We've Got Hollywood Covered

Why Can’t Hollywood Handle Older Women and Sex?

Guest blog: Too often male fantasies drive portrayals of mature females in Hollywood films. Women, and realism, would be better served by a more balanced approach

Does anyone else find it odd how quickly women who openly see younger men — still a relatively recent trend, at least in the mainstream — acquired a not entirely flattering nickname?

Yes, some women embrace the cougar badge but overall the term seems more insult than compliment. It took root in no time at all, spawning all manner of media reference. "SNL" jumped in with a cougar skit featuring relatively attractive and distinctively contemptuous young hunks being lusted after by skanky, desperate older women. The tabloids quickly picked it up as the label of choice for older women-younger men couplings. And don’t forget the charmingly named sitcom, "Cougar Town."

It’s not only how fast the label was created but also how universally it’s applied that gives me pause.

Men, of course, have pursued younger partners for generations without incurring an equivalent label. Sure, if the woman is particularly young and fetching and the man particularly old and grizzled, he will get tagged a letch or cradle robber. But “cougar” with all its fem-letch implications is used far more liberally, casting a note of doubt about the legitimacy of the whole older woman-younger man venture, whether the relationship in question is a healthy one or truly unbalanced.

Implicit in this judgment is that a younger man couldn’t ever really desire an older woman, even if he, at say 31, is not so young and she, at say 45, is genuinely hot. Just as implicit is that the older woman in this relationship must necessarily be predatory in her motives, as opposed to a simpler likelihood such as the men her age are too lost in their middle-age angst and the younger guys are just more fun. Or simpler still, that neither party even notices the gap.

Is this an extension of a general discomfort with older women and sex, a bugaboo that has been with us for, well, kind of like forever? Lots of middle aged women who find themselves suddenly single could testify to a nagging undertow which, while not impossible to ignore, sure puts up a good fight.

There is also a discomfort with all older folks and sex but that is a prejudice of younger people (who really should grow up about this already) while the misjudgment about older women is held much more widely.

It’s interesting to note that when it comes to this wider issue, media is rather more split. The Hollywood feature film still frequently plays into male fantasy. Desperately out of shape Jack Nicholson bagging Helen Hunt in "As Good As It Gets" is a late 20th century example, though this one gains at least some credibility from its sad but still true “status for youth and beauty exchange” foundation.

"Larry Crowne" pushes deeper into older male fantasyland when Tom Hanks as a modestly attractive, pleasant enough, middle-aged supermarket clerk turned burger flipper somehow ends up with his educated, sophisticated community college professor played by (here’s the deep fantasy bit) Julia Roberts! It’s true that the age gap here is less extreme but the other gaps — in relative attractiveness and status — push this movie beyond the boundaries of credibility.

Still, the apparent undesirability of older women has been challenged on the big screen. ""Something’s Gotta Give" from 2003 wryly picks up where the standard Hollywood script leaves off, grabbing the prototypical older male protagonist (portrayed once again by Nicholson) and dragging him kicking and screaming into the 21st Century by hooking him up with someone closer to his own age.

Meanwhile, 2009’s "It’s Complicated" pushes Hollywood even closer to reality (in a crazy kind of way) by daring to present a middle-aged woman as de facto desirable, no explanation (or kicking and screaming) required.

Not surprisingly, it took a woman director (Nancy Meyers in both cases) to start shifting the agenda. But there is still a good distance to go. Older or not, the female stars of these films — Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep — are A-list attractive. A clearer sign that times have really changed would be to have an attractive older actor fall for a woman whose charms fall outside the narrow Hollywood norm.

Maybe this is just female wishful thinking but it might actually be more about finding balance on all counts. In the real world, older men and women fall in love, older men and younger women fall in love and so do younger men and older women. And among all these couples would be found every variation on which one is the more typically attractive.

Interestingly, something much closer to reality has been presented quite regularly and for a surprisingly long time on the same medium which has invested, of late, in selling the cougar label and which is usually (though not necessarily accurately) associated with fantasy-based fluff — mainstream broadcast television.

Stick around for more on this subject soon.


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.