In 1998, when the characters on Sex and the City discussed the etiquette of anal sex, it was shocking and quite crass for TV, but it was also something new: a debate about power. In contrast, the chatter between Jules and her pals—a ditzy twentysomething and a cynical fortysomething—feels like a throwback to a much older style of female humor, the self-loathing gags of Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, the humor of female ugliness and unfuckability.
Over drinks, they analyze their skin, abs, boobs. They squeal with rage if another person sees them eating. Jules sneaks out during the night to regroom herself, she does compulsive sit-ups, she mouths chocolate treats then spits them out. When she does have sex, she makes the guy rate her from one to ten. Beneath the zingers—and there are some good ones— the attitude is prudish, panicked. The writers won’t even let Jules be legitimately slutty: She waits ten dates to sleep with a casual fling.
In another episode, Jules and her friends analyze a sex tape she made when she was 19, comparing her body then and now. Historically speaking, this makes no sense, since Jules is 40. (In 1988, pre-Internet, few people had cheap video cameras, and the “leaked sex tape” barely existed.) But it felt like a metaphor for these women’s lives, in which sex is primarily a theatrical performance, porn for the camera inside their heads.
And of course, there’s another problem, one harder to speak about. This obsession with ugliness might be an interesting choice if the actress were working Diller’s clown drag, like Amy Sedaris. But Cox is a toned, glossy-haired sylph. Cast members have obvious plastic surgery. This is true on other shows, too, but those series don’t obsess about looks. Here, it makes the dialogue downright eerie, like watching porn stars gripe about sagging boobs.
There is one true cougar on the show, a barfly named Barb. She’s a comic grotesque who exists to contrast with Jules, so Jules can look on in horror while Barb air-squeezes young boys’ butts. Barb (played by Carolyn Hennesy) struts like Kathleen Turner (currently playing an even nastier power-cougar on Californication). She growls, “Never leave your luggage unattended!” when Jules walks away from her date. In one of the show’s funniest and most alarming scenes, she brags to a waxer about her revamped vagina: “That, Carol, is total rejuvenation surgery. Up here I’m 48, below the belt I’m 19. Now let’s detail this Ferrari.”
Hennesy makes the most of her blue material, but Barb is less a character than a moral lesson. She’s the cautionary cougar, the descendant of Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company, leering up Jack’s short-shorts. Maybe it’s some kind of progress that Barb, unlike the sexually frustrated Mrs. Roper, is getting some. But I keep hoping she’ll escape, leaping like a literal cougar from the cage of her series, to go bar-hopping with her sisters: Mae West, Blanche Devereaux, the Wife of Bath.
As with any pop-culture meme, it’s impossible to say exactly why the cougar has taken off with such ferocity. But I do wonder if, in an anxious, unconscious way, the rage for (and at) cougars is a side effect of the increasing visibility of older woman in authority. Before the nineties, roles for middle-age women were limited largely to moms and wives. But in recent years, TV has provided a stage for stars like Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick–even as the last decade marked the ascent of highly visible women in politics and media: Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric, Sarah Palin. It’s no surprise that in 1993, when Hillary first became a force, Spy photoshopped her into a dominatrix outfit. That’s one way of dealing with anxiety: If you’re not sure you like it, you might want to put a thong on it. Or, as Barb might put it, Mrrrowr.