Please, Don't Call Yourself a 'Cougar'

Monica Hesse and Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009; 2:30 PM

Washington Post writers Monica Hesse and Ellen McCarthy discussed why the term "cougar" should not be used to describe sexy single women of a certain age.

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Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for joining us to discuss this most pressing of issues. We know there's a lot going on in the world -- war, something about health care, etc. -- but we didn't think the cougar question would wait any longer.

Let's go.

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Gimme some: I am 51. I want some, eh, action. I am not shy. What should I call myself?

Monica Hesse: How about "51"?

Ellen McCarthy: Also "woman," would work. Or "man." Which ever is appropriate.

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D.C.: Doesn't the term "Cougar" imply a desperate predatory behavior? As a guy I wonder why do women want to be proud of such a label?

Ellen McCarthy: Well, as others have and will point out, cougars are lovely specimens of the animal world. But I don't think it's that.

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I totally agree.: That and MILF, please...

Monica Hesse: I'm actually okay with MILF. MILF, though crude, has mostly positive connotations. And I've heard DILF enough that there seems to be equal and balanced terminology.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Let's use the same terms as an older male hitting on younger women...

...such as Lecher or Dirty Old Woman or Perv.

Ellen McCarthy: Lecher doesn't get nearly enough use, does it? Can it be used in the feminine? Lecheress?

Monica Hesse: Skeeve? Skeevette?

Somehow Dirty Old Woman just makes me think of a lonely cat lady. And that makes me sad.

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The word is as dated as "groovy": My boyfriend and I were lying down the other night, and my cat started stealthily creeping up to the pillows.

He said "There's a cougar on the bed."

I said "Yeah, I think it's me."

The word already sounded out-of-date as soon as I said it.

(BTW -- loved your analysis that men probably want cats!)

Ellen McCarthy: The term needed to die a long time ago. And thanks, excellent story.

Monica Hesse: We've got to be reaching a tipping point...before it dies out completely, maybe it will have a life as an ironic term?

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no cougars please: I prefer the term Lynx.

Monica Hesse: Wasn't that a Zelda character?

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Tinseltown: Have you received any comment from Courtney Cox?

Monica Hesse: Not from Demi, either! The chat's open for you gals, too...

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Reston, Va.: I think the term "cougar" is quite appropriate for any woman who is trying to date men 10+ years her junior. Creepy actions deserve a creepy label.

Go get your "action" with someone your own age!

Ellen McCarthy: But why is it creepy? Is it creepy when the genders are reversed?

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Springfield, VA: Is there a comparable equivalent term for single sexy men of the same age? Or is this another double standard where women are once again scornfully categorized based on totally subjective and ridiculous yet rigid criteria?

Getting older is a fact of life... live, let live, and get on with it!

Ellen McCarthy: There are lots of comparable names for men, most of them flattering. Silver Fox, for example, or "Hugh Hefner."

Monica Hesse: Cradle Robber comes to mind, though that's pretty gender-neutral. And Sugar Daddy -- but only if it's a rich sexy single man.

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Thank you for taking on this important issue...: I HATE the term cougar. But for the grace of my darling husband, at 39, I might be considered one, and I would just have to kill anyone who actually called me that!

Ellen McCarthy: You're welcome. We really feel we're doing God's work here.

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I am not one: since I'm married, but I find the term humerously empowering. At last a self-confidant sexual woman is given a term that isn't based on scorn (insert any number of bad terms for loose women). At last a confidant sexual woman is given the admiration society always gave confidant sexual men. You go cougars! At least SOMEONE is getting some!

Monica Hesse: But that's the thing. Why can't we give her admiration as a Sexy Confident Woman, not a C&*%$r. See? I'm not even typing it anymore? I'm rising above.

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A better reason: You missed a key point: "cougar" just isn't funny. Humor is an appropriate means of dealing with almost all complex topics, but this term fails the humor test.

If that particular species had some genetic quirk such that it was unusually common for older females to mate with younger males, then attitude would be, "Sorry ladies, we must all be able to laugh at ourselves and that is really funny." Instead, the use of cougar instead of, say, panther or puma is arbitrary and meaningless. I will debate many things, but standards of humor are not negotiable.

Monica Hesse: Indeed. Purely for humor reasons, and with no logical basis, we could have chosen much a much better word from the animal kingdom. Like "Emu." I would be okay with embracing "Emu."

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Ellicott City, Md.: While this chat is an unexpected treat, in no way does it make up for Weingarten's dereliction of what little duty, if any, he has remaining.

Monica Hesse: We'll pass on your disapproval. Though I'm not totally convinced he didn't submit the humor question.

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New York, N.Y.: Would "lioness" be more to your liking?

Monica Hesse: No! Must we offer a remedial article, Ellen?

Ellen McCarthy: We'll keep running the same story every day until the difference between cats and women is entirely clear.

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Accidental "cougar": He thought I was younger, I thought he was older. (And there's a 13 year difference!) I had to explain the term "cougar" because he didn't know it. Nevertheless, I don't like it. Granted, most of the significantly younger/older relationships I see are older man, younger woman, but I'm not a dirty old woman at 45! And even though this is turning out surprisingly well, my biggest concern is the negative image older woman/younger man couples seem to generate. New label, please!

Monica Hesse: You mean...he didn't know the term...and you INTRODUCED it to him? Head on keyboard. Head on keyboard.

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Washington, DC: Could one of the reasons why the term "cougar" appears to be a relatively new trend because younger men/older women pairings have traditionally been more widely featured in popular culture, movies, and the media?

Monica Hesse: You mean "older man/younger women"? That's what we've traditionally seen in media and pop culture...

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"Is it creepy when the genders are reversed?": You seem to think so. Again, double-standards abound.

Ellen McCarthy: You misunderstand. We think people should date whoever they want. And not be labeled like animals for it.

Monica Hesse: Yup!

Except Hugh Hefner really is kind of creepy. And doddering. An odd combo.

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Ballston Dude: Are there women out there that are cougars and don't know it? Is there a couger scale to judge onself? Or is there a 'you might be a cougar if....' criteria list?

Monica Hesse: Jeff Foxworthy, we see a branch-out opportunity for you!

Hmm. A "You Might Be A C&*&^r If" list.

We could try to create one right here and now...

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DC: Could you give some examples of women who call themselves cougars? I first came across the term when E! or a similar cable channel did a Cougar countdown, or something like that. I've never seen women referring to themselves that way.

Ellen McCarthy: We're talking largely to the publishing and tv geniuses who've decided to cash in with books and shows centered on this Canadian-born-term-which-shall-no-longer-be-uttered.

Also, that cruise we mentioned? Not a joke.

Monica Hesse: Cougar Convention? Also not a joke. Lotsa loud self-proclaimers there.

I've heard women use it in random daily life -- coffee shops, restaurants, etc. Maybe I hang out at the wrong places.

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2003: was the first time I heard the term and thought it was hilarious. Perhaps it's the phonetics -- but now I can't see a sports team called the Cougars and not snicker a little.

I see how it could be perceived as derogatory -- others find it empowering. At this point, it just seems past is due point. the TV show ("Cougartown") seems about 3 years too late...I just am puzzled by why NOW this is a cause.

Oh -- and I'm 39 and have been told I am a male cougar more than once. Thanks! I prefer mountain goat.

Ellen McCarthy: Right, we thought this would die on it's own, but it just hasn't, which is why we decided to step in.

Also: what about the actual cougars out there? The ones with fur and tails and such? Has anyone taken their feelings into consideration?

Monica Hesse: I'm okay with anyone anywhere being called a mountain goat. Mountain goat is funny.

