"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A confession: I hate cougars. I hate the word “cougar.” I hate the concept of cougars. I hate the new show “The Cougar.”
This does not mean that I hate the solitary wild cat who feasts on deer, elk and sometimes armadillos, in regions across North and South America. Nor does it mean that I hate women who have sex with younger men. What I hate is the never-ending cutesy-pie conflation of the two.
Enthusiasm for the word “cougars” as applied to women, and not simply to high school football teams or John Mellencamp, seems to have begun around the millennium, with the 2001 publication of “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men,” by Valerie Gibson. But the term caught fire in 2005, fueled by the marriage that year of then-42-year-old Demi Moore to then-27-year-old Ashton Kutcher.
Four years later we are still awash in knee-slapping, claw-bearing, never-gets-old cougar mania! Rowr!
In addition to the reality show “The Cougar,” which premieres Wednesday on TV Land, Courteney Cox-Arquette has produced and stars in a pilot for an ABC sitcom called “Cougar Town.” The independent film “Cougar Hunting,” a comedy about young men chasing older women, was prevented from shooting at the Aspen courthouse because it was deemed too racy. “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men,” was reissued in 2008, and has been joined on shelves by titles like “Cougars, Poptarts & One Night Stands: 101 Essential Wingman Tips” and “Hot Cougar Sex: Steamy Encounters With Younger Men.” There are cougar hunters. There are cougar Web sites. There is a recurring “Saturday Night Live” skit called “Cougar Den” — which always seems to star Cameron Diaz, whether or not she’s the host — in which hilariously menopausal but libidinous women act like ninnies in pursuit of Zac Efron, the Jonas Brothers and youth itself. There are also self-proclaimed professional cougars, women who are apparently just “smart, sexy, independent … and proud to be over 40,” whether or not they’re jumping over couches to grab crotches.
There are people who seem to find the “cougar” thing liberating. Former Star editor Bonnie Fuller published a March entry on the Huffington Post called “Cougars And MILFs Rule! 40 Year-Old Women Are WAY Hotter Than 20 Year-Olds!” And in the premiere episode of “The Cougar,” which is unapologetically modeled on every “Bachelor” variant ever produced, 40-year-old real estate agent Stacey Anderson and host Vivica Fox practically hurt themselves in their efforts to demonstrate just how empowering the term is.
We’re told that “Stacey’s dating experiences have led her to believe that men her age and older live under the pressure of a ‘ticking clock,’ which dampens their spontaneity and zest for life.” Get it? Gander? Goose? As the show starts, Stacey turns the gender knife a little deeper, reminding the audience that women hit their sexual prime in their late 30s, men in their late teens: “I’m in my prime, they’re in their prime, so not only is that connection outside the bedroom, it’s inside the bedroom as well!” Purr!
I’ll admit that there was a period of several milliseconds during which I thought there might be something transgressive about “The Cougar.” This was early on, in the introduction, when I wondered if perhaps she didn’t want to have kids. That would be a true novelty on television: the eroticization and marketing of a childless woman who wishes to remain so. But, of course, no. Stacey, who we learn was married on her 16th birthday, is the mother of four children, at least one of whom seems to be older than some of the men she’s shacked up with on “The Cougar.”
So because the men her age have a ticking clock and she no longer does, she tries to fulfill her romantic dreams by moving in with 20 men under 30, the kinds of guys “who can keep up” with her. Evidence that they can “keep up” begins with their arrival on some kind of frat party bus, where they are shown swigging beers and saying things like, “I can’t wait to meet this cougar!” and “I really hope this cougar likes lamb, cause I’m nice and sweet and tender.” Ah, liberation! Sweet, hot congress with dudes you were so glad you never had to deal with again after graduation! Mee-ow.
When they make their “first impressions” on the cougar — some spouting poetry and wielding guitars — they tell her things like, “It is my privilege to share one of my first legal drinks with you” and “I want to be your pool boy.” One man, in bragging to Stacey that he’d once dated a 42-year-old, gulpingly exclaims that she’d been a GILF! (G is for Grandma, kids.) And in what, for my money, was the only interesting moment of the whole show, an unemployed 23-year-old self-described Southern gentleman came on to the cougar thusly: “How would you like to try an Australian kiss? Kind of like a French kiss, but down under.”
Is it possible that Stacey — and all the other women who embrace the term “cougar” — don’t know that, on some level, they’re being laughed at?
Original “Cougar” author Valerie Gibson has claimed that the term was coined as derogatory (no shit!), in reference to older women who went out drinking and went home with whatever guys were left at the end of the night — like the weakest members of the pack, see? And even though women are making extravagant efforts to reclaim it as empowering, it remains offensive and dehumanizing on almost every level, as “Daily Show” senior women’s issues commentator Kristin Schaal illustrated in a piece in which she had an animal handler carry a grown woman to the news desk, Jack Hanna style, so that Jon Stewart could examine her up close: “Do you want to hold her, Jon?”
Cougars. Pussies. Foxes. Faster pussycat! Kill! Kill! Active, aggressive female sexuality is always talked about as feral, often feline. When it’s older, apparently, it develops sharper claws and teeth. Unless, that is, it’s exhibited by a primmer and more contained MILF. That’s just a lady with kids who men want to fuck. It’s impossible to tell, until we get closer to the specimen, whether she has any interest in doing the fucking herself.
