Friday, October 16, 2009

Some thoughts on "cougars" from two EW bloggers

Yesterday's NYT article about "cougars" (older women who date younger men) was so compelling that not one, but two of our bloggers chose to write about it, and you, our EW readers, get to reap the benefits. So enjoy - two perspectives on this article from Nick and Brenda.

"Cougar Season"

by Nick Cox

Check out the article in the New York Times on relationships between older women and younger men. The "cougar" archetype has been near the forefront of popular culture for a good while now, mainly in the person of Demi Moore—who has been married to Ashton Kutcher for four years now—as well as the character of Samantha on Sex in the City. Recently the cougar has been blossoming into a bona fide cultural obsession, probably catalyzed by Cougar Town, the new TV show with Courtney Cox. The interesting thing, though, is that much of this cultural trend has taken the form not of shows like Cougar Town, which are about fictional cougars, but rather of products marketed to women who self-identfiy as cougars—the article mentions cougar cruises as well as online cougar communities.

As this last detail implies, and a number of surveys have confirmed, cougars—defined as women in relationships with men who are fifteen or more years younger than they are—are a growing demographic. At least on the surface, this development seems to be cause for more or less unqualified celebration. If women are freeing themselves from the conventions of society dictating that they marry older men with better educations and more money, there doesn't seem to be much for us to be unhappy about.

But, as feminists, we should always find something to be unhappy about, or at least look for something. It's only through that sort of critical obstinacy that we can uncover our culture's hidden sexism, which often shows up in the most outwardly laudable places. In this case, I don't think there's anything particularly disturbing about the relationships themselves. The question, then, is whether the sexualized stereotype of the older woman, especially one propagated in a large part by self-described "cougars," is an empowering move, or whether it is just another case of women being fetishized. I myself am at a loss for how to answer this question, but I'd be interested to here what other people have to say.

"Could 'Cougar' Relationships Be...Good?"

by Brenda Jin

The so-called (and controversially named) “cougar” phenomenon—older women who seek relationships with younger men—has made headlines in the New York Times today. This is probably not a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a copy of “People” or “Cosmo”; popular media have already focused attention on prominent “cougars” such as Demi Moore, Mariah Carey, Eva Longoria Parker, Janet Jackson, Kim Cattrall, and Cameron Diaz.

While I personally am not at a time in my life where men who are five to ten years younger would make compatible (or legal) partners, the idea is not novel to me. Yet I can see how a shift in attitudes would be more striking to the baby boomer generation, on whom the NYTimes article focuses. In previous generations, the conventional heterosexual relationship has often featured a man “two to three years older, of similar background and higher levels of education and income”. I originally thought the fact that our culture firmly fixes beauty in youth would be a contributor to why men would be reluctant to date older women, but it seems that another taboo is at play here, as men report that they were drawn to older women because of physical attraction in the first place (yay!).

Although a number of relationships outside of marriage are unaccounted for in census data, a shift in attitudes from the previous half century can be discerned nonetheless: “…the number of marriages between women who are at least 5 or 10 years older than their spouses is still small, 5.4 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively. But both rates doubled between 1960 and 2007”. According to some sociologists, female baby boomers in a so-called “marriage squeeze” are more likely to be open-minded to shifting relationship conventions regarding age, race, religion, and economic status. Since they have delayed marriage, the pool of conventionally accepted male partners has decreased, as male baby boomers have likely stuck with convention and sought younger partners.

The term “cougar” is problematic, because it is loaded with taboo connotations of wildness and conjures images of older women desperate for sexual satisfaction which can only be achieved by virile strapping young men, despite the fact that many of these so-called “cougars” are married. Yet why don’t we apply these attitudes to men who date younger women? Why don’t we view the male counterparts of so-called “cougars” as sex-hungry men who are on the prowl for the fulfillment of their sexual desires through an accompanying obsession with the attractiveness of youth?

The idea of a maternal relationship has been named as another taboo for older women who date younger women. But when a man is older than a woman in a relationship, why is it not seen as patriarchal? It seems to be more acceptable and less taboo to have a man marry a younger woman. I personally would be wary of being in a relationship with a man whose age might be directly related to his economic advantage, higher job status, or any other uneven power relationship. I would be wary that he would be patriarchal or patronizing. I wonder how the other women of my generation feel? I also wonder whether the increased presence of these relationships could reflect the urge to find equality in relationships as more women gain economic independence seek partners not for the sake of child-rearing, stability, or necessity, but out of a desire for equal partnership?


At October 16, 2009 at 8:46 PM , Anonymous AC said...

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.

Once again, reality trumps "wouldn't it be nice if" ideology.

At October 19, 2009 at 3:55 PM , Anonymous AC said...

The reason why the cougar thing has become a focus is very simple: there are quite a few single women now who are 40+. The reasons for that are (1) some women delaying marriage so long (or being so selective) that they find themselves at 40 never having married and (2) the commonplace nature of divorce, which leaves many people single in that age range. The issue for some of these single women is that they perceive, or experience, that the men in their “age range” (say +/- 2-3 years) are either all taken, or pursuing younger women. Factually this is not the case, of course, but the reality is more like this: the most attractive single men in that age range are, often, going to prefer to date women in their early to mid 30s than women in their 40s. And the men who are interested in daying women in their 40s are mostly either (a) men in their late 40s and 50s or (b) less desirable men in their early 40s. So women feel like if they stay in their own “age range”, they don't have as many choices. That's really what's driving the desire of women to enter into these kinds of relationships – the simple reality of a lot of women in that age range being single today coupled with the reality that men do regularly date a bit down in age, if they can manage to attract younger women. It's a combination of demographics and sexual dynamics that are leading to this.

Of course, it doesn't help that there is a feminist “tinge” to the issue – women “getting back” at men for “chasing younger women” and “turning the tables” on men and so on. But what that overlooks is that men are generally much more successful at establishing long term committed relationships with younger women than women are in doing so with younger men. Getting sex is one thing – as we know, something that is never really challenging for an attractive woman, even if she is in her 40s. Getting a man to commit to a long-term relationship is something else entirely. And that's where the cougar phenomenon fails, really, to be more than a flash in the pan.


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