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Bowie, Md.: I read the dead-tree edition, so I know this discussion springs from an article, and it's not just you two deciding to have a chat. But could one of your producers put up a link to the story, please? And then can someone tell me why this isn't done all the time automatically.

washingtonpost.com: Attn: All the Single Ladies of a Certain Age

Sorry, should have put this up more prominently. It's also located in the READ/WATCH/TALK bar across the top of the page

Monica Hesse: There ya go. Thanks Producer Paul!

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me thinks you're creating an issue so you can get a byline: Why can't cougar = silver fox? It did at the beginning until folks who don't like sexual confidence in older women started vilifying it and until jealous kittens jumped on the bandwagon. What is so icky about a sexually confidant woman over 40? I see sexism and I see agism from younger women who don't want their own thunder stolen. No one hates older women more than younger women.

Ellen McCarthy: Nothing -- NOTHING -- is icky about a sexually confident woman over 40. We just think "sexually confident woman over 40" is the perfect descriptor for such a person.

"No one hates older women more than younger women." What?? Why is there hating here at all?

Monica Hesse: Nothing icky about a sexually confident older women. The only ickiness is when people decide that a sexually confident older woman is so unuuuusual that they need to invent a name to describe her. That's icky.

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DC: I enjoy both of your stuff, especially Ellen's, but today's was meh. Younger women lecturing older women on these sorts of issues is far more annoying then the reverse. And I'm sure you both know how annoying said reverse is.

Monica Hesse: I'm struggling to deal with the sadness that you like Ellen more than me, when everyone knows Ellen and I are equally engaging and funny, but I will take the time to answer this question anyway.

It's a fair point, but the background of this article came out of discussions among several of the ladies of Style, whose ages range from 20s to 50s. We were all on the same page; it's just us who got the byline.

Ellen McCarthy: Meanwhile, I like Monica better than me. So, see, we're really all about love and equality and not using stupid names here in this corner of The Post.

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Danz, AK: Speaking of "panther": I've heard it used to describe a predatory woman who has aged out of the cougar bracket. As in, a panther is a randy 70- or 80-something. Believe me, this species exists, but the name doesn't make sense to me. "Flamingo," which connotes Floridian condos, might be more apropros. Although flamingos aren't, by nature, predatory. (Are they?) I think we need a moratorium on this entire sexual classification process.

Monica Hesse: Oh Lord. What's after Panther? Is there an after Panther?

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Central Virginia: I am SO happy someone else is in agreement that cougar is a derogatory term (when not used to speak of the cat). I remember when Dole was running for POTUS and he kept talking about "soccer moms" and even though at the time I wasn't a mother, I thought that every mother everywhere should unite against such stupid terminology.

Why do women tolerate such inane terms? Why would anyone think it's laughable? Both of these ways to describe women strike me as subtle (or not so) ways to put down women.

Monica Hesse: Ugh, soccer mom is horrendous. If I had kids, I might forbid them from playing soccer just to avoid it.

Ellen McCarthy: Hockey moms got their due this year, too, though. Pretty soon all our imaginary kids will have to stay in the house all day so we can avoid wonky classification.

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Adams Morgan: My high school teams were called the Fighting Cougars. In my senior year, I got to wear the tan and yellow velveteen cougar costume (mainly b/c I was the only senior short and thin enough to fit in it!) at football and basketball games.So I have legitimately been a cougar. Except at age 49 (3 months shy of 5-0!) I cannot imagine referring to myself as a cougar. Unless doing so would come with an appropriate costume.

Monica Hesse: Hahahahaha.

Excellent anecdote.

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Hill East, DC: Great article. You made your point without sounding preachy or out of touch. Why would someone want to be a cougar? Oh, sure, score with whomever you want, I don't have a problem with that. But, I first heard of the term via the Don and Mike show and part of it was the idea of some leathery, old "broad," desperate to score. Not exactly an idea to embrace.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks. And "broad" I like, actually. If it was good enough for Kate Hepburn...

Monica Hesse: If Kate Hepburn rose from the grave and said she wanted to be called a C-----, I would start calling myself one.

