- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

It’s a feminist axiom that what’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose. Older men like to hit on 20-year-old women? Well! Bring on the older women who like to hit on 20-year-old men!

Enter the “cougar”: Stealing with feline grace and predatory cunning through the wilds of our popular culture, she is the divorced or still-single woman who is somewhat past her prime having a fling with a guy who has yet to reach his.

Feminists, of course, love the cougar. (Hear her roar.)

Alas, young men, it seems, love … young women.

The fall television season boasts two new cougar sitcoms. In ABC’s “Cougar Town,” 45-year-old “Friends” veteran Courteney Cox plays 40-year-old Jules, newly divorced, a mom and a financially successful real estate agent (in bust-ville Florida, of all places). CBS’ “Accidentally on Purpose” stars 39-year-old blondie Jenna Elfman of “Dharma and Greg” fame as Billie, an equally financially successful TV critic who gets pregnant after a one-nighter with a youthful slacker who has a lot of slacker buddies.

The shows promote not only the idea that well-fixed, well-tended older women can be as attractive as their younger sisters (“ravishing” is the word that comes to mind for Miss Cox) but also that there’s nothing wrong with the overt sexual aggressiveness that gave these women the name “cougar” in the first place. (Miss Elfman as Billie unbuttons her blouse in a restaurant before strolling over to a male patron’s table to give him her phone number.)

TV cougar-dom also feeds the expectation that lasting love may be just around the corner. “I’m just a piece of man candy to you — I want to be your boyfriend,” avers the youthful date of yet another sitcom cougar, Roxanne (36-year-old “Ugly Betty” veteran Rebecca Romijn), in ABC’s “Eastwick.”

Feminists love the idea that, as they put it, “50 is the new 25” and that newly “empowered” women of a certain age are free to conduct their sex lives just like men.

The only thing Washington Post writers Monica Hesse and Ellen McCarthy found to dislike about cougars is the name — so double-standard-ish. “There’s a corresponding name for single males who prefer to date younger females,” Ms. Hesse and Ms. McCarthy complain. “They’re called ‘men.’”

The feminist blog Jezebel rags on the recurrent “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Cougar Den,” which features tips on successful man-pouncing (“hit the bars just before closing”) and a boy-toy tennis instructor who says he likes older women because “you can be real mean to them, and they still buy you junk.” Sniffs Jezebel: “The women are just set up to be really foul, awful, pathetic people who seem to be chasing teenage boys.”

What Jezebel and the other feminists want is a positive spin on cougars as “in control” and “very sexy,” in the words of Valerie Gibson, author of “The Cougar Handbook.” Nearly all of them trot out the marriage of 46-year-old Demi Moore to 31-year-old Ashton Kutcher as a cougar success story that could be replicated endlessly.

There’s only one problem with this rosy outlook on older woman/younger guy relationships, and it’s, um, men.

The Boston Globe recently reported on a speed-dating organizer’s efforts to set up events aimed specifically at women of a certain age and the 20-ish men who supposedly can’t get enough of them. Plenty of older women signed up for the mixers, but so few younger men did that the organizer had to cancel the events.

Another speed-date organizer explained to the Globe that the only events that ensure a good male turnout are those that feature the traditional dating-age gap: women who are at least three years younger than the men they hope to meet. “We have actually tried to capitalize on the cougar trend, and it didn’t really work for us,” one organizer told the Globe.

That finding wouldn’t surprise evolutionary psychologists. It’s a central truth of the discipline that men typically find women in their early 20s far more physically attractive than their older sisters, and for good reason: The early 20s are the years of a woman’s maximum fertility, to which males are hard-wired by evolution to respond.

There are exceptions, of course. Life is unfair, and there are sexual advantages, you may have observed, to being as gorgeous as Demi Moore. But those exceptions are — how to put it? — exceptional.

“Any sexual choice mechanism that preferred infertile individuals to fertile individuals would have died out in one generation,” writes evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his book “The Mating Mind.”

We live in a society in which delayed marriage, easy divorce and the insistence of feminism (at least in its naive, popular form) that the two sexes are identical in every respect have led many women to assume that their value in the sexual marketplace will never diminish and that young men will perceive them as something other than all-too-willing receptacles for easy, no-strings recreational sex.

One thing to be said for “Cougar Town” (and this is why feminists hate it) is that it doesn’t fall into that trap. It is brutally and hilariously honest about the consequences of deciding to compete with young women for males their age.

Miss Cox’s Jules is a kind of female Mr. Bill, suffering blows of comic humiliation from all the men in her life: her jerk ex-husband, the youths she chases and even her teenage son, who wishes she would act respectably like other mothers.

In one scene, Jules has to explain to her young bedfellow what the scar from her Caesarian section is all about. That could serve as a symbol for everything that’s wrong with cougar life: that the body of a mother, scarred by childbirth and time, should be exposed to the scrutiny of a near-stranger with his mind on other things.

Yes, 50 may be the new 25 these days, and thanks to improved dentistry, hair-coloring, nutrition and exercise habits, older women have never been able to look so good — for their silver wedding anniversaries, their kids’ graduations and dates with men their own age.

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