They're the cat's meow in a dog-eat-dog world

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To the uninitiated, the term "cougar" only brings to mind a certain fearsome mountain creature. But in the pervy parlance of the Internet, the word has taken on new life as less-than-endearing slang for older women with a penchant for younger men.

That didn't discourage NBC from giving this ageist term its mainstream moment by using it in a recent promo for the new NBC reality series "Age of Love." It was used to describe a group of female fortysomething contestants vying for the affections of an eligible 30-year-old bachelor against another group of women half their age (those would be "kittens").

It wouldn't be summer without a new reality show that makes you want to take a shower -- with your clothes on. Surely in the annals, or rather, bowels of the genre's canon, "Age" will take its rightful place besides such classics as "Temptation Island" and "Are You Hot?"

But tempting as it is to harrumph about a new cultural nadir in the depictions of women on television, I'm not going to go there. Why bemoan such crass categorization when the medium actually has earned the right to declaw the "cougar" label?

Tawdry as the show is, maybe "Age" is better understood as the culmination of a refreshing trend. While movies, music and fashion have long obsessed over the youthfulness of female beauty, contemporary TV should be commended for being that rare place that doesn't de-sexualize women when they reach a certain age.

Primetime is teeming with portrayals of amorous fortysomething women: think "Desperate Housewives," "The New Adventures of Old Christine," "Real Housewives of Orange County," "Weeds" and "The Closer," to name a few.

The trend probably got its start with "Sex and the City," which has an obvious influence on some of the fall season's new fare. "City" copycats boast such nonkittens as Brooke Shields, 42, of NBC's "Lipstick Jungle" and Lucy Liu, 39, of ABC's "Cashmere Mafia."

Outside of MTV, how many TV shows out there focus on comely young females? "Veronica Mars" is over, leaving the most prominent example as something of a diametric opposite of the trend: "Ugly Betty." Meanwhile, on the pop charts, for every Madonna there's 10 barely pubescent girls flaunting their bodies. The boxoffice has been reversing the "Age" equation from Bogey to Bond.

It's just smart business for TV to go cougar crazy. Women ages 25-54 are the core TV audience, the soccer moms whose grip on household purse strings advertisers want to loosen. Why not make shows that feature women who aren't about to trade their negligees in for mumus?

Television is a veritable nature preserve for cougars; they are even prowling off-camera in similar fashion to ur-cougar Demi Moore, whose relationship with Ashton Kutcher practically overshadows her career. "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul was dogged by allegations last year that she dallied with a young male contestant on the show, and it didn't hurt her career. Even CBS anchor Katie Couric has been making tabloid headlines for dating a 33-year-old triathlete. Now if she could only get him to nudge a few of his friends to watch and improve her ratings.

"Age" might offer a cheesy depiction of fortysomething women, but at least there's a place where they can still be cast as more than matronly moms or dowdy teachers. Enjoy it while it lasts: If it's true that Fox reality guru Mike Darnell is on the way to NBC, just think of the spin he could put on a second season of "Age." Forget fortysomethings; we're talking "Harold and Maude" territory.

Apologies to any feminists who might object to regarding a woman of any age as a sex object. If only they could heed the collective cry coming from their TV sets: I am cougar, hear me roar!
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