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hmm: Maybe it's that I've never heard DILF, though the thought has crossed my mind. I guess I see it as a cougar, only the other way around, but the 'momma' connotation is there. -shrug-

Monica Hesse: Just posting...

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Rockville, Md.: Ladies

Is the "cougar" phenomenon sort of the counter to what men/boys have done to women/girls since high school? That is upperclassmen dating freshmen/sophomore girls or older men dating younger women. It was always frustrating for boys to see their female classmates dating the upperclassmen--until those guys became upperclassmen and the cycle began anew. Older men dating younger women and taking "trophy wives" -- trading in the 50-year-old wife for two 25-year-olds -- I believe it was called. How does this all fit?

Monica Hesse: That's one argument -- that older women began dating younger men because the older men they reasonably *would* have been dating were already stepping out with 26-year-old. It's a tangled web.

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AGREE in Arlington VA: THANK YOU! I was just saying to my husband (who incidentally is much older than I. I am 50, husband is 72, we've been very happily married 25 years) the other day that this term is incredibly sexist. It implies women with a sex drive are unusual and predatory. Hello?? People should be able to date people they find attractive, whatever the age (yes, yes, assuming it is legal). Personally, men under 30 seem extremely immature to me, and many in their 30s do, too, but if this is just about sex, then hell, yes, why not? Women are vital, sexual beings all their lives, so let's stop making it sound soo tee-hee and titillating when a woman acts in a normal way.

Argh. Sorry, it just really bothers me.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks.

But part of this is the crazy implication about the men involved in these relationships. Many men in their 20's, and 30's are extremely mature. Mature enough to, say, make a voluntary decision to sleep with an older woman. Not, you know, get scared into it by her sharp claws and such.

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Younger women lecturing older women on these sorts of issues is far more annoying then the reverse: Yes, that is what is making me so sick. All these Gen-Xers laughing at women over 50. Young women get grossed out by older women, making jokes about "mom jeans," etc. It's agism with a bit of competition thrown in. You'll all be old mom-jeans wearing cougars some day and then it won't be so funny after all.

Monica Hesse: Wow. Not the point of our article at all. I'm surprised that's how you're reading it.

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NASCAR Dads: I remember hearing someone was trying to identify a group as NASCAR dads, but I don't think it really caught on.

Monica Hesse: All I'm envisioning are mustaches. Mustaches, far as the eye can see.

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Rockville, Md.: As a woman in her mid-thirties who is just getting back onto the dating market I especially hate the c-word because I don't even like younger men. They look to me like ... ectoplasm somehow (sorry, fellas). But C----- has gotten to be the standard term for a woman older than 30 who's looking for action. It can't be banished soon enough as far as I'm concerned.

Monica Hesse: We've noticed that even women dating men of similar ages get branded with the C----- label. Amy Argetsinger relates an anecdote of a male friend of hers calling Dara Torres a C-----. Just because she is hot. With no knowledge of her dating history.

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stud: is an animal term, least I remind you.

Monica Hesse: And a hardware term. Poor carpenters.

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Somewhat off topic but related: Can we also put to rest the myth that men get more attractive as they age, while women get less so? As far as I can tell, there's absolutely no difference. For every Cary Grant or Robert Redford out there, there are 50 Val Kilmers -- totally hot when they were 25, but big puffy messes thirty years later.

Ellen McCarthy: I believe Jessica Lange's appearance at the Emmy Awards buried that myth for good.

Monica Hesse: Jessica Lange, Barbara Hershey, Catherine Deneuve, Julie Christie.

Meanwhile...Nick Nolte?

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any animal term is bad?: the term sex kitten has been around for decades, so there is plenty of precedent for refering to women with feline names.

Monica Hesse: We would stop sex kitten if we could (mostly, we're offended on behalf of underage cats everywhere), but that term might be too deep in the lexicon to reverse. We still have some hope for the demise of C-----.

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Panther?: "What's after Panther?"

