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.
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.