Reclaiming the cougar

Columnist Elizabeth Renzetti’s, “Let the cougars roam free,”was published inThe Globe and Mail on Jan. 23, 2010.

When Pat Benatar sang, “Love is a Battlefield,” in 1983 it spoke to romantics in socially unacceptable relationships. For the cougar, the battlefield of love is pitted with land mines.

In an interview with Elizabeth Renzetti, British visual artist Sam Taylor-Wood said, “Us women aren’t allowed to have power, are we? We’re not allowed to make such radical decisions.” Taylor-Wood, 42, fell in love with British actor, Aaron Johnson. The scandalous part about their love is that Johnson is 19-years-old.

The first and second wave of the women’s movement gave women the freedom to love whomever they choose. This is not to say the choice comes without consequences. Women who are attracted to younger men are unaffectionately labeled cougars.

To some, the label is one worth carrying. “Let’s see: We’re talking about women who are financially independent, sexually confident and attractive enough to win the affections of men who are not yet in need of Viagra,” says Renzetti.

Female celebrities make headlines for sinking their teeth into young men. Courtney Cox is eight years older than spouse David Arquette.  Demi Moore’s husband, Ashton Kutcher, is 15-years her junior. After divorce with director Guy Ritchie, Madonna, 51, hooked up with 23-year-old model Jesus Luz.

Being called a cougar brings out the claws in any woman. “I don’t understand why there’s outrage over the word “cougar” to describe older women who like their men a bit wet behind the ears,” says Renzetti. The outrage Renzetti refers to is the attitude of some feminists. “It’s not like they’re being called armadillo or three-toed sloth or bone-eating snot-flower. Or that most terrifying creature, the dreaded spinster,” said Renzetti.

Welcome to the land of labels. Renzetti’s argument is a tough sell. Think of the cougar as it is, a sleek and powerful animal that knows what it wants. It is certainly better than being called a sloth, as Renzetti suggests. But why compare at all? Is there a need for a label? “Never mind reclaiming the night, it’s time to reclaim the word,” Renzetti writes.

Forget reclaiming the word. Break the label. The word cougar is not romanticized. When first heard, the word conjures scantily dressed women with lipstick on their teeth, bar flies waiting for any interested gentlemen to buy them a drink. Adhering to a label that cheapens women makes little sense.

Men who pursue women 15-years their junior are not slapped with an embarrassing label. Taylor-Wood touched on the double standard. Men can date younger without having an eyebrow raised. When it comes to women, radical decisions with love are outliers to the societal norm. Is there a current of fear around a woman’s sexuality insofar a label needs to be created to single her actions?

Renzetti’s peppy enthusiasm to reclaim the label is a good start. However, it does not solve the problem. The women’s movement still has a ways to go when it comes to women being able to love whoever they choose without being labeled.

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