We've Got Hollywood Covered

Cougars, Gray Panthers, Silver Foxes: It’s a Jungle Out There

Guest Blog: Labels abound for older women who know what they want and go after it; but don't worry men, your judgmental nickname is coming

Cougars to the left! Cougars to the right! Older women with a strong sense of who they are and what they want and who make no bones about it have never been more visible.

But how do you feel about the sobriquet they’ve quickly earned? It certainly grates on my ear and has driven a curiosity to see how this shift is playing both in the media and in real life, perhaps an increasingly meaningless distinction, I’ll admit.

Movies have a mixed record on these issues, as we addressed in my earlier post. But it’s TV (quite surprisingly) that shows the most extreme track record at both ends of the continuum. This isn’t just PBS documentaries or high-end cable dramas either, but mainstream broadcast TV.

Also read: Why Can't Hollywood Handle Older Women and Sex?

Of course, commercial broadcast TV has typically been home to a whole lot of blather, unrealistic characterizations and just plain silliness, at one end of the scale. Yet right beside the more expected fare have been shows right at the other end: consistent, believable portrayals of happily married, still sexually active older couples.

Roll back to the 70’s to find character actor, Nancy Walker, as the beloved wife of rather fetching Harold Gould on "Rhoda" in stark contrast to her daughters (Rhoda and the future voice of Marge Simpson) who struggle to find partners. More recently, consider the still hot-to-trot Formans on "That 70’s Show." Television has been remarkably willing and able to reflect the reality that women who are secure (even if they are showing their age or were never starlet pretty to begin with) can and do find partners at any age. And that not every older man (except, perhaps, Hollywood producers?) only has eyes for much younger women.

Mind you, the media world is forever in flux. The TV images of middle-aged women and men, whether in couples or on their own, have slipped a long ways back into narrowly defined stereotypes in the last few years, along with everyone and everything else, it seems.

These retreats vary in tone from era to era. The current one — which in contrast to the perfect family fantasies of previous decades, features men who are all innocent, childlike, bacon-eating machines and women who are all conniving bitches — seems driven by a desire for a more predictable world where it’s easier to accept a slapped on label than actually build an identity of your own.

At least, that might be the goal for the wannabe innocent guys. Not so much for all those apparently bitchy women….

Given this overall trend, which has been quite dominant in the media in spite of the inroads feature films have made, perhaps the cougar thing is just an extension of perceived bitchiness to new territory. This may also explain another trend that has recently popped up: “gray panther” for the older business woman who has given up dying her hair.

The cougar label extends stereotypes about modern older women to the bedroom, the gray panther label to the boardroom, just when increasing numbers of actual older women are challenging barriers around what this phase of life (which keeps getting longer) can and should be.

The motivations for women going gray are, of course, often so very basic. They range from health concerns about constant exposure to all those chemicals to boredom with the fussiness of regular coloring, especially if you have other ways to define your status besides your increasingly artificial youthful looks. Without doubt there is freedom in being unafraid to let nature run its course. And some women even recognize — how shocking — that going gray can actually look pretty good.

It’s hard to not to feel that this new tag also has a judgmental edge to it, with little of the cache given to attractive older men. In fact, only younger women who are dying their hair gray seem to rate silver vixen, a direct equivalent to the clearly complimentary silver fox.

All this begs the question of where these labels come from: who originates them and perhaps even more importantly, who perpetuates them. The judgmental edge certainly speaks to someone’s discomfort about the whole business of older women refusing to just fade into the woodwork. This societal expectation was all too real a generation or two ago (and if you don’t believe me, ask your grandmother, especially if she was divorced or widowed in her 50s or 60s) but is still far more prevalent than it has any right to be in this day and age.

This isn’t so bad for the women of a certain age (these days shall we say, what, 45 and up?) who hold a deep sense of being desirable or talented regardless of societal expectations. But for older women who are still vulnerable to outer judgment — particularly in regard to their employability and lovability– it’s just another load added to the already considerable baggage they carry about who and what they are expected to be at this point in their lives.

Possible perpetrators are many, more than one might think at first glance. They include older women who are still invested in a creaky idea of seemly behavior; older men in the upper echelon who have managed to hold onto their ring of power and younger women who don’t want to share their own little ring and who are gaining power by siding with the men. Also to be considered are young men who are attracted to older women but uncomfortable with giving up any power to that attraction.

And don’t forget the large pool of younger men and women who haven’t yet wrapped their heads around the reality that sex doesn’t go away when your body stops being so perfect, and that they will one day turn into the people they now make fun of and that it will happen faster than they can ever imagine.

To all this add the men who have given up power, who have spent their whole adult lives having to move over to let more women in. It’s always hard to find yourself in the swing generation of a significant shift in social expectations. Many men have found a way to be gracious about sharing the privileges but others have invested in resentment. They can’t turn the clock back to the era they just missed — damn it all — but that doesn’t mean they have to like it.

That’s a lot of possibilities pointing to a lot of potential grief, perhaps an inevitable outcome of societal change. The rather sad thing here is that, as part of those changes, everyone including younger women and most men (who were previously exempt) are feeling that age related pressure — with all its issues attached — bearing down on them.

Funny (kind of) because it was actually supposed to go the other way or at least meet somewhere in the middle. Regardless, we find ourselves here with every aspect of the shift in motion. Calling them cougars or gray panthers isn’t likely to dissuade the women who dare from enjoying their new freedoms.

On the other hand, it may be that men are just a bit behind on these issues; that men who have the nerve to grow old in this world will find that not-so-respectful nicknames of their own are just waiting in the wings.


Ellen Besen is media critic and former columnist for POV magazine. She is the author of "Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist and Game Developer Should Know" (Michael Wiese Books, January 2009). Besen has worked in animation for over 35 years. Her work has been show in film festivals and venues across the globe, including MOMA and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.