The first time I heard the slang term cougar was in the late nineties, at a party packed with women in their early thirties. Perched on a kitchen counter, a Canadian filled us in: Judging from recent trend pieces, horny divorcées were rampaging through Toronto, hunting fresh meat. We laughed nervously. We were all single, and we sensed the danger. In five years, we would age straight into ridiculous.
Instead, along came Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, the greatest TV cougar of our time, and a role model—however cartoonish—for so many women. Samantha, as played by cougar-artiste Kim Cattrall, began the series as a dirty sitcom sidekick, but she became a genuinely revolutionary figure, with her Mae West va-voom and gimlet-eyed resistance to women’s-magazine cant. None of the other characters on the show labeled their older friend a cougar; that term wasn’t widespread in 1998 when the show launched. But Samantha nonetheless embodied all the classic cougarish characteristics: She was vain, horny, lacquered, mouthy. She was in it for her own orgasm—not a ring. She ogled men and ended up with a hot boy. In a wave of nineties chick lit, she was the anti–Rules girl, all about adventure. No wonder so many accused her of being a stealth gay man.
Sam was certainly not the first flirtatious older woman on TV; she had a tradition behind her, although most of her predecessors were comic sidekicks, like Alice’s Flo “Kiss My Grits” Castleberry, as well as the magnificent nighttime-soap cougars of the Dynasty era, with their long nails and actual purring. There was also a smattering of David E. Kelley figures like Whipper on Ally McBeal, pathetic fetish figures mourning their dwindling erotic powers. Yet Samantha Jones’s sassy ascent in 1998 seemed to mark something different, and in retrospect it was a prescient moment: That same year, Dawson Creek’s Pacey monologued his way on top of his English teacher Tamara—and then in 1999, the teen comedy American Pie was a hit, with its talk of “MILFS” and “Stifler’s mom.”
Tamara and Stifler’s mom were cougars seen, literally, from a boy’s-eye view. They were the insatiable women who would “know what to do,” variants on sadder figures like Mrs. Robinson. In contrast, fortysomething Sam Jones spoke to women’s fantasies, not men’s. (Most men I knew found her scary and off-putting.) It wasn’t her sex drive that was appealing so much as her lunatic self-confidence; she was so breezily self-assured in her desires that she redefined narcissism as something positive. Unlike the Allys and Carries of the world, she never stuttered, or stumbled, or apologized. Best of all, she was immune to the pressures younger women felt besieged by—by which I mean Rules-girl charticles, warnings about the bonding powers of oxytocin, and that more-likely-to-be-killed-by-a-terrorist marriage-stat (a debunked statistic I’ve heard women recall as 40, 35, even 30).
Sam didn’t care about any of that, and if she were a real person, she would have shrugged off the recurrent joke about “three middle-aged sluts and their mom.” In the decade that followed, an awful lot of women took up Sam’s leopard-print banner, turning “cougardom” (and its kinder, gentler MILF variation, as seen on Weeds) into a term of pride. Like bitch or queer, it was both a self-loathing label and a celebratory one. Yet however many times someone suggested that calling an older woman a jungle cat was offensive (as in the hilarious Jon Stewart skit in which he is handed a purring “cougar” by a zookeeper), some Real Housewives love the term—they’ll choose their choice.
Meanwhile, pop culture bubbled over with images of sexed-up older women: Stacy’s mom! Demi Moore! Desperate Housewives! But while the networks tried to replicate the Sex and the City recipe, no series quite tapped its appeal. When this season suggested a pride of cougar-themed shows—from Accidentally on Purpose to Eastwick—I was cautiously open to the idea. It’s not a bad thing for there to be jobs for middle-age actresses. Hey, I like dirty jokes. And for all I knew, Courteney Cox’s splashy Cougar Town could be the next Sex and the City, a show I’d also hated for the first few episodes. Maybe I’d be wrong here, too.
Sadly, Cougar Town let me down. Actually, it horrifies me. Ten years later, the Samanatha Jones iconography has gone retro, regressing to a Cathy cartoon in heels. Jules Cobb, the divorced ninny played by Cox, might date younger men but she’s no cougar. Instead, she is a prisoner of Cosmo (or maybe just L.A.), shrieking so relentlessly about her body’s disintegration you’d think the woman’s face was falling off in chunks à la Poltergeist. Samantha Jones might have been a cartoon, but she was a cartoon who loved pleasure. When Cougar Town talks dirty, it’s not really about sex. Or rather, it’s about sex as a measuring stick: proof you’re hot enough to make men want to have sex with you.