All photos via Anthony Tuccitto.
“Miss Cougar Canada 2014” is a thing that exists, and I know that because I am on my way there. The event, which promises to crown this year’s hottest Canadian cougar, is to be held at a club called Crocodile Rock, and will include dancing, an 80s theme, and fun door prizes. I search for an 80s-inspired outfit and settled on a loud Floridian floral top with some Mom Jeans (get it) before getting revved up on some Real Housewives clips.
Google’s second suggested autocomplete for “Toronto Crocodile Rock” is “Cougar.” Following this search yields Yelp reviews, PUA sites and bodybuilding advice forums lauding the spot as “the city’s premier cougar bar” and “a cougar frenzy.” A Metro writer, in a derisive article entitled “Cougar’s just another word for nothing left to lose” says “When I mentioned the bar during a standup routine it evoked instant laughter.” Perusing the search results I feel a wave of Gob Bluth wash over me. I’ve made a huge mistake. I’m not out to mock anyone’s mid-life sexuality. I call a cab and hope it will be a fun, over-the-top, campy romp not dissimilar to a drag show.
On the way to the event, I consider the cougar-as-concept. To the OED, it is primarily a North American term for puma, and “INFORMAL: an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man." On Facebook, Miss Cougar Canada 2014 is described as a fun pageant and party for women aged 35 and up who prefer the company of younger men. It strikes me that there is not really a word for this situation in reverse—“Woody Allen movies,” maybe.
After all, Colin Firth was almost 30 years old when Emma Stone was born, and they fall whimsically (and, more notably, inoffensively) in love in Magic in the Moonlight. Paul McCartney’s wife is 18 years his junior, George Clooney’s fiancée over 17 years younger. We don’t really have a word for what they’re doing, unless you count the Sheen-ism #winning (I don’t). May/December relationships aren’t of note where the man represents December and his female partner, May. A man dating a much younger woman is par for the course, while a woman dating a much younger man is a phenomenon. In the zoo of middle aged sexuality, a silver fox and a cougar do not have equal standing—look at what happens to Phaedra, or rather, what doesn’t happen to Zeus.
I make the mistake of arriving at “Croc Roc” at exactly the time printed on the event flyer. This is literally hours too early. The bar reminds me of the Ale House, a multi-storey Kingston establishment from my university days. Dirt cheap watered-down drinks complement the club’s jungle decor, producing a vibe best described as “Rainforest Cafe after dark.” The only cougar in sight is a beautiful woman in a wrap dress named Angela selling raffle tickets. A remix of Katy Perry’s
reminds me that we all feel like a plastic bag, blowing through the wind, wanting to start again, sometimes. The bar is playing footage of actual car crashes.
Scores of research indicate that women reach their sexual peak in their late 30s/early 40s while men’s peak (i.e. the height of their body’s testosterone production) is around 18 years of age. If this is the case, aren’t older women seeking out younger, hornier, more physically capable men simply searching for their equals? Why does the idea of a place for women of a certain age to meet men for the purposes of sex elicit immediate laughter from a standup audience? Surely the location is the set up, not an entire punchline? Further, what is laughable about a Miss Cougar Canada pageant? Beauty pageants for women in their 20s and teens are a normalized practice. We encourage the parade of younger women’s beauty, sexuality and youth, to be scored and quantified, held against each other. In 2013, a nine week-old baby was crowned “Miss Natural Sparkle UK.)” And yet the joke is not “women’s sexuality continues to be defined by men’s opinions of their worth.” The joke is “women’s sexuality.”
I hesitate on the raffle tickets and Angela makes a joke of her own: “It’s to benefit cougars, and you’ll be one one day, honey.” According to the definition of the event, she is largely right: while I’ve never been one for younger men, I do hope to a) stay alive for at least the next 9 years or more, and b) continue to have sex throughout that time, preferably often. But the idea of someone calling me a cougar or (somehow worse) self-identifying as such, irks me for reasons I can’t place. I find out later that proceeds of the event will go towards Gilda’s Club, a cancer support centre.
One of the organizers of Miss Cougar Canada 2014 and her daughter.
On the Croc’s top-most patio, women and men of all ages mill about, drinking and smoking in the shadow of towering condos-in-progress. Somewhere on the roof is a girl named Sarah, and I know this because her friend is screaming her name over and over, sloppily carrying around shots destined for Sarah’s lips alone. Her friend is young and tacky, which is fine because we’re allowed to be tacky when we’re young. Her shout-y presence barely registers to the other patio-goers. The event has not technically started and will not for another few hours.
As the bar starts to fill and a cover band sets up, the word cougar is repeated over and over. It feels like something more insidious than a double entendre, though less outwardly offensive than a slur. It is not intended this way by the creator of the event—a kind, smiling woman called “Jules Cougaress" who is fighting cancer—but it feels to me like it cannot be helped. The word is tainted. It has not been “reclaimed” the way the gay community has taken back “queer,” primarily because it has not been used overtly to put down or Other. And yet, that is precisely what it does. The Oxford English Dictionary is wrong to suggest a cougar is simply an older woman looking to have sex with a younger man. We all know the image conjured by the word: a cougar is tawdry and desperate, past her prime. She is too loud and her dress is too tight. She wants it too badly. She is the punchline, not the set up.
The women at the event are not like this. To be fair, there are only two of them. The rest of the crowd is middle-aged men. I am reminded that even the stereotype of the sexually insatiable older woman is nothing compared to the real-life thirst of aging males. They wear their shirts unbuttoned too low and seem harmless, if horny. Jules and Angela are beautiful and friendly amidst this sea of admirers, and tell me 5 women have signed up to participate in the pageant. They do not show up.
I can’t imagine why. As you may have recently read, even 42 year-old women are sexy now. Congratulations, gals, Esquire says you did it. And the truth is, Esquire is right: women at 42 look different today than they used to. Film’s most famous cougar, Mrs. Robinson, was supposedly in her 40s in the 1967 film The Graduate, but 36 in real life. Julianne Moore today is two years older than Rue McLanahan was during the first season of Golden Girls. We don’t even need to bring up Helen Mirren, but I’d like to, because goddamn. An increased awareness re: the dangers of the sun, smoking, drinking, and basically everything that makes the 60s look like a great time in old photos has women and men alike looking better into middle age and beyond. But do incredible looking women (or average looking women, or ugly women, for that matter) really need Tom Junod to tell them that it’s OK for them to continue aging and fucking?
This, to me, is the crux of the cougar issue: women in general, but older women in particular, are allowed an active sexuality only via their relationship to male desire. Another popular search term in the “cougar” porn genre is the more Freudian but equally “me-me-me, please make this about guys” moniker, MILF. While the idea behind the pageant was positive (it’s a cancer fundraiser, for Christ’s sake), it’s frustrating to see that women’s sexuality is still being reduced to pageantry. Older women aren’t the problem—it is sexism that is aging badly.
Near midnight, the photographer and I call it quits. As we leave, a woman in a shiny cocktail dress (and her 50s) wanders in drunkenly with her daughter. The bouncer IDs the daughter only. The woman in the cocktail dress is annoyed. “Oh come on,” she yells, shifting in her heels. “What do you know?”