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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week