by Molly Borowitz
If you happen to be a fan of either The Daily Show or 30 Rock, you probably already know exactly what a "cougar" is. Like my heroine (and by that I mean "lady hero;" I don't wanna inject you and listen to jazz*), Liz Lemon, I learned the term from Jane Krakowski, but as a (newly minted) twenty-one-year- old, it never occurred to me to apply it to myself. But when this exchange happens frequently—
SOMEONE: Wait, who's your boyfriend?
ME: Oh, he's a sophomore.
SOMEONE: [one of a veritable library of cat-call related sounds]
—you start to reconsider. Let me be clear: I am not remotely embarrassed to be dating a sophomore. The renegotiation of two years' worth of cultural, social, and experiential difference was difficult, but hey, we're figuring it out. I, like Liz Lemon, have had that affirming "So this is why Demi Moore does it"** moment. But that doesn't mean I've made my peace with the "cougar" label. Why do we have to be compared to predatory cats? It's not like we're after their money (Jamie, the May to Liz's December, is a penniless twenty-year-old coffee delivery boy); we could easily pick on someone our own size (because what fortysomething dude wouldn't like to date Demi Moore?); and it's not like men don't do it too.
Both 30 Rock and The Daily Show make this point fairly strongly. When Liz expresses embarrassment to her boss after being caught on a date, he laughs at her—he even calls her sexist for arguing that it's easier for men than for women to date much-younger people. Yet the joke is clearly on him, because her response to his "Don't be silly! You've never looked better. Do I look ridiculous when you see me with a younger woman?" is an awkward silence followed by an uncomfortable oblique comment. The interaction is very entertaining, but the point sticks: men are just as guilty as women of "preying on" younger partners, and as such, the term "cougar" isn't particularly friendly—or fair.
On the The Daily Show, women's-issues correspondent Kristen Schaal addresses the inequity by attempting to come up with an equally unflattering name for older men who date younger women. Obviously her objective is to make the audience laugh, but her presentation of a "real live cougar"—an attractive middle-aged woman brought out by a handler and placed on Jon Stewart's lap (yes, it's hilarious)—emphasizes the term's absurdity because the "cougar" is about the same age as Stewart.
The choice to handle the "cougar" like a wild animal is well in keeping with The Daily Show's penchant for mocking the issues it covers, simultaneously suggesting and ridiculing the notion of post-menopausal women leaping instinctively at the first pair of sexually-promising trousers to walk past. Schaal's suggestions for a male-equivalent referent are also silly (she ultimately settles on "Redenbacher," after the popcorn magnate), but Stewart acknowledges her point as valid; men have been chasing much-younger partners for years without being labeled—why are women the only ones to bear the stigma?
I don't mean to suggest that "cougars" don't exist (here I am, living proof), and older men dating younger women certainly get stigmatized too ("He's dating a freshman? What a sketchball"). Clearly these phenomena are equally recognizable in society at large, and certainly in our smaller microcosmic version. But—in keeping with my comedic gods—I think the discursive inequality is worth considering. If there are at least as many older men dating younger women as older women dating younger men, how come "cougars" are the only ones with a name?
*Forgive me the gratuitous 30 Rock references, but it's too good not to quote.
** Seriously though, 30 Rock is awesome - ed.