "ridiculous and belittling". The LA Times decided that it robs women of their dignity. TV criticMary McNamara points out that the title of the show itself does the older woman no favours: "It is, at its root, a sexual pejorative; cougars may be sexy, but they carry with them the distinct whiff of desperation."
In the States, the term cougar has been adopted as a 'you go, girl!' mantra by lifestyle websites like www.urbancougar.com and a generation of toned, buffed divorcees who argue that a cougar is sexually confident, rather than aggressive. As far back as 2001, relationship expert Valerie Gibson said she was reclaiming the word for outgoing mature women in her bestselling manual, Cougar: A guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.
It is also the case that age-gap relationships are not as taboo as they once were. A survey by Irish dating website maybefriends.com last year showed that 47pc of its members thought that a five to 10-year age gap, in any direction, was acceptable. Over 30pc were fine with an age gap of any breadth.
But on this side of the Atlantic, the word still carries a derogatory association. When researching an article on Dublin's private members' clubs last year, one man told me how he was weary of being chatted up by 'cougars' while he was trying to have a quiet drink. His tone implied that he did not use the term as a compliment, even though he himself was knocking on the door of 40 and the women he referred to were hardly in their 50s.
Julia Macmillan, founder of UK dating site www.toyboywarehouse.com, says she is actually against the term cougar, even though she preaches the attractions of younger men. She has started a blog called Don't Call Me A Cougar, in which she writes: "What I really object to with the cougar word is that it is such a stereotype. It's the image the media love of the older predatory woman who 'eats' young prey."
She argues that in the same way that the term 'Mrs Robinson' is now outdated "because women don't have to stay in unhappy marriages because they are no longer financially dependent on a man", so too is the term cougar.
"Women are looking more fabulous for longer and it's normal that guys should find older women attractive. It's always been the other way around, now things are changing!"
Article originally found in the Irish Independent
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