Indigenous to the Americas, the puma or panther or mountain lion— Puma concolor—is further known as the catamount, the mountain screamer, the night crier, the sneak cat, the swamp devil, the purple feather, and the ghost walker. In Canada, as in other, more interesting places, they skip the colloquialisms and go for cougar, and therefrom oozes the word in its slang sense. Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower cites anecdotal evidence establishing that cougar—meaning a woman of a certain age who pursues men of a tender age—was in currency in British Columbia and Alberta by the early 1990s. Etymologists have yet to confirm the delightful tale that the NHL's Vancouver Canucks originated the term to reference a mature subset of puck bunnies.
In nature, cougars are a highly adaptable species found in every American habitat. In civilization, the situation is much the same. Who knows how many women have embraced this term of disparagement (or at least diminishment) like Cubists and queers before them? How many men now fantasize about cleaning the pool for a heavily tanned hedonist? Experts agree that the cougar's breakthrough moment came with the 2005 marriage of Ashton Kutcher (then 27) and Demi Moore (then 42)—a union effectively sanctified by Oprah, who is frequently pleased to have the pair as guests. Some members of Oprah's core demographic must get a vicarious kick from the thought of seasoned Demi ravishing under-ripe Ashton.
Other folks are more difficult to impress. Last week, Salon's Rebecca Traister called bullshit on the talk of liberation attending to this voracious new archetype: "Cougars, as we portray and celebrate them, are mimicking the midlife crisis-penis-car-crippling-insecurity version of mature masculinity." We celebrate cougars for their rapacity, with the soft call and hard growl of the word connoting a prowl and a pounce. We portray them as faintly deviant and at least slightly pitiable, like a randy batty aunt. Typical is the attitude of Travel & Leisure, which once led off an article with a scene set at a cougar-friendly bar in a Pacific Rim town: "In Vancouver, [cougars] are viewed affectionately, as just another segment of a broad-minded, dizzyingly diverse society." As opposed to what? Isn't that a bit much? What is the deal with the Canadian libido?
After Ashton, the deluge: ABC has ordered a pilot of Cougar Town, a sitcom starring Courteney Cox. VH1 has made moves to develop Camp Cougar, a reality show that will presumably record intensive training sessions in how to display public affection with tousled boy-toys. TV Land last week unleashed The Cougar, a dating show hosted by actress Vivica A. Fox, whose cougarhood is the stuff of Billboard hits.
The Cougar defeated my efforts to pay attention to it. I made four honest efforts to contemplate, or even to notice, what was happening in the pilot, and the show kept sliding right off my cerebral cortex. Perhaps the problem is its self-helpful air of sincerity, a quality that leads Fox to speak with a cumbersome respectability of tone, as if narrating a PBS documentary on the building of the Erie Canal. Or maybe it's that the object of desire—Stacey, a 40-year-old divorcee and mother of four—shows an appreciable deal of awkwardness before the camera, as if nagged by a sense of propriety that clearly won't take her far in reality TV. Her visible diffidence does not comport with her script about being the master of her own destiny. That mastery, by the way, is signified by shots proving Stacey's ability to hold shopping bags and sashay down the sidewalk at the same time.
With The Cougar a bust and my understanding of this phenomenon or lifestyle or movement still inchoate, I ventured out into the field. A fledgling production company is currently shopping yet another reality show, this one a docuseries called Cougars: NYC, and further envisioning a tie-in nightlife empire. Thus, over the weekend, what the press release called "NYC's First Official Weekly COUGAR PARTY" transpired at a bar on the Bowery for the benefit of cougars (defined as women 40 and older) and admiring "cubs" (men between the ages of 21 and 35).
What does one wear to a cougar party? Emily Post's Etiquette failing me, I threw caution to the wind and matched a pair of jeans with a herringbone jacket. Coco Chanel's maxim coming to mind, I attempted to achieve elegance by removing one accessory and pulled off my wedding band. Mrs. Patterson's disapproval already haunting me, I put it back on and rustled up a cute 22-year-old to serve as a tasty bit of bait.
The party was, if you'll forgive the trade jargon, a sausagefest, Vienna sausage at that. There were never more than 30 people there. Sponsoring the open bar was a beveragelike liquid called Rhythm, which—the press release had given fair warning—was "vodka infused with citrus juices, Vitamin B complexes and Ginseng." The only identifiable cougars in attendance were three of the show's four stars. Not merely reality-show gold, they were a diverse group.
Wearing a little black dress was coltishly pretty Shahla, who gave her age as 40. Shahla works in the quintessential reality-TV field of medical sales. She seemed to have the idea that her appearance on the show would earn the respect of her parents, who are Pakistani Muslims. Meanwhile, vacuum-packed into something like a Hervé Léger bandage dress was Henshi, 47 years old with an aerodynamically smooth face. She works in the other quintessential reality-TV field, commercial real estate. Henshi's parents had raised her as an Orthodox Jew, and the cougar party had been scheduled so that she could observe the Shabbat.
Then there was Hayne—a dead ringer for Kristen Wiig's character on Saturday Night Live's Cougar Den. Hayne had appeared just that morning in a New York Post feature titled " Welcome to Cougartown," and the Post listed her age as 54. However, if I understood Hayne correctly—and between her slurring words and her only sometimes making sense, it is unlikely that I did—she was actually 52 and had shaved two years onto her age.
One can only hope that Hayne is in on the joke of herself. She owns Lucky Cheng's, a theme restaurant where cross-dressing waitresses attend to odious bachelorette parties. Her attire suggested that her interest in drag is not strictly professional. Hayne wore turquoise pants, a leopard-print purse, and, from her stable of "two to five" regular dates, an escort unconvincingly alleged to be a model. The model had a hint of goatee, a knit cap, a strategically placed hole in the inseam of his jeans, and a handshake like a wind-blasted umbrella.
How old was Bo? "Mmmm, 26?" said Hayne. "They're all 26." Hayne counts herself among those who find the word cougar demeaning. "I really take offense to the nomenclature," she said. "I prefer MILF." This is not a fine distinction: On MILF Island, the older woman is an innocent figure of desire; in Cougartown, she is a grotesque caricature of desire itself.
Shahla asked my cub buddy whether he could imagine going out with her. He gently demurred. She said, "Well, what about just for a drink?"
She said, "Just kidding." Shahla had told us that her cougar ways first emerged in 12th grade, when she trained her eye on freshmen. For a moment it seemed that the universal cougar dream was to redo high school forever—or maybe to undo everything that had come since—or anyway to strut through a prolonged adolescence with a hard-won confidence, wearing Jimmy Choos to the Sadie Hawkins dance.