About a year and a half ago, I was innocently trolling the Internet when I came across the headline “Cougar Attack!” The sexual usage of cougar was fairly recent back then, but already irritating. Still, I was curious. I expected to see mature women plasticized within an inch of their lives running after boy toys. Scrolling down, however, I saw that I was the cougar in question. My identifying behavior? Posing for photographers at the premiere of the Sex and the City movie. Sure, after hours of hair and makeup, I looked pretty good (one of the requisites, I suppose, of cougardom), but I know the only thing I wanted to attack at that moment was a cocktail. Besides, there was nary a young man in sight.
So why had I been labeled a cougar? It was perplexing. Yes, my husband is 10 years younger, but we’ve been married for seven years. And he’s 40, ferchrist’s sake. And how come every time women manage to break out of traditional roles, someone comes along and tries to ruin it with a derogatory label? If you’re a female CEO, you’re a ballbuster. And let’s not even go there with Hillary Clinton. In comparison with what she gets called, I suppose cougar is fairly harmless. What I dislike most about the term is that a complex group of women in a variety of different situations end up lumped together under one sensationalist and slightly vulgar rubric. It reminds me of the old days when women were routinely divided into two categories: madonnas and whores. Chalk it up to progress: Now we can be madonnas and cougars!
Problem is, I know some real-life cougars (meaning, simply, women over 35 who are with younger men), and they don’t at all resemble the pop culture stereotype. For instance, my younger sister, whom I’ll call Z, is 45 and married to a man 11 years younger. A former engineer, she has three children and runs her own business in rural Connecticut. She’s never used Botox; heck, she’s never even colored her hair. But because her husband is more than a decade younger, I guess she’s a cougar.
In fact, you could say my sister and I were cougars before the word cougar even existed. Several years ago, my father looked around the table during Thanksgiving dinner and, with a certain amount of pride, wondered aloud how he’d ended up with two thirty-something sons-in-law. And years before that, my mother declared to my single sisters and me that she didn’t care if we ever got married and had children, as she had no interest whatsoever in being a grandmother. So it could be that our propensity for the nontraditional arose from parents who didn’t give a hoot about the traditional.
Ten years ago, when Z got married, the idea of women living with younger men struck me as a phenomenon with real promise—an emblem, I hoped, of a coming era when women could shake themselves free of traditional and limiting concepts of marriage and just be themselves. My “Sex and the City” column arose out of the reality of this new type of woman, a thirty-something “gal” with an interesting life and career who somehow hadn’t managed to find an acceptable guy to marry her and complete that picture of “having it all.” (A phrase that, by the way, makes me want to barf, but whatever.) These single, independent women were forced to invent their own rules for living. And it took society a few years to catch up.
In 1994, when I started writing the column, I was shocked to hear the men I interviewed articulating women’s worst fear about aging: namely, that it was all over for us at 35 (I was then 34). Man after man told me that (a) a woman over 35 is no longer sexy, because her prime childbearing years are over; (b) women that age have baggage (i.e., too many experiences); and© an unmarried, over-35 woman must have something really wrong with her, like maybe a mental illness. I was pretty horrified to find that men still believed stuff like this, but they do, as was borne out by a sexual encounter I had around that time with a 26-year-old. The next morning, he asked my age, and when I told him, he screamed, “Omigod, you’re almost as old as my mother!”