The Cougar Trope kicked the door open for older women on screen, but is it time we left her behind? When the Cougar Trope first rose to prominence, she embodied some positive aspects we rarely see in depictions of older women, like being empowered, sexy, and going for what she wants. However, often these positive traits are played for laughs, which undercuts her sexuality. And there might be a power imbalance between the older woman and the younger man that’s uncomfortable.
“A cougar. An older woman, single and on the prowl for a younger man.” - Barney, How I Met Your Mother, 2x06
The Cougar used to be a punchline, but has the joke of an older woman preying on younger men stopped being funny? And was it ever?
From the late 90s to the early 2010s, the Cougar rose up in our pop culture to inspire a kind of mania. And at first, she embodied some positive aspects we rarely see in depictions of older women:
- For one thing, she’s empowered.
“I am fifty-f*cking-two, and I will rock this dress.” - Samantha, Sex and the City 2
The cougar is a powerful character who men are often in awe of. And she gets to be in control while still owning her femininity.
- She’s also sexy, well past the age her society says she’s supposed to be.
“You look really, really good. I mean, I never seen a 40-year-old woman who looks like you!” - Winston, How Stella Got Her Groove Back
Before the Cougar, it was rare for older female characters to be portrayed as desirable, or given any kind of sexual agency, but the cougar challenges that, often to an extreme.
- She goes for what she wants.
Mrs. Robinson: “What are you scared of?”
Benjamin: “I’m not scared, Mrs. Robinson.”
Mrs. Robinson: “Then why do you keep running away?”
- The Graduate
We’re used to seeing older men in positions of power and authority, acting with confidence and entitlement and attracting younger partners – so it can be refreshing to see women with those characteristics.
However, often these positive traits are played for laughs. The fact she’s often a comedic character also undercuts her sexuality, like we’re being invited to chuckle at the fact that older women enjoy sex at all – and we might never find out anything more about her.
If she’s sexual, she can be hypersexual, bordering on predatory. There might be a power imbalance between the older woman and the younger man that’s uncomfortable. And the cougar is fetishized – even the word itself implicitly reduces her to an animal, who might hunt men, or be hunted and caught by them.
More recently, we’re seeing more stories about what the reality of being a middle-aged or older woman is really like, as characters navigate their jobs, friendships, and dating partners of a variety of ages. Here’s our take on the cougar trope, and how she kicked the door open for older women on screen, but maybe it’s time we left her behind.
The Cougar Rises
The older woman-younger man relationship isn’t new – in 1967, The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson gave us one of our most iconic examples of the sexy older woman.
“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” - Ben, The Graduate
But the concept of the Cougar feels like a distinctly 21st-century invention. In 2001, sex and relationships columnist, Valerie Gibson, published Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. She argues the term cougar began as a Canadian put-down for older women who’d go home with anyone, and some trace the earliest usage to a Canadian website in 1999 called cougardate.com.
But in the 2000s, the explicitly negative connotations gave way to a positive craze for the Cougar – as seen in shows like Courteney Cox’s vehicle Cougar Town. From the late 90s into the 2000s, viewers celebrated characters who enjoyed affairs and relations with younger men like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones and Desperate Housewives’ Gabrielle.
Gabrielle: “Hi, how was school?”
John: “Got an A-minus on my biology exam.”
Gabrielle: “Well, let’s see what you’ve learned.”
- Desperate Housewives, 1x02
Another early iconic example – Stifler’s Mom in 1999’s American Pie — is actually described in the film by a different term:
John: “Dude, that chick’s a MILF.”
Justin: “What the hell’s that?”
John: “M-I-L-F – Mom I’d like to f*ck.”
- American Pie
And around the same time as the Cougar Craze, American Pie mainstreamed the idea of the MILF, which manifested in pop culture like the 2003 Fountains of Wayne song “Stacy’s Mom” or the 2010 movie Milf. Two thousand nine saw the reality show The Cougar, a Bachelorette-style dating game where young men competed to win the hand of a 40-year-old mother and divorcee, much like 30 Rock’s MILF Island. In 2008, Gossip Girl featured a steamy affair between Nate and a rich older duchess.
In some ways, this cultural obsession with Cougars and Milfs represented a positive newfound recognition in the mainstream that women over a certain age, and mothers, could still be sexy and desirable as ever.