Well, then you're just going through Mac operating systems. Jaguar was in there somewhere, then Tiger, Leopard, and Snow Leopard.

But I digress. Panther is also confusing because it was used by the Black Panthers, and then by the Grey Panthers (senior citizen activists). So we may be heading toward bobcats, or maybe cheetahs.

Anyway, you're right that the whole thing is just tired at best and derogatory at worst. The idea being that we're predatory, and young men are just innocent little critters waiting to be slaughtered -- it doesn't reflect well on anyone involved.

Monica Hesse: Zackly.

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sexually confident woman over 40: Yeah, only it's easier and funner to say "cougar." Like Yuppie, Hippie, DINK, suburbanite. WE have lots of slang for different socioeconomic social catetories. This is another one and not a big deal.

Ellen McCarthy: Yeah, I don't know. This one's just not funner for me.

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Guy chiming in: I don't like the term cougar because it implies predation. As someone who has aged into the "dirty old man" category and hates that, I hate the idea of being associated with preying on people which is what a cougar purportedly is doing as is a man who dates a much younger woman. For the record even though I'm over 40 now, I too get skeeved when I see a much younger woman with a much older guy. Having said all that, if Demi and Ashton are happy, if Nicholson and his young'un of the moment are happy and everyone is above the legal age of consent, then good for them. And no thanks to the pejorative labels.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for this. We agree. As long as two people are happy together, what business is it of ours?

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Leave the keyboard alone!: Relax! You misunderstand me--it came up in the course of conversation in describing what someone else had said to me--I HAD to fill him in. I thought it was kind of charming he was clueless. Meant he didn't have an old lady fetish.

Monica Hesse: Alright, alright, you get a pass. And now he can be armed with the knowledge and use it for good, not evil.

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raleigh, nc: "But why is it creepy? Is it creepy when the genders are reversed? "

yes, it is....

people shouldn't be dating their parents... or their children...

stick to your own age bracket.

Monica Hesse: Just posting...

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annapolis, md: I don't particularly like the cougar label, but primarily because the image of a cougar is really the opposite of typical older woman/younger man behavior. I'm 49 and am often asked out by younger men, but never chase them. And this seems to be the experience of most of the single women my age.

Ellen McCarthy: I've heard this a lot. So how 'bout we drop the term and just let these guys go after whoever they want without worrying that they're putting their potential dates up for some kind of ridicule.

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State College, PA: I don't see what the fuss is about. I actually think that "cougar" is a great term. It makes me think of a powerful, graceful, lithe animal. Who wouldn't want to be that?

A question: is there a male term for "drama queen"? I've been trying to come up with one, but haven't managed it. Any thoughts?

Ellen McCarthy: Yes, cougars are lovely. The term used in reference to a woman and her dating preferences? Not so much.

And I think the male term for drama queen is "drama queen."

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Washington, DC: Recently overheard one-sided cellphone conversation of woman, apparently in her late 30's: "No, no, a cougar is in her 40's. I'm like...I'm ... I'm like a puma!"

Monica Hesse: Seriously, it's more trouble than its worth to figure out how to use it.

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Chantilly, Va.: According to Apple, "Tiger" is after "Panther", followed by "Leopard" and "Snow Leopard".

Monica Hesse: Knowing more about zoology would really help me assess the validity of these terms.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am a 42-year-old psychology professor. My students had to define the term "older adult" on a test yesterday and half of them said "age 40+." I feel even older now.

Ellen McCarthy: Did you fail them?

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when I was a young feminist: we valued older women and wanted to learn from their wisdom--it was the point of feminism. Now young women are grossed out by old women and want to make fun of them. Discrediting older women's right to sexuality is part of that scorn. Go Cougars!

Monica Hesse: Again, wow, not how we intended the article...

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Ellen McCarthy: I think I can speak for both of us when I say this chat has been all we'd hoped it would be. Thank you for time and consideration on this important matter.

Monica Hesse: Happy dating. Whoever your choice of partners may include.

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