Who Are You Calling “Cougar?”

If you’re sick of the “cougar” hype, read on to find out how these two authors are breaking the stereotype down. Compare the “accidental cougar” to the “real cougar” — then draw your own conclusions!

By Theo Pauline Nestor

ast time my hairstylist was turning my gray hair blonde, she said something surprising during our usual how’s-your-love-life exchange: “People look at women like me and say ‘cougar’ but they don’t understand. Guys my age aren’t interested in me. It’s the younger guys who are always asking me out.”

Hmmm, I thought, very interesting. Although it’s a challenge for me to think of my 35-year-old curvy blonde hairstylist as a cougar, her
It’s the younger guys who are always asking me out.
comment about the persistence of younger men matched up with a comment made by my friend Nicole, a very attractive sixtyish food writer, about online dating. “I expected ageism, like men my age overlooking my profile in favor of those much younger,” says Nicole. “The big surprise has been the number of much younger men who have looked at my pictures, my age and my profile — and then pursued me. I can’t pretend to understand it. The most surprising was a 27-year-old who would not take ‘no’ for an answer, and then ‘No way. I’m old enough to be your mother’ as a good enough rejection. ‘I know that,’ he responded, ‘but I can just tell you’re the one for me. I love the wisdom of older women.’ My mind jumped to musing about what kinds of wisdom he might find so compelling at 27, and as fascinating as that was, I deleted his emails from my Inbox… for his own good.”

The similarity between these two comments got me wondering: Maybe this whole “cougar” business — this image of the carnivorous older woman prowling for young males — is actually a media creation that really has no bearing on what was happening out in the real world. Maybe it’s the younger men who go out searching for older women to date. Maybe, older women — as much as we’ve been told to fear aging, to work out incessantly, to use Botox, to fear being replaced by the next arriving generation of babes — are actually really hot. And following this logic, I asked myself: Could there, in fact, be such an animal as an “accidental cougar?”

The term “accidental cougar” was coined as a comeback by 45-year-old author Susan McBride ( in her novel, The Cougar Club, which was written about older women “who aren’t out hunting cubs. They just happen to attract them.” After taking part in a shoot for a local magazine’s issue devoted to profiling the top St. Louis singles, McBride was invited to a party where she met Ed, nine years who junior, who asked her to attend a hockey game with him. One thing led to another, and today they are happily married. When friends and family teasingly called her a “cougar,” she jokingly shot back, “I’m an accidental cougar.”

“Hey,” McBride says, “Ed pursued me! So it seemed only fitting. As I’ve since learned, there are loads of women over 40 who are dating or married to younger men, and their partners did the wooing. Which kind of turns the stereotype of what a cougar
Maybe every woman’s got a little cougar in her.
actually is on its ear, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to be the hunters stalking our prey, and many times, it’s the other way around. That’s something the media doesn’t portray nearly enough, if at all.”

“When I was first called a ‘cougar,’ it cracked me up,” says McBride. “I never took it seriously, particularly since I wasn’t at all the image of a stereotypical older woman wearing leopard prints and Spandex, picking up college boys at bars. I think the media has overused the word ‘cougar’ in describing women in relationships with younger men. It doesn’t surprise me though, because there’s still such a double standard in our society when it comes to women.”

Linda Franklin (, author of Don’t Ever Call Me Ma’am: The Real Cougar Woman Handbook, agrees. “I think the portrayal of cougars in our culture is totally absurd,” says Franklin. “The media grabs hold of something and milks it for all it’s worth. And, of course, sensationalizing the negative makes it even more delicious to them.” Franklin, age 60, is all in favor of taking back the word ‘cougar’ and employing it as a positive term that describes independent and confident women of a certain age. “There are two ways to look at the term ‘cougar’— the media version and the real-life version,” she says. Franklin, founder of, coined the term ‘real cougar’ as her way of “turning a derogatory label into a designer label for women over 40.” Because, as Franklin says, “Society rebels against anything that is threatening — and in a male-dominated world, powerful women are threatening. But all the negativity and lies will not stop us. I believe every woman has a ‘real cougar’ inside just waiting to escape. A ‘real cougar’ is the woman we were always meant to be. So damn the torpedoes — full steam ahead.”

“The ‘real cougar’ woman,” says Franklin, “is smart, confident and independent. She has stopped listening to what other people say and is doing what makes her happy. She refuses to be defined by the age of the man she is dating and is quickly becoming a role model for all women… now, and for the generations to come.”

Meow! All this has got me thinking: Maybe every woman’s got a little cougar in her, and maybe that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over and a regular contributor to Happen magazine.
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