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In Today's Dating World, No Holds Barred -- Except the Term 'Cougar'

Age seems of little concern to Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.
Age seems of little concern to Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. (By Kim D. Johnson -- Associated Press)

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By Monica Hesse & Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hi! How's it going out there? Good? Great! We're glad to hear it. We're particularly glad you've expanded your dating parameters to include folks from a variety of demographics, including men some years your junior. (Demi? You reading? Well done.) It's about time, really -- the hours you spend on the Pilates mat, the way you've built up your career -- you deserve it. Who wouldn't snatch up a dessert like Naveen Andrews, just like Barbara Hershey did? She's 20 years his senior. Attagirl, Barbara.

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But now that you've proved 50 is the new 25, there's just this one teeny thing: This whole business of calling yourself cougars? It needs to stop. Now.

Time is of the essence here, as the term reaches new levels of ubiquity. There goes Courteney Cox, on the prowl in "Cougar Town," premiering Wednesday on ABC. Boy, is she hot. Who wouldn't want to identify with that? Perhaps you've read of those new cougar empowerment tomes on Amazon.com -- "Hot Cougar Sex," for instance, or "Don't Ever Call Me Ma'am! The Real Cougar Woman Handbook." Maybe you even booked a room on Carnival's International Cougar Cruise, featuring Miss Cougar America, recently crowned at the first Cougar Convention in Palo Alto, Calif. "I went from soccer mom with short hair, flat-heeled shoes and fanny packs to cougar," Gloria Navarro said after accepting her title.

Love that spirit, Gloria. But we're asking it to end. Not the dating of younger men. Please, date the younger men! But using the word "cougar"? How 'bout you don't.

It's not just that using a predatory animal to describe older women makes it sound like the men involved are vulnerable prey. Like sharp teeth and claws are scaring them into bed -- rather than, you know, their own desires. It's not that the term has become so overused as to be completely meaningless. (Scott Speedman was branded a cougar-lover for once dating Cameron Diaz. Really? She's three years older.) It's not even the double standard, though that's part of it: There's a corresponding name for single males who prefer to date younger females. They're called "men."

The biggest problem with the cougar craze is that it takes an age-old dating dynamic and pretends it's something new. Sixteenth-century Frenchman Henry II was just 15 when he began a long-term affair with a 35-year-old woman. It's been more than 40 years ago since Mrs. Robinson dropped her robe in front of young Benjamin Braddock. And Susan Sarandon, 62, and Tim Robbins, 50, have been together for two decades now. Should their relationship ever be categorized as anything but "awesome"?

The way to really embrace the concept of an older woman dating a younger man is not to give it a name that sounds like it was conjured up during a marketing meeting for cheap 1970s cologne. It's to not name it at all.

(Also, doesn't the term -- along with "sex kitten" and a certain crude euphemism for lady parts -- make you wonder if these men are even interested in women? Maybe deep down, they want cats.)

Ladies, we know you didn't start "cougar." It was bestowed upon you. But you should know: Best as etymological research can tell, it was bestowed upon you by a Canadian high school boys' hockey team in the 1990s. The aunt of one team member wanted to start a Web site for women seeking younger men; her nephew shared his team's locker-room phraseology. Why she adopted it is beyond us, but, CougarDate.com was born. Then came the icky-sounding abbreviation "coug," and "The Cougar Den" sketches on "Saturday Night Live," which made "cougar" synonymous with cluelessness, spray tans and desperation. We are pretty sure Kristen Wiig is not laughing WITH you.

We know you've been doing the best you could with the term. You went ahead and tried to "reclaim" it.

Reclaiming is good. We were all about "reclaiming" in Feminist Theory 201 -- about taking ownership of "queer" and "fat." But let's not embrace "cougar" just yet. Let's at least try to squash it first. Women who date younger men do not need to be categorized by pubescent Canadians.

So go ahead and bag your Zac Efronesque tennis instructor. In the process you might feel tempted to call yourself a cougar.

Please don't.


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