"What's a cougar-woman?" Barbara Walters asked recently on "The View," in that Barbara Walters way of hers: part journalist, part socialite with a dirty mind. And thus, the archetype of the cougar - the sexy older woman who seduces younger men - reached the ears of a woman in sensible pumps. Another cultural boundary had been breached.
But don't fret, Barbara; you're not too late. If Mrs. Robinson came first, and Samantha on "Sex and the City" gave hope for broad acceptance, the cougar has now become a full-fledged pop-culture punch line. Last summer, NBC gave us "Age of Love," a dating show that pitted 20-something "kittens" against 40-something cougars in pursuit of one hot Australian man. (The winner, no surprise, was 25.) In last fall's straight-to-DVD movie "Cougar Club," Faye Dunaway vamped as the oversexed wife of a college grad's boss-to-be. In a fall episode of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother," Neil Patrick Harris seduced Jane Seymour, who had also snarled at younger men in the film "The Wedding Crashers."
Meanwhile on NBC's "30 Rock," Tina Fey snagged a 20-year-old hottie, so Jane Krakowski, to compete, corralled a teen with Heelys. Lisa Rinna did a nympho-predator schtick on HBO's "Entourage." And this month, Raquel Welch - who has been something of a cougar for decades - started to play one on the new CBS sitcom "Welcome to the Captain."
By now, the cougar has become so ubiquitous - picked apart in Mark J. Penn's recent book "Microtrends," mercilessly meta-mocked on network TV - that it's due for a reclamation. And sure enough, in self-help circles, a Take Back the Cougar movement is starting to form, complete with product tie-ins and promotional opportunities.
The cougar may be the butt of jokes, after all, but she's also an aspiration, a figure in stark contrast to some less female-friendly cultural trends.
On one hand, we're bombarded with ads for Viagra and Cialis - one current "Viva Viagra" spot features a virile middle-aged guy on a motorbike - which suggest that aging men ought to have as much sex as they physically can.
On the other hand, women are flooded with reminders that they ought to be nesting by now: celebrity pregnancy mania, fertility fear-mongering, anxious exhortations to find a mate already. In the upcoming issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Lori Gottlieb writes "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough," in which she suggests that 30-something women should give up the dream of true love and hot sex, and instead choose someone reliable to help with diaper changes.
The article, now up online, has set women abuzz. Asha Bandele, a 40-year-old author and poet in Brooklyn, says her friends in their late 20s and early 30s had a recent group dinner, centered on discussing whether Gottlieb is right.
Bandele gives thanks that she's in a different place: a mother, divorced, advanced in her career, and dating a man a decade younger. It's a low-pressure relationship, she says. And compared to some accomplished, jaded men close to her age, a younger guy - awed by her experience - makes her feel good.
"You can go out with someone who's interesting, with a million and one stories," Bandele says. "But when someone makes you feel that way? That's sexy."
Bandele considers herself a "real cougar," a term coined by Linda Franklin, a 60-year-old life coach who runs a website aimed at women aging gracefully. In December, Franklin launched an offshoot site called the Real Cougar Club, where cougars can network, celebrate their sexiness, and shed what Franklin calls the "skeevy kind of image."
In fact, Franklin wants to expand the "cougar" definition altogether. That part about dating younger men isn't essential, she says. A cougar, instead, is "a woman over 40 who is strong and confident and sexy and independent. . . . She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it."
By her standards, Hillary Clinton could be a cougar, too.
A cougar in a pantsuit? Hold on a minute. If we're going to set Barbara Walters straight, we should admit that the whole idea started with sex. So says Valerie Gibson, a Toronto-based sex and relationship columnist who takes credit for spreading the "cougar" label through the United States.
"Cougar," Gibson says, is a Canadian term, born in the bars of Vancouver and meant to be unkind. But when Gibson heard the insult more than five years ago, she sensed an opening. Fifteen years ago, she had written a book called "The Older Women's Guide," which gave tips on dating younger men. It never took off: "It was just too soon," she says.
In 2002, Gibson tried again, with a new book called "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men." Now, she takes credit for spreading the term through the US, largely by pushing her tome through the talk-show circuit. (She has explained cougar habits to the eager ears of Dr. Phil and Montel Williams, and also sent a book to Sharon Stone.)
