Moving Out of Cougar Town

Enough with cougars: The word, the idea behind the word, and the new ABC comedy starring Courteney Cox.

09.23.09 2:40 PM ET

The only thing worse than hearing someone use the word “cougar” to refer to an older woman is seeing ubiquitous billboards and TV ads letting you know there is in fact going to be a whole show called Cougar Town. Which means that a bunch of people have been using the word “cougar” behind our backs for months now, in conversations that probably started with a pitch meeting where a guy said ,”You know how older women are cougars?” And the executives said, “Yeah, we know! Everyone knows! They’re everywhere! We’re terrified of them ourselves!” And then the writer was all “What if we did a show about a cougar where we actually got to know one, see what makes ‘em tick?” At which point the executives probably jumped for joy and were all “That is so brilliantly zeitgeist! Yes! Sold!” Then they had an assistant go to the top of Runyon Canyon and project the Courteney Cox signal to the top of Los Angeles so she would know she was urgently needed.

“Cougar,” as used to describe an older woman with an interest in younger men, is one of my least favorite words (right after “coleslaw,” right before “moist.”) The idea that a woman’s desire is akin to a snarling murderous animal with claws and teeth, who hides behind rocks and then rips your face off, is both unflattering and outrageously sexist. I’ve heard there are some who claim to see this word as empowering, but I think they’re men. Men, after all, whether their desire for younger women is a matter of evolution or personal preference, do not get tagged as “mountain lions” or “wombats.” And as the term “cougar” has caught on in our lexicon, my impression is that it’s not so much intended to specifically describe a woman with a taste for younger partners, but simply any older woman (i.e., any woman 35 plus) who is not yet married and still actively dating. Cameron Diaz, who spoofed her cougarsome self on Saturday Night Live, was labeled as such when she was just thirty one, after she begin dating a younger Justin Timberlake. Ewwwwwwww, right!!!!! How could he kiss such a terrifying hag!!! OMG!

“Cougar,” as used to describe an older woman with an interest in younger men, is one of my least favorite words (right after “coleslaw,” right before “moist”).

So now we have Cougar Town (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30), a show about Jules (Cox), a just divorced 40-year-old woman who’s torn between two fears --being alone for the rest of her life, and being “one of them,” as she whines to her friend; “them” being, you know, those horrifying, salivating crones who seem to live only sparsely in the real world and yet dominate the imagination of the male comedy writer. And therein lies the real problem of the show. While worries about aging and dating after divorce are legitimate, Jules seems less haunted by her own insecurities than by the threat of being lumped in with the town’s other desperate (ex)housewives, who make a spectacle of themselves at, say, high school football games. These women, by the way, are never actually called “cougars,” nor is the Jules character—it’s a reference to the school mascot. Which is a massively cheap, cynical cheat by the show.

What we end up watching is a female character driven by what is essentially a male hysteria. While her physical insecurity is slightly annoying (Cox, at forty five, is still a knockout, and yet the show begins with her standing in front of the mirror picking apart some imaginary microscopic flab; but in fairness, there are lots of insecure beautiful women) it’s not nearly as insidious as her shame about her own desire. She’s openly bitter towards her fortyish male neighbor for bedding twenty-something girls, and yet at no point in the pilot do we see her pursuing someone her own age. When she does end up with a younger man, her reaction isn’t so much “Yippee!” as a series of humiliating mumbles about her c-section scar and an offer to make him snacks, the way she does for her son. Any kind of sexual pursuit seems to reduce her to hunched embarrassment, the same state I was in while watching this show. To see a woman so desperately bereft of any pride in herself is beyond depressing. And yes, this is an essay about what’s supposed to be a comedy.

The jokes, such as they are, are mostly crude sexual double entendres. Her teenaged son, after catching his mother fellating a younger man, snatches away her banana the next morning with an angry “You’re not allowed to eat these anymore.” Really, Cougar Town? Penis equals banana? Thank you.

At one point Jules asks her son, “Why don’t you laugh at my jokes?” He responds, “Because your jokes make me sad.”

I couldn’t have said it any more clearly myself.

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Jessi Klein is a writer and comedian who has frequently appeared on Comedy Central, CNN, VH1, and the Today show. She also likes to think she has value as a human being aside from her numerous credits in the entertainment industry.