Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Whence the Term "Cougar"?

I’m a big believer in love. I don’t tend to think in categories, but rather individuals. How do these two people love each other, and what are the obstacles to their love? So I’ve written all sorts of romantic combinations. One of the three relationships in Strange Sabbats, available now from Loose Id, is between an older woman and younger man.

I never heard the term “cougar” used to refer to a relationship between an older woman and younger man until last year, and I’ve been curious about its origins. I’m suspicious about labeling relationships with terms simply because they fall outside “norms” defined by “mainstream society.” Love is--simply and beyond labeling--love.

I’m especially suspicious when a woman is described in animal terms. Chick, barracuda, pet, kitten, playboy bunny, etc. Of course, a negative term always presents the opportunity for reclaiming, similar to the way the gay and lesbian community has embraced the word “queer” in an empowering manner.

Women now speak enthusiastically about “chick-lit” and “chick flicks” as a reflection of power to sway the entertainment industry. Look--there’s this whole genre out there driven by our wants and needs! I’m still a bit wary of the word “chick,” being just old enough to have experienced it in its raw form. But I think reclaiming uncomplimentary words is great. Go women!

Still, before reclaiming a term, it’s important to understand where it comes from. In my online research, Wikipedia gave a basic definition of the slang term “cougar,” and listed TV shows and movies which have used the term, but didn’t go into origins.

So I searched some more, and came up with an article by a lexicographer (someone who puts together and edits dictionaries). In his article, “Time for a Cougar,”click here for article, Grant Barrett writes, “In slang use…“cougar” is a term for an older woman who prefers to date younger men. There’s a connotation there of a wily, experienced feline going after a toothsome little rabbit.”

That about sums up my initial impressions of the word. When women acquire animal descriptions, we’re invariably cast as either predators (“barracuda”) or prey (“bunny”). “Cougar” falls into the predator category.

As for the origin’s of the slang term, Mr. Barrett writes:

“I found a March 3, 2001, article in the Globe and Mail of Toronto which credits “cougar” to a Canadian website called, which the story says was started in 1999. It is, as you have guessed, a website where older women can meet younger men.

“The story given in that article is that one of the two women who founded the website was told by a nephew that the two ladies were like cougars in search of small defenceless animals. The nephew said he picked up the term from players on his hockey team. So, 1999 is the earliest probable date we have for the term and it’s fairly reliable.”

What’s interesting here is that, assuming the account is accurate, though the term was originally credited to male teen hockey players who used it in an uncomplimentary fashion, the reclaiming of the term by women occurred almost immediately. The male teens spoke of predators “in search of small defenseless animals.” But the women starting the dating website must have been thinking something to the effect of, “Hey, we’re cougars, and we’re powerful, and we’re proud!”

Again, go women! As with “chick lit,” the industry has picked up on what women want, and e-publishers are starting to contract more older women/younger man (ow/ym) stories. I’m a big believer in love--all sorts of love--so I think this is awesome. The term “cougar” may leave me with an uncomfortable aftertaste, but I’m all for the sub-genre.

What about all of you, do you enjoy a spicy older woman/younger man story? Do you prefer the term “cougar” or the older woman/younger man designation? Know any happy real life couples where the woman’s older and wiser?

Happy reading,

Eden's Blog


KyAnn said...

Great topic Eden. and the definite buzz word around the watercooler.

I remember recently having a good debate over the term with a fellow author.

My story Impulsive Pleasures was originally titled "The Cougar and the Best Man." At the time I wrote the story, (early 2006) the term wasn't as used as it is now. mostly I heard the term used by younger men looking for cougars.

I have a book out now called The Cougar Meets Her Master. I also use the term in All Lycan's Eve. (That story is an older woman with a perceived younger man. she then discovers he's much older but werewolves age differently.)

but here was the opinion I brought to the discussion.

To summarize MSNBC and an article they did on the term cougar.

There are some who find the term offensive but also those who think otherwise. MSNBC and the female writer brought a different perspective.

The article said that the term should actually empower women and not judge them. She defined a cougar as a woman who is proud of her choice of status and has maintained her looks and self-worth. She is confident of her body, even if it changes through the years.


Minx Malone said...

I love ow/ym stories, especially when the younger man is portrayed as a strong man who knows what he wants. The funny thing is, the term "cougar" portrays the woman as the hunter when in many case younger men are the ones hunting!

I've known quite a few men who appreciate older women who know who they are and don't play games.

Go ladies!!


Eden Rivers said...

Hey KyAnn,

No doubt about it, women are starting to embrace the term. The important thing, I think, is that the market is more and more responsive to what women want to read, and trends reflect that :-) My motto is "The more love, the better!"


Eden Rivers said...

Hey Minx,

Yep, stories about young 20-somethings coming on to women at bars are pretty common. I sort of got the impression that the invention of the word "Cougar" involved a teen FANTASY of being pursued by a ferocious older woman, lol.


Eden Rivers said...

Oh, just re-read that, and I meant to say 20-somethings coming on to *older* women, lol. Makes no sense without that bit...

Liza James said...

I discovered an appreciation for "cougar" stories after reading KyAnn's All Lycan's Eve. ;-) Which inspired me to write one called Hot For Teacher, although Lord only knows if it'll sell. LOL

Great blog, Eden!

Eden Rivers said...

It'll sell, Liza :-) Your work's absolutely awesome, and hot as a summer day in Wisconsin. Just hope it sells soon, 'cause I can't wait to read it!


Michelle said...

I don't like the term "cougar," but I like reading older women/younger men stories.

I enjoy reading stories that flip the script a little and show a heroine who isn't too innocent, who has some worldly knowledge, who knows what she wants and goes after it, even if the hero is younger.

Martian Bachelor said...

Uhm, there are two other threads in the garment relating to the origin of the term:

1) In "The Graduate", Mrs. Robinson is seen in at least one scene wearing a top layer with animal print motifs, including the skin patterns of predatory felines (aka "leopard spots"). Urbanites are likely to sloppily lump all wild cats together.

2) Those Canadian hockey players may have been inspired by the story of the Vancouver Island pioneer woman "Cougar Annie", who at 73 married a man many years younger than her. You can wikipedia it.

Definition drift has the term meaning something much more female friendly and stylish than was likely originally intended a decade ago. -Wouldn't want to be too blunt when weak widdle gals with their delicate sensibilities are concerned...