“I realize that whole lady cougar hunting, the ‘mothers I’d like to,’ you know, whatever, thing is big with you guys, right? With you high school boys?” - Scarlet, 17 Again
But at the same time, the Cougar was often treated in a joky light. And the “milf” comments and cougar portrayals tended to feel a little condescending. It was also one-dimensionally fetishistic. Often all we know about the Cougar (or her defining characteristic) is her sexual appetite.
Stifler’s mom’s eventual encounter with Finch is played in the context of a rivalry between Finch and Stifler himself, so Finch sleeping with her comes across as a kind of revenge tactic.
Still, despite these limitations, as the 2000s went on, there was a steady normalization of the Cougar’s behaviors, and by the 2010s the mentions of Cougars and Milfs are increasingly casual or in an adjective form instead of describing a person’s whole, permanent identity.
In older portrayals of relationships between older women and younger men – like The Graduate and The Last Picture Show – the relationship feels inevitably temporary, and there’s a tragic, pitiable aspect to how the woman ends up being treated as disposable. Now, in part, thanks to the rise of the Cougar and her mainstream popularity, older women’s desirability is far more recognized and less stigmatized – while the “shock value” of the initial joke has long faded. As a result, we’re seeing more examples where relationships between an older woman and a younger man do last, and the age gap is less commented on.
This growing respect for the sexual older woman was already starting in some examples during the peak-Cougar 2000s era: in 2007’s I Could Never Be Your Woman, the age gap isn’t a source of tension or something that either Michelle Pfeiffer’s or Paul Rudd’s characters are made to feel embarrassed about; it’s just gently played for laughs as their relationship progresses naturally.
Adam: “I don’t care how old you are.”
Rosie: “You don’t?”
Adam: “No, I just care how much you weigh.”
- I Could Never Be Your Woman
And in 2003’s Somethings Gotta Give, the relationship between Diane Keaton’s and Keanu Reeves’ characters may be temporary in the context of the film, but it doesn’t feel shocking or funny at all — it’s just a relationship that happens to have an older woman in it, and so the older woman gets to be more than just a stereotype.
Erica: “Don’t you like girls your own age?”
Julian: “I do but I’ve never met one I’ve reacted to, uh, quite like this.”
- Something’s Gotta Give
The Cougar Fantasy
One reason the Cougar has long felt one-dimensional is that she’s traditionally seen through a male’s eyes and coded as a male fantasy. But what exactly is this fantasy?
Most obviously, the Cougar’s appeal is that she has the looks and body of a younger woman, plus the sexual experience, confidence, and knowledge that many younger women lack. So presumably this will add up to an especially satisfying encounter.
In How I Met Your Mother, when Barney tries to seduce Marshall’s law professor, there’s also a sense that she is a challenge for the younger man, and throughout the episode, she’s fetishized by him as a kind of prize he needs to get.
“Go Barney, go mount and stuff that cougar.” - Marshall, How I Met Your Mother, 2x06
An older woman might be more unattainable than an impressionable, unattached young woman. So if a young man can sleep with the Cougar, this can be a cultural way of proving his manliness and prowess (and if he fails, this is interpreted as weakness).
On a deeper emotional level, the fantasy of the Cougar is centered on channeling her experience and assertiveness. The cougar knows what she wants, while the younger man in the story is still figuring all of that out. This is the dynamic at play in The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson, arguably the origin point of this fantasy in our culture. Aimless Ben Braddock is at an existential crossroads in his life, unsure of what to do now that he’s graduated college and resistant to the path that’s expected of him. By contrast, Mrs. Robinson’s assertiveness at first feels unsettling and even frightening to Benjamin, but it takes the pressure away from him making decisions.
Ben: “I mean, shall I just stand here? I mean, I don’t know what you want me to do.”
Mrs. Robinson: “Why don’t you watch?”
Ben: “Oh, sure. Thank you.”
- The Graduate
The fantasy of the Cougar, then, is the comfort of almost cosplaying adulthood without any of the associated pressures or responsibilities. There’s a maternal, almost oedipal aspect to this dynamic, with the older woman taking charge of the younger man. So rather than wanting to necessarily actually become more adult, like her, he’s actually seeking a return to a childlike, infantile state. In Succession, Roman gets off on Gerri adopting the tone of an angry mother punishing him
Still, the fantasy isn’t just a male one. For women, too, there’s something liberating about the cougar that goes against the idea that women are only valuable while they’re young. In Thelma and Louise, it’s Brad Pitt’s character who acts as the female fantasy for Thelma, helping to propel her out of a hum-drum, ordinary life.
And as the cougar began to become more defined in culture at the turn of the millennium, the Cougar’s appeal became more oriented toward women – and increasingly empowering for them. High-profile relationships between Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Lisa Bonet and Jason Momoa, and Madonna and Guy Ritchie all focused around the female sex symbols’ retaining their appeal, and how adored they were by these younger men. Even in a show like Cougar Town, which tried hard to play on all the typical Cougar jokes, the focus is on Jules’ insecurity and mishaps as she starts dating again after her divorce.
So as time went on it felt like the focus was shifting – away from just what young men thought about Cougars, and more toward allowing space for middle-aged and older women to enjoy their sexual instincts, if they felt like it, with whatever age partner they connected with.
The Older Experience
Gone are the days when we only see these older women through the lens of the young men who lust after them. Instead, we’re getting more of the older woman’s perspective – stories are increasingly interested in how it feels to be an aging, single woman who still has a sexual appetite.
These characters don’t always have to be completely voracious, either. But they’re in narratives that offer a nuanced look at the reality of what an older woman’s sex life and love life might be.
In Grace and Frankie, we get the extreme version of this, because if it’s rare to have nuanced depictions of middle-aged women’s sex lives, then it’s almost unheard of to get the same of two elderly women – particularly when they’re not the butt of the joke.
“You have a waist, and hips, and even breasts; look at those girls! Welcome to the world! Oh my lord, sexy and gorgeous.” - Grace, Grace and Frankie, 1x12
Having both been thrust unexpectedly into singledom at an unlikely point in both their lives, Grace and Frankie navigate dating, body image, and even starting a sex toy business. Also, the flings and relationships they have often tend to be with men closer to their own age, so there’s less opportunity for fetishization, and instead, we see them for who they are.
Part of what’s new and refreshing about this new era of culture depicting older women is the relationships between the older women, like in Julie Delpy’s On The Verge, Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, or Netflix series Sweet Magnolias. Watching these characters rely on their friendships allows for richer, more nuanced conversation and a more honest exploration of what their experiences with dating (and getting older, in general) are like.
In Firefly Lane, we meet Kate and Tully years into their friendship, but they’re rebuilding it within the different contexts of their adult lives – Tully as a famous journalist, and Kate a housewife in the middle of a divorce, who’s tentatively dipping her toes back into the world of dating.
And Just Like That returns years later to follow the Sex and the City women in their 50s, so there’s an added layer of us already having known these characters in their 30s. While Sex and the City concluded with most of the ladies settling down, And Just Like That finds Carrie unexpectedly single again after she’s widowed, while Miranda meets a new person who inspires her to rethink her sexuality and become vulnerable again as she pursues a new love.
[And Just Like That 1:28:
Che: “Ask for what you want; that’s a turn-on.”
Miranda: “I didn’t know that.”
- And Just Like That, 1x07
Part of what this new era for the sexual older woman reveals is that life isn’t always simple or fixed – the happy-ever-after storyline of getting married and having a family might not turn out to be permanent, and if it isn’t, there are still plenty of new discoveries and fun to be had, at any age.
The cougar has, ironically, aged kinda badly. These always-horny, fetishized older female characters don’t really get at the complexity of that experience, and often just feel like another form of titillation for men.
And it’s interesting that older woman / younger man relationships in real life aren’t provoking the same reactions as maybe they would have at the cougar’s height. Kim Kardashian has 13 years on Pete Davidson, and while this has been talked about in the press, its significance has been quickly dismissed by both parties. The fact that he has had a string of high-profile relationships with beautiful women, and she is still seen as one of the hottest celebrities on the planet in spite of her age, means that the age difference between the two doesn’t seem like as big a deal.
Meanwhile, a lot of the dismissal of older women’s stories stems from an old-fashioned notion that once women become mothers or wives, that’s all they are, and if they aren’t either of those things, something’s gone wrong. Seeing a truer reflection of the older woman’s experience reveals just how many stories there are left to tell. So it’s promising that we’re moving beyond the cougar trope – even if we can be grateful to her for getting us here.
“I’ve been called a cougar, a black panther, a puma! I had to smack this one kid.” - Jennifer, Couples Retreat
“Are More Older Women With Younger Men?” ABC News, 5 May 2005 https://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/Health/story?id=731599&page=1
Barrett, Grant. “Time for a Cougar?” The Star Online, 17 Oct. 2007, https://web.archive.org/web/20101005082024/http://thestar.com.my/english/story.asp?file=%2F2007%2F10%2F17%2Flifefocus%2F19059904&sec=lifefocus.