Everyone loves a label, Gibson says, but the "cougar" type has actually existed for centuries. Catherine the Great dabbled in younger men because she could. For a long time, Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" was the typical pop culture portrayal: By lusting for younger men, she was doing something wrong, so she had to be an alcoholic.
Then came Demi Moore, who has arguably had more sway on pop culture than any other woman of our time. First, with the help of Vanity Fair, she single-handedly made pregnancy look sexy. Then, with her real-deal relationship with Ashton Kutcher - now her husband, 15 years her junior - she sparked the idea that a cougar could be cool. Before long, magazines were celebrating the prowess of older Hollywood babes, cougar-dating websites were cropping up, and E! had come up with a list of "25 Hottest Cougar Tales," calling out the likes of Barbara Hershey, Susan Sarandon, and Geena Davis.
All are gorgeous in their own right, which is no surprise: Hollywood has long been packed with the agelessly attractive. The cougar, thus described, shares some spiritual ground with the much-older notion of the Mom-I'd-Like-to-(use your imagination) - epitomized by Stifler's mom in 1999's "American Pie," or "Stacey's Mom" in the song by Fountains of Wayne. But unlike the M-I-L-you know, the cougar has agency. She controls her destiny and picks her dating pool. She considers herself more like the slightly-older women in the new series "Lipstick Jungle" (NBC) and "Cashmere Mafia" (ABC): hot, uber-stylish, and bubbling over with power.
And she has little to do with that other vision of stress-free aging, the pert, grandmotherly "Red Hat Society," which promises wholesome, sexless, depoliticized fun for over-50 women. The group's website declares, hopefully, that wearing the right-colored hat "adds an element of fun to aging."
The cougar is interested in a different kind of fun - the sort that must appeal to a boomer bubble that is moving steadily toward retirement age. Census data predicts a 72 percent rise in adults 50 and older between 2000 and 2020 - and not all of those women want to "greet middle age with verve, humor and elan," as the Red Hat site declares.
Self-defined cougars take their aging seriously. And they consider themselves elite.
"Not all women who date younger men are called cougars," Gibson says. "It's a particular, sophisticated group of older women . . . what they are is very free. They do not want to marry, they do not want to cohabit, and they don't want to have kids. But they are enjoying their life."
Gibson - who declines to give her age but allows that she "loved getting 40 and loved getting 50 and so on" - is clearly enjoying herself.
"My last husband was 14 years younger than me," she says by phone, "and it was the best marriage out of all my five."
Even Gibson has to admit that the cougar has comic possibilities. And Donna Moore, 45, a Boston-bred actress who once starred in the PBS kids' show "Zoom," cracked up when she first heard the word two years ago, while on the town with girlfriends in Manhattan. Not long afterward, at a "Saturday Night Live" post-party, the manager of the episode's musical guest, some 20 years her junior, invited her back to his apartment - a shared sublet - for a beer.
He played guitar for her. He kissed her. And though Moore slipped out without doing much more, she was inspired to write a song about that night: "Inside this peri-menopausal body I do find/ A very sexy hottie who's just waiting to unwind/ I've had my kids and husbands too, my businesses are plenty/ And now the men who call on me are somewhere around twenty."
She added it to a show she was performing, a cabaret about her divorce called "The Unbalancing Act." One night, a producer in the audience encouraged her to write a whole show about cougars. Thus was born the two-person "Cougar Cabaret," which morphed into "Cougar! The Musical," with upcoming performances at a New York theater.
"Part of my intention was to humanize the cougar," Moore says. "A woman uncovers her inner cougar and then just finds a new lease on life, you know?"
The ladies of "The View" seemed to think so, too, when Walters made her query. Well, maybe not 30-year-old Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who declared that "Cougars go after little puppies," then barked like a dog. But 40-year-old Sherri Shepherd started snarling like a jungle cat, and spun out praise for Demi Moore. "You the bad sister, Demi," she said. "I don't know what she put in Ashton's little Cheerios, but go on, girl."
Franklin, the life coach, had a different answer in mind. The day Walters posed her question, she wrote an e-mail to Bill Geddie, the show's executive producer, with a suggestion: "They should have said, 'You're a cougar, Barbara. Go get 'em.' "