Sarah Churchwell: I'd expect better of you, Emma

It is unfortunate that women are embracing these derogatory and sexist labels

Share
Related Topics

How disappointing: I have always liked Emma Thompson, who strikes me as an intelligent, thoughtful woman, despite – or rather because of – her propensity for offering controversial opinions that cheerfully dispense with received wisdom. But her recent remarks about "cougars", the name given by the media to women who have the temerity to date or even marry younger men, seem heedlessly to accept the sexist terms of the conversation. "I don't get it. It seems predatory and I don't really approve," Thompson reportedly said. "It is easy to be flattered, but I am no cougar."

Assuming the report is accurate, there is one thing about which Thompson is right: she doesn't get it. A woman who is called a cougar seems "predatory" for a reason, but it is not because she is dating younger men: it is because she has been given the name of a predator. This is why it should not be "easy to be flattered" – it should be easy to be insulted.

My thesaurus offers the following synonyms for "predator": bloodsucker, leech, vampire, harpy, vulture. Isn't it coincidental how many of these names are traditionally used to denigrate women?

But it doesn't take a thesaurus to think through the reasons for objecting to a sexist and derogatory term. The problem isn't simply that cougars are predatory animals, it is that the label exists in the first place. They could be called "platypuses" and I would still object to the implication that women dating younger men are such anomalous beings that they require not just a new name, but a new taxonomy: along with cougars we now have pumas and, evidently, cubs. Men who date younger women have their own familiar label, to be sure: we refer to them as men. Men do not get called jaguars, they only drive them. Welcome to the double standard: it is alive and kicking the woman next to you.

By no coincidence there has been a marked resurgence in animalistic nicknames for women more generally: those absurd "mama grizzlies" who were all over the US midterms leap to mind, as does Sarah Palin's even more bizarre invocation of "pink elephants" – a reference presumably meant to suggest a feminine version of the Grand Old Party's traditional mascot, but which unfortunately also suggests that female Republican candidates are the drunken hallucinations of a populace afflicted with delirium tremens (which might be the only explanation for Christine O'Donnell's candidacy).

What is even more unfortunate is that these are labels that women are embracing, bestowing upon each other with pride – or, in the case of Thompson, evidently thinking they ought to find flattering. But they are not flattering, and they are not empowering. There is a long genealogy of bestial nicknames uniquely bestowed upon women, of which cougars, pumas, and – God help us – "mamma grizzlies" are just the latest.

Women who are sexually attractive have always been compared to cats (or foxes, or even beavers). Cougars and pumas are just updated versions of an old phylogeny that begins with kittens and pussies. If women are unattractive, they are cows, heifers, sows, vixens, shrews, dogs, or bitches.

Given the reactionary sexual politics of Sarah Palin and her followers, including Sharron Angle's advice to pregnant victims of incestuous rape to "make lemonade out of lemons" by bearing unwanted babies, their regressive discourse doesn't surprise me.

But I would have hoped that educated, intelligent women like Emma Thompson would be able to distinguish between objecting to an objectionable label, and objecting to the women who are being demeaned by it – and thus demeaning us all.



Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A police officer carries a casualty to safety  

Tunisia attack proves that we cannot stop terrorists carrying out operations against Britons in Muslim countries

Robert Verkaik
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue