Is there a G-rated word more hideous and nasty to women than the word "cougar"? Wait, that's rhetorical. But, seriously. Cougars: They are big cats. They are not ladies of any sort. They are not, especially, women who deign to date younger guys, for whatever reason, and are therefore seen as preying on them and/or tearing them apart (emotionally, physically, sexually, whatever) with their vicious metaphorical sharp teeth and claws.
The double standard is obvious. Men have dated younger women for most of historical time, and we've never much judged them for doing so (until, sometimes, one such man dates someone so very young as to be told they're "robbing the cradle," generally with more of a high-five mentality than censure). But when women date a little bit, or a lot, younger than their own age, the next logical step is to label them with a nasty name.
To apply the term "cougar" to a woman dating someone younger than herself is gross, in an espeially bro-tastic sort of way. It's grosser still when we use that word to apply to 16-year-old girls. That's why Jennifer Conlin's Style section piece in The New York Times is so upsetting, though I'm sure she—a mom—didn't mean to belittle her own daughter with that phrase. Perhaps she thought it was "cute"? But that's a semantic problem: "Cougar" has become such a common term (see Cougar Town) that we forget that it's actually kind of offensive. Conlin's piece, about high school girls going to prom with younger guys, is sweet...until we get that word. She writes:
Recently, as I heard my daughter, a junior in high school, and her friends discuss their plans for the prom, I had a vaguely troubling thought: can a 16-year-old be a cougar?
Her best friends wanted to take boys younger than themselves (much younger ... two entire grades younger) to the prom. And one of those boys just happened to be my ninth-grade son.
Conlin goes on to reflect upon her own prom days, in which she went with an older boy, a time in which neither she nor her friends would have ever considered dating anyone younger than they were. But, isn't it rather a good thing that this has changed? Personally, when I was of prom-going age, which was some years back, there were at least a few couples in which the girl was older. This wasn't much of a problem, and certainly, no one threw around the term "cougar." (Further nitpicky point: "cougar" doesn't really apply to a two-year age difference.) But the point is, kids now seem even more accepting of relationships that don't fit traditional norms, whether that means they're open to gay and lesbian students and friends or that they have no problem dating whoever they want rather than someone of the appropriate age, as prescribed by adults. Because who really set the standard that women were supposed to date older, anyway? This all goes back to traditional gender roles, in which the older men were in power and "brought home the bacon" while their little women at home were "weaker" and "younger" and had to be protected. But that's not really how people live in the real world anymore.
So this "trend," in so much as it is one, is really a positive, healthy thing. The problem, again, is that word. Conline writes:
Call it young cougars, a game of confidence or just female empowerment, but the unthinkable during my high school years is now happening all around me and other mothers of my acquaintance. A growing number of our teenage girls are unabashedly showing their preference for younger boys, saying they are not only more respectful than their older counterparts, but generally nicer to date.
Nicer to date. That is fantastic, what a parent should want for his or her child; what a teenage girl should want for herself. And this trend is about equality, too:
“The senior guys at my school tend to like to go out with the younger girls, so now I guess we are doing the same with younger guys,” she said, adding that as a freshman and sophomore she went out with older classmen before meeting Dan last year.
The only negative thing about this trend, in fact, appears to be the cougar jokes.
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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.