Being a Cougar Is So Back

Culture

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Everything old is new again, as the saying goes. Or rather, everything older. At least when it comes to the age of women being romanced onscreen (and sometimes off), and new when it comes to the young men romancing them.

What’s also new? The direction of this age gap.

In the last two decades, culture has labeled women who pursue these relationships “cougars.” Suggesting an inappropriate power imbalance, and framing the woman as a predator of a sort (that this concern is never applied in the reverse is but one small example of how women are forever held to different standards).

But lately, what has been considered a derogatory punchline is being reclaimed as empowering in the cultural zeitgeist. The last few years, however, have seen a refreshing resurgence of storylines featuring love stories between older women and younger men when we’ve long been accustomed to the opposite. After all, some of the most classic films in Hollywood have starred older male actors and much younger actresses: Gary Cooper (51) and Grace Kelly (23) in High Noon; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (24 year age gap) in their many collaborations; Jimmy Stewart (42) and Grace Kelly (now 25) in Rear Window; Gwyneth Paltrow (26) and Michael Douglas (54) in A Perfect Murder (a classic to some of us!); Tom Cruise and nearly all his recent co-stars.

Perhaps the first signpost that we were making a turn culturally in this regard was the novel The Idea of You by Robinne Lee, which chronicles a successful 39-year-old woman who falls in love with the 20-year-old lead singer of her daughter’s favorite boy band. First published in 2017, it garnered a cult following in 2020 during the height of lockdown, spawning group chats, fan sites, and eventually even trivia nights. Its popularity coincided with (or was propelled by) the real life love affair between actress and director Olivia Wilde and Harry Styles, who is 10 years her junior. The fact most of us were confined to our homes and therefore largely left to our own imaginations when it came to spicing up our lives, no doubt, also rendered us the ideal audience for the racy sex scenes depicted throughout the novel.

nicholas galitzine and anne hathaway in the idea of you

Amazon Prime

Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway inThe Idea of You.

The film version of The Idea of You was released on Prime Video in May, with Anne Hathaway in the role of Solène, a gallerist who just turned 40, and Nicholas Galitzine playing the much younger Hayes, the frontman of pop sensation August Moon. (Much like real-life Wilde, who was the target of much online vitriol from certain corners of the Internet during her relationship with Styles, when the tabloids catch wind of Solene’s and Hayes’ relationship, she is blasted as a cougar in the press, prompting her daughter to get bullied and teased at school.) And last week, A Family Affair premiered on Netflix starring Nicole Kidman as a successful widowed writer in her early fifties who falls for the boss of her 23-year-old daughter (played by Joey King); the man in question is an over-indulged dimwitted movie star played skillfully by Zac Efron, who is 20 years Kidman’s junior.

a family affair l r nicole kidman as brooke harwood and zac efron as chris cole in a family affair cr aaron epsteinnetflix 2024

Netflix

Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in A Family Affair.

While these are the two most recent high-profile examples they are hardly the only ones. In the HBO limited series The Sympathizer, Hoa Xuande’s character, 36, has an affair with Sandra Oh (52) (also: duh). In 2022, Jean Smart won the Emmy for her performance in season 2 of Hacks, which contained an episode where her character has a one-night stand with a much younger man.

We’ve also seen critical interrogations of this relationship dynamic. The 2023 film May December, which was inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau case, is a difficult, if, at times, darkly comedic, look at a relationship between a 36-year-old woman and a 13-year-old boy, who go on to marry and have children together. Further afield, the compelling French film Last Summer, directed by Catherine Breillat, which arrives in American theaters this month, is about a fifty-something married lawyer who has an affair with her teenage stepson. As the plot progresses, audiences are increasingly asked to interrogate the sexual dynamics at play through a #MeToo lens.

One noteworthy distinction here is that these relationships are not fodder for cheap laughs. Drama, yes. But not a punchline—or a pity party. And this attitude is extending beyond the screen: A recent revival of Sunset Boulevard in London cast the glamorous and powerful Nicole Scherzinger, 45, as Norma Desmond, a role that has long defined the pitiful aging woman grasping desperately at her lost youth. In this case, however, director Jamie Lloyd told The New York Times, he was specifically looking for an actress “in her prime.”

So what accounts for this flipping of the age ratio?

Entrepreneur and former ad executive, Cindy Gallop, whose viral 2009 TEDTalk “Make Love Not Porn” opened with the line “I date younger men,” believes it’s a reflection of who is making these films. “The onscreen narratives we’re seeing now come from books and scripts by women, and are being helmed by women, and backed and driven by women.”

We know that older women are just as attractive to younger men, as older men are attractive to younger women, no matter how threatening the patriarchy finds that.”

And like anyone else, women want to see both their realities and fantasies reflected in the world. Culture, meanwhile, is struggling to keep up with how women actually live. We know from studies that single women without children report being happier, and yet we see few storylines that reflect the possibility of satisfaction outside of partnership or parenthood. Similarly, women are increasingly earning more, and thanks to access to better healthcare and nutrition and exercise many of us are remaining physically healthy for longer (as every celebrity website loves to point out). Why wouldn’t we be considered attractive to literally everyone?

Says Gallop: “We know that older women are just as attractive to younger men, as older men are attractive to younger women, no matter how threatening the patriarchy finds that.”

In some ways, these storylines feel long overdue. A small but necessary counterbalance to the so-called “trad wife” movement that has become increasingly popular on social media.

And yet, it’s worth noting we’ve been here before. As new as these pairings might seem, they are just the latest iteration. In 1996 Terry McMillan published How Stella Got Her Groove Back about Stella, a successful 42-year-old woman who flies to an island for vacation and falls for a 21-year-old, whom she eventually ends up marrying. In the movie, Stella is played by Angela Bassett and the younger man by Taye Diggs. And let us not forget Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones and Smith Jerrod.

taye diggs and angela bassett in how stella got her groove back

Everett

Taye Diggs and Angela Bassett in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

In fact, if anything, this latest round feels tame—at least on screen. In The Idea of You, Hayes’ age has been upped from 20 to 26. Hathaway, meanwhile, could pass for a 30-year-old. The sex scenes onscreen are extremely mild compared to what’s described in the novel. Similarly, in A Family Affair, Kidman not only looks young, but she behaves like a woman half her age—giggling and insecure—and even then it begs the audience to believe that someone as accomplished as we’re told her character is would find anything in common with Efron’s, who behaves like an incompetent five year old. Abs are nice, but not that nice.

It leaves one craving something closer to what many of us are experiencing: The power and confidence of aging, with or without the youthful body to match. That’s something we all should be attracted to.

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