If your name is Mrs. Robinson, it may behoove you to avoid a few behaviours, like naming your kid Swiss Family, or sleeping with someone young enough to be your son. And yet, earlier this year, Northern Ireland was rocked by revelations that MP Iris Robinson, wife of First Minister Peter Robinson, had had an affair with a very young man named Kirk McCambley. At the time of their relationship, Mrs. Robinson was 59 and McCambley, 19. Displaying even worse judgment, Robinson allegedly lobbied local developers to help her lover bankroll a riverside café to the tune of £50,000 (about $82,000).
When her husband found out about the affair, she attempted suicide. Iris Robinson resigned from Parliament, the scandal broke and Peter Robinson took a temporary leave from leading Northern Ireland. From a book-lined den he shakily addressed the public, as unglued as a toddler’s toilet-paper-tube craft project.
But within days, the thrum of human and political tragedy grew harder to hear against the media’s snickering: In the blogosphere, Robinson was hailed as the first “Irish cougar” and a “cougar queen.” The Mail Online headline read: “MP Iris Robinson, 60, had affair with 19-year-old toyboy.”
The real story of this mess isn’t Northern Ireland’s renewed instability, or Robinson’s hypocrisy as a conservative proponent of those slippery “family values”; it’s the lady-favouring age gap. Within days, one could buy a shirt reading “I slept with Iris Robinson,” presumably marketed to tweens.
Why, dear God, is this term cougar still in our collective face? When it hit the mainstream early in the millennium, it seemed destined for a where’s-the-beef-waasssup flame-out. But cougar endures and is applied to any older woman involved with a younger man, regardless of whether the gap is as small as Demi Moore’s 15 years on Ashton Kutcher or as wide as Madonna’s almost 30 years on Jesus Luz.
Cougar jokes are sustenance for late-night comedians and the entire raison d’être of the thick-witted sitcom Cougar Town. In Cougar Town, where tourism is way down, skeletal Courteney Cox complains about her “fat” arms and flashes her panties at a kid on a bicycle. This January, an Air New Zealand ad featured a cougar in a tight red dress attacking an unwilling young man described as her “meat.” A rape-prevention group managed to wipe away tears of laughter before complaining.
Those so inclined can now use cougar dating services, attend cougar parties and take cougar cruises, where they may pass the time on deck reading a slew of humour books, including Don’t Ever Call Me Ma’am: The Real Cougar Woman Handbook. Ha! It’s funny because it’s improbable!
Yet the cougar joke isn’t a joke; it’s scorn. The cougar is a caricature: the horny granny infiltrating a young man’s world — a nightclub, a pub — encrusted with cheap makeup; a predator spilling out of a polyester wrap dress. Sigmund Freud wrote that comedy is an unconscious act of aggression, and the media’s seizing upon this monstrous image reeks of discomfort with the very idea of an older woman who dares to be sexual. Female sexual pursuit “ain’t natural,” is the clumsy subtext of jokes about newly single Susan Sarandon gallivanting with a Ping-Pong entrepreneur half her age. (Ping-Pong entrepreneur? Now that’s funny.) But these days, after one’s child-bearing years, nature is a tameable beast; the celebrity cougar is buffed and surgeried to a twentysomething sheen.
Blame Canada: The beginning of the word’s popularity can be traced back to a 1997 art-project-cum-dating-site, Cougardate.com. Elizabeth Vander Zaag and Elspeth Sage were multimedia artists in Vancouver who borrowed the term from the slang of Sage’s 21-year-old nephew. The site featured a cougar manifesto, tongue firmly in cheek: “The most successful cougars are those that married well and got huge divorce settlements. Lesser cougars were feminists who clawed their way to the top and made their own money.”
The joke, says Sage via email, was a post-feminist one. “Our position was that after 30 years of feminism we were still at the starting gate. Nothing had really changed and women were still earning 67 cents on the dollar. Men our age were really mad at us for the few gains we had made, so who’d want to date them?” The term had less to do with sex than with power, playing off the threat of female independence. Sage bemoans today’s dumbing down of cougarism: “Now [it’s] ridicule.”
The reality is that women may date younger men because they have to: Men die first, often leaving younger widows. About 71 percent of Canadian senior men (65 and over) have a spouse, but only 42 percent of senior women do. (And the poverty rate for these women is twice that of men; cougar cruise or rent this month?)
Yet when women date younger men, the response is titters; the reverse breeds silence. In the Oscar-nominated film Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges (61) romances Maggie Gyllenhaal (32), but the age difference is incidental. When former New York governor Eliot Spitzer fell from grace after his involvement with a prostitute, the headlines didn’t read: “Spitzer in affair with girl toy 26 years his junior.”
There’s no male equivalent for the term cougar: silver fox has quiet dignity; cougars kill. Lately, women’s sex lives have invited an onslaught of condescending monikers: pumas (baby cougars), TWITs (“teenage women in their thirties” — those who dare to party rather than breed), MILFs (because most mothers wear pear-assed mom jeans, legs tightly crossed until death). How about calling these women, with all their unique sexual proclivities, women?
Of course, if cougar deserves extinction, then men get a break, too. A good friend, almost 40, recently announced his engagement to a woman in her mid-twenties. I recoiled at the cliché, but I have met his fiancée, and she is not a fawning, uncomplicated mid-life crisis. My friend is perceptive and trustworthy. They alight something lovely in each other.
And if they are taken seriously, then maybe I, in my twilight, can wear my trousers rolled or my dress tight, and bed who I want to bed, and no one will laugh. I will answer the question of the Biblical Sarah, who turned the head of the pharaoh at 65, and asked, at 90: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”