The enthusiasm for the “Wild Kingdom” analogy is a sign of how strange and hysterically funny the idea of energetic female sexual desire is — whether it’s in the form of 34-year-old Drew Barrymore, who has cheerily referred to herself as a “pre-cougar” or “puma” because she’s dated men a couple of years younger than her, or 50-year-old Madonna, who recently dated 20-year-old Jesus Luz. How sad and backward that we have to give it a nickname, animalize it as if it’s outside the boundaries of civilized human behavior, make it a trend, pretend that Demi Moore invented it. That’s not progress, and it’s not a step forward for women.
Sure, maybe some taboos are beginning to lift. A variety of aesthetic advances — from fashion to Botox to, as Nora Ephron has suggested, hair dye — allow women to expand the period of their lives in which they can look the way we expect them to look when we consider them appropriately sexual. Fast-advancing fertility technology means that they are also stretching their childbearing years, sometimes by more than a decade. And while in some ways these changes only fuel wrongheaded ideas about what a sexually active and appealing female looks like — no gray hairs or laugh lines, the everlasting ability to reproduce — they simultaneously help to erode long-held (though by now quite dusty) beliefs about women losing their mojo as they age.
So great. The acknowledgment and celebration of the beauty of women over the age of 30 — what Bonnie Fuller was actually excited about in her “Cougars and MILFs rule!” column — is important. Communication of the fact that women have sexual motors that run far into their retirement years is of course valuable. So is the acknowledgment that many women are not on the dating market looking for money, support or babies, but for sexual companionship and fun. But turning those revelations into mindless characterizations of va-va-voom youth seekers who wear too-tight animal prints and talk like children about stalking men as prey is not important, valuable or empowering in any way.
When Cher used to date Rob Camilletti, I think they called him a “boy toy,” and they called her “Cher.” When Susan Sarandon had two children with Tim Robbins, who is 12 years her junior and with whom she has lived for the past 20 years, I don’t think they called them anything except “not married.” People fall in love. They couple. They are sometimes the same age, sometimes not.
In truth, it happens less often to older women and younger men, because even with changing technology, women have limits on their fertility. Most women I know of childbearing age have been pursued by men two and three decades older than they, guys who have lived uncommitted lives into their 40s, or 50s, or 60s, or who have had a previous relationship end midlife but who now want to settle down and have a family. The only mates these guys consider are women who might sometimes be half their age, because, like that old Woody Allen joke, they need the eggs.
This is not what a cougar is. Sadly, for those women who wish we could put off childbearing into our 40s or 50s, it doesn’t make biological sense to wait a few decades and then find a young stud to knock us up. Although, as Emily Nussbaum pointed out in her New York magazine piece, “Do Cougars Have the Smartest Kids?,” recent studies suggest more than ever that men have a biological clock of their own, and that the quality of their sperm suffers as they age, while older mothers apparently produce the smartest kids. Nussbaum writes, tongue-in-cheek, that the most intelligent children “must be the outcome of 45-year-old career women inseminated by their 21-year-old personal trainers … At last, science has produced the case for cougars.”
But this — the idea of the 45-year-old woman seeking out the 21-year-old man for fun and fertilization — is not at the core of the cougar craze. Cougars are not out to imitate that Charlie Chaplin-Tony Randall-Larry King late fatherhood model of masculinity. They are out to imitate something quite a bit more questionable.
Cougars, as we portray and celebrate them, are mimicking the midlife crisis-penis-car-crippling-insecurity version of mature masculinity. They are trying to be the dudes who are half-reviled and half-heroic in the American imagination, the ones who ditch their longtime partners for uncomplicated trophy sylphs who supposedly won’t argue with them about either U.S. policy in Afghanistan or whose day it is to drive carpool.
These ladies, like Stacey Anderson, want the mindless young men with whom they have little hope of actually connecting intellectually or emotionally, the kind of boys parodied on “30 Rock,” when Liz Lemon dated a 20-year-old and had to buy him video games and a leather bracelet and he lived with him mom, who looked just like Liz. When these women say they’re looking for someone uncomplicated, who doesn’t want to settle down, they’re parroting men like Jack Nicholson’s character in “Something’s Gotta Give,” who tells Diane Keaton’s character that he dates young women because he likes to “travel light,” with women who don’t threaten or challenge him or even really engage him. As “The Cougar” roars at us with faux go-girl verve, “If men can do it, so can women!”
But of all the things that men do that women might reasonably wish to do as well — pee standing up, win admiration for sleeping with multiple partners, earn a dollar for every 78 cents, be president — isn’t this one thing we could have just walked away from without regret? Maybe women could have just kept on loving who we loved, having sex with whom we wanted to have sex with, and not felt like we had to make such a growling big performance about it and turn the whole thing into a humiliating T-shirt slogan. Maybe we could have let men enjoy their dubious (and often unfairly earned) reputations as bimbo hunters without deciding that we needed to emulate them, bimbo for bimbo.
Oh, well. Too late. Hiss!
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)