Resilient single women over 40 who've chosen a lifestyle that doesn't fit the cookie-cutter norm are in the spotlight with the film Sex and the City 2 and hit TV series Cougar Town coming to India. Kasmin Fernandes meets the endangered cougars, constantly under attack because of their chutzpah
Cougar is grace, elegance, power, and majestic beauty all rolled into one," purrs 39 year-old Sapna Bhavnani, hairstylist to some of India's biggest Bollywood stars and cricketers.
| Sapna Bhavnani 39 and single. Hairstylist to the stars|
"Cougar sounds dead sexy and powerful. I love it," says Mumbai-based chick-lit author Rupa Gulab.
When cheeky Canadian speaker Valerie Gibson coined the term "Cougar" in the late 90s, she was referring to women in their 40s, on the prowl for great sex with men in their 20s. No longer is the term limited to that age group, or to that purpose. Thanks to the glamorous 40-something protagonists of hit TV shows Sex and the City and Cougar Town, the term no longer gives the impression of coming at you with a headshot smirk.
Starring Courteney Cox as the sultry Jules Cobb, Cougar Town, which premiered in India last week on Zee Cafe, asks the question: Can a woman of a certain age be a successful career woman and still be on the prowl?
The available men her own age, like her silver fox of a neighbour Grayson Ellis, seem interested in dating barely-legal hotties. Egged on by irreverent best friend Elle and her determined assistant Laurie, Jules reluctantly dips her toe back into the dating pool in a small town of Florida. To her surprise, she hits it off with a nice young guy.
The show that premiered in the US in 2009 has sparked a 102 per cent increase in membership for dating site www.toyboy.com, which recently surveyed 1,000 women. The survey found that having a toyboy can make a woman feel an average of four years younger. Women with younger partners had a tendency to enjoy more outdoor activities and mix with people who have youthful hobbies.
More than half the respondents said their partner's energy had rubbed off on them and 27 per cent said they visit pubs and nightclubs more often with a younger man. The greater the age gap, the happier the woman was likely to be. Of those who were previously in a relationship with an older man, one in six admitted to being on the lookout for someone younger.
How it all started
The use of the term "cougar" began in 2001 with the publication of a book titled Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men written by Valerie Gibson, Canadian TV presenter and relationships expert. At 62, Gibson is a self-acknowledged pioneer cougar who claims "a woman should not have to give up her sexuality, vibrancy or ability to have fun just because she has reached a certain age."
Many high-profile celebs don't publicly admit to being cougars, but their relationships say it all. International pop star Madonna, 51, is currently seeing 22 year-old Brazilian model Jesus Luz. Halle Berry, 43, has a baby girl with Gabriel Aubry, 33. Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall is going out with 28 year-old Canadian chef Alan Wyse.
Then there's Hollywood actor Barbara Hershey, 61, who is dating Lost star Naveen Andrews, 40. American Idol judge Paula Abdul's boyfriend JT Torregiani is 12 years her junior.
Singer Madonna, 51, is dating 22 year-old Brazilian model Jesus Luz. Pic/AFP photo
Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher, 32, is married to Demi Moore, 48. Pic/Getty Images
Indian TV ahead of prudish Bollywood
There is a serious dearth of cougar portrayal in Bollywood -- Rekha's gig in Heartbreakers remake Bachke Rehna Re Baba doesn't count. But Indian television seems far ahead of its big brother. On Zee TV show 12/24 Karol Bagh that plays out life in middle-class Delhi, Simi (Smriti Kalra) romances Abhi (Neil Bhatt), who is eight years younger than her.
An unlikely cougar, soft-spoken Simi has rejected prospective grooms her relatives bring forth and found herself in a relationship with a younger man -- an MBA student -- who is also her sis-in-law's youngest brother. The relationship, though perfect, is taboo.
Smriti Kalra plays Simi Sethi TV soap 12/ 24 Karol Bagh. She's the coy, plump, accommodating Indian version of the cougar who is married to a younger man
On Zee TV, Monday to Thursday, 10 pm
The desi dilemma
Life doesn't imitate a television soap, according to Bhavnani. "Being single at 35 is no big deal. These days, women are capable of taking care of themselves and don't depend on men to fetch the prey. Parental pressure must be more irritating than the fact that they are single, but settling down with a man because you are getting old is so ridiculous!"
"After a point you just don't give a damn about people," says 36 year-old Dr Asavari Herwadkar who runs NGO Ojus Medical Institute in Juhu. "If I fall in love with someone who's 15 years younger, and he can handle my confidence and independence, his age wouldn't matter." The social entrepreneur believes intelligent women prefer staying single because the atypical Indian man -- irrespective of what age he is -- is afraid of losing his identity in their presence.
"Besides, younger men appreciate and are attracted to strong, mature women who don't demand constant attention like girls do."
"You are the one with more money, more maturity, more power and more experience -- you call the shots!" says Gulab, whose latest novel The Great Depression of the 40s is a tongue-in-cheek look at urban relationships.
Privilege to be a cougar
"Many women think a cougar is a derogatory word used to describe women who only prefer younger men. Nothing could be further from the truth. Achieving the rank of a real cougar is a privilege, never an embarrassment. You have worked hard to earn your stripes, so be proud to revel in your accomplishments," says Linda Franklin, author of Don't Ever Call Me Ma'am: The Real Cougar Woman Handbook.
"Media and pop culture 'experts' have jumped on a bandwagon they know very little about. They want to narrowly define this demographic of people and capitalise and sensationalise it for profit, notoriety and to sell their 'self published' books. As a human behaviour research psychologist and a former CBS network journalist, I do my best to set the record straight," says uber cougar expert Dr Fayr Barkley.
For far too long, women over 40 have been pushed to the sidelines, according to Franklin. Gulab agrees.
"Typically, when you hit the 40s, you tend to take stock of your life. Practically half of it is over, and the other half is about as appealing as boiled cabbage. That's when you start questioning your career, your love life and other things that matter -- you morbidly believe that this is your one last chance to get it right while you're still mentally and physically able. It's a phase of intense desperation -- which often leads to recklessness."
Shift in gender roles
Indian cougar and UK-based life coach Rita Sangha holds "cougar workshops" and gives dating advice on her website womenwholoveyoungermen.com. She views the trend as a shift in gender roles. "Your desires shouldn't cause you guilt, and you shouldn't have to repress them to appease a patriarchal society," she says in an email interview. According to Sangha, older women are more comfortable with their sexuality, while younger men are better at performing sexually. Therefore, they are perfectly matched.
Aussie demographer Bernard Salt says cougars are a product of female empowerment over the past 20 years. "These women are educated, they are successful in life and work and they are not afraid or shamed to be single, as was the case in the 1980s and earlier."
Actress Courteney Cox plays Jules Cobb, a recently divorced single mother exploring the truths about dating and ageing in Cougar Town. Since it premiered in the US in 2009,
the TV show has boosted lingerie sales among older women and increased Toyboy dating
On Zee Caf ©, Monday to Friday, 7.30 pm
Lid for every pot
But what happens when the men reach age 35 and their cougar is 50 or older? "Younger men are imprinted to the older woman," says Dr Barkley. An imprint is a very powerful psychological phenomenon that is a lifetime bond; the baby sitter, school teacher, mom's best friend, actresses and other older women caused an imprint formation that instantly bonded them to older women. Even as these men get older themselves, they continue to seek out women older than themselves.
"So, men in their 40s and older consider themselves cubs and refuse to date younger women," says Dr Barkley.
This explains why a man in his late 30s can marry a woman 20 years his senior, and once single again, desire to seek out, date and marry another older woman. "There is a lid for every pot."
Cougar VS cougar
Originally, the term refers to an elusive, powerful mountain cat that attacks its prey with rare finesse. In modern, urban relationship lingo, the word refers to single women in their late 30, 40s, even 50s, on the prowl for some fun with men in their 20s.
It's not just about sex says Cougar expert
Dr Fayr Barkley, based in Beverly Hills, California, is a human behaviour research expert with a PhD degree and is the no. 1 expert on the Cougar phenomenon. Her 20-plus years of research on this dating dynamic and interviews with thousands of older women/younger men has earned her expert status.
She debunked certain myths in an email interview:
"Many people think of Stiffler's mom in American Pie or Mrs Robinson from The Graduate and assume that Cougars are ageing, desperate women willing to jump on any younger man with a pulse. There is so much more to this dating dynamic than people realise. It is not just about sex. Cougar women are actually much more selective about their younger man and this means that the younger men have to have more to bring to the party than just a raging libido. The younger men are driving this trend."
It has inspired a hair do
Hollywood film The Graduate (1967) gave us more than Dustin Hoffman's coming-of-age tryst with a much older woman. It also set the stage for what can best described as "cougar hair" -- light gray or bleached out chunks of hair framing the face to combine a sultry "come hither" look with "don't bother carding me for beer and cigarettes" attitude. Kate Moss has recently jumped on the cougar hair bandwagon -- albeit, rather unsuccessfully -- and several exaggerated interpretations of the look have been spotted on Paris Fashion week runways.
Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate
How to tell
You know you are a cougar if
>>You aren't afraid to knock down walls and crash through glass ceilings.
>>You adore men but refuse to be defined by the age of the man you choose to be with.
>>You have got over listening to what other people think.
>>You know how to keep your body healthy, beauty radiant and spiritual reservoir full.
>>You put financial freedom high on your priority list.
(From Linda Franklin, author of Don't Ever Call Me Ma'am: The Real Cougar Woman Handbook )
The real cougar
Cougars, also called mountain lions, are the largest members of the cat family. So secretive and solitary are they that even field biologists can't spot them. Their exceptionally powerful legs enable them to leap 30 ft from
a standstill, or to jump 15 ft straight up a cliff wall.
How they hunt: Cougars use their paws and claws to trip prey or grab it with their claws, then use their claws to hold their prey while delivering the kill-bite.
Rupa Gulab discusses toy boys in her latest book, The Great Depression of the 40s
'Acquiring a toy boy is the height of your ambition?' Mantra squawked. 'How crappy is that? How on earth would you explain him to your house help? As a long lost shipwrecked son who's scared to sleep alone in the dark?'
'One does not have to explain anything to the house help,' was Samira's imperious response.
'Fair enough, but get this,' Mantra persisted, her imagination running wild, ...'it's all very wild and sexy I guess, to expect him to massage sun tan oil on your back, but would a stinky Iodex rub keep the passion burning? Come on Samira, ageing bones have to be factored into relationships.'
'Oh shut up, Mantra! And anyway, a toy boy is just a fashion accessory. Page 3 is my main ambition -- it's total class!'
Mantra shuddered inwardly at the thought that Page 3 was class, but let it go.
Cougar dating is here to stay
The BBC says that 25 per cent of older women are married to younger men. From a physiological perspective, it makes sense that an older woman would prefer a younger male. From a psychological imprinting perspective, Dr Barkley has interviewed thousands of men who have specific defining moments in their lives when they knew they were attracted to older women, and preferred them over women their own age.
Date online while keeping your wits about
In the early stages of online dating, the savvy cougar should know how to safely get started
with a relationship.
1. Trust your instincts: Before responding to any new request, chat or invitation to meet, pause and assess the situation first. A cougar has the right to decline offers to continue interaction with any person she deems untrustworthy.
2. Don't give out personal info: Smart cougar women take care not to reveal too much personal information on their profile or during an online chat. Even transmitted photos may inadvertently reveal personal information, which could identify your location. Other information to avoid disclosing -- bank account details, residential address, work details.
3. Provide alternative email id: Email is a great way to communicate and offers a forum out of public view for getting to know someone online. An email address, without the last name or other personal identifiers, allows the mature woman to filter and respond to her dates in a safer way.
4. Meet online date in a public place: Be suspicious if someone asks to meet in a private location, especially if this is the first time you are meeting the other person.
5. Block inappropriate online daters: If the young man's behaviour seems inappropriate or if you feel threatened or upset, you have a right to stop contact immediately. You could even block or report harassment to the website administration.