Would-be cougars receive brunt of sexist blame

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • March 25, 2015

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Women dating younger men forced to field questions that wouldn’t be asked if the relationship’s age gap were opposite.
Women dating younger men forced to field questions that wouldn’t be asked if the relationship’s age gap were opposite.

Seventeen-year-old Kylie Jenner and 25-year-old Tyga recently revealed their relationship, a move that has spurred conversation about age disparities between partners. Spotlighted for its May-December nature, Jenner and Tyga’s relationship—along with a TMZ article that helpfully linked to Gary Puckett & The Union Gap’s song “Young Girl”—prompted me to think about the double standard surrounding age in partnerships.

We seem to be patriarchally conditioned to be more accepting of, and even romanticize, relationships between an older male and younger female. People seem to generally be OK with this celebrity coupling, which I find particularly troubling in light of something that happened to me two years ago.

When I was 17, I appeared in a New York Times article, “For Would-be Cougars, the Prom is a Good Start.” It detailed an apparent trend of older high school and college girls dating younger teenage boys. I apparently qualified for the cougar title because I took my friend Peter, who was 15, to my junior prom. I didn’t see anything remarkable about the situation—getting dressed up and dancing with a friend on a Friday night—and anyway, there were only two years between us. Although I was reluctant at first, I agreed to do the interview.

On the day the article came out, I picked up a copy of the paper, read the headline, and turned tomato-soup red. There, in the Sunday Times, I saw my photo with my friend and the word “cougar” printed above it. I was confused and embarrassed. Teachers from my school asked about the article, students I’d never talked with inquired about it, I got Facebook friend requests from strangers across the world, and the feminist corners of the internet boiled with critiques of the article and its use of “cougar.”

The blog Jezebel called the term cougar “dumb,” and said it was sexist, arguing that this is a damaging stereotype that’s especially harmful when slapped on young girls. Other feminist writers of the web jumped to the defense of the alleged young cougars featured in the article (myself included), applauding the young women for challenging conventional notions of heterosexual relationships. For years, older high school guys have dated younger high school girls and rarely is an eyebrow raised—in fact, this is often glamorized in teen flicks and TV shows.

Cougar has a predatory, carnal connotation. It feels preying, and it invokes a malicious, mischievous imagery. This animalistic, wild implication characterizes the cougar woman as disingenuous in her interest, and overtly sexual, too—a rendering dating back to the film The Graduate, in which middle-aged Mrs. Robinson seduces fresh-out-of-college Benjamin Braddock. I’ve heard women say the term is empowering, as it aligns females with a robust, dominant creature, an association that contradicts typical depictions of women as the slight, weaker sex. Women are trying to reclaim the term and erase centuries of language laden with sexism. I support reclaiming language and crafting new positive meanings for words that have previously been used as method of oppression—there’s a lot of power in the words we choose to use—but I think in this case, we are better off tossing out the “cougar” label.

“Cougar” attaches a stigma to the kinds of relationships that have been normal for men to practice for years—Hugh Hefner and his Playboy “bunnies” come to mind. Recently, celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Katie Couric have been criticized for dating younger men. Both spoke out against these critiques—responding that the term is sexist, as there’s no equivalent expression for men who date younger women. It’s just another punch from the double-standard, and the label is more problematic because it focuses its attention on the age of the partners, not on the actual nature of the relationship. I believe that as long as both partners are legal, age is just a number. What matters most is the intention of the relationship.

Couples with an age gap that’s larger than what we’re comfortable with should not serve as pincushions for us to stab with harmful gender roles, heteronormative expectations, and sexist language. When we attach labels to these relationships, we’re distracted from looking at the elements of a partnership that are important and applicable to all kinds of relationships, not just between a man and woman—fundamentals like respect between partners, consent, communication, and equality.

Our teenage years and early 20s are a time for learning our sexuality, and this is something no other person should ever have control over in any relationship, whether the age difference is 10 days or 10 years.

At 17, I was called a cougar in the Times. The headline caused my cheeks to flush because I felt misrepresented and hurt by this oppressive expression. If age is just a number, we need to accept this for all kinds of relationships. The characterization of older women choosing to have relationships with younger men as seeking “boy toys” is not only sexist, but also dehumanizes the younger partner in an equally destructive way. We should dispose of these labels for good—they’re dated, and they pull focus away from what really matters in consensual, honest relationships.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to the band "Gary Puckett & The Union Gap" as only "Gary Puckett & The Union."