{strange} Sex, 1.1- “Cougars and Cubs”

previously on thebiobabe I spoke about writing a review of all episodes of this TLC show, {strange} sexand here is my first installment! (episode line up, summary of my thought process) I’ll tell you, I didn’t expect to write this much. This project is gonna be a doozy you guys…

TLC-Strange-Sex

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Hattie, a self proclaimed Cougar and co-star of this episode of {strange} sex (a picture of her co-star Ron could not be found through a google image search) photo credit: Hattie RetroAge website, TLC’s {strange} sex website

First of all..

The fact that this whole series is not framed as “these are perfectly acceptable preferences chosen by consenting adults” or “these are medical conditions that should be treated with compassion and sympathy”  but instead like a sideshow ring at a circus is the core problem with this whole series. Add in the sexism, ageism, sizism, ableism and all the other -isms you can think of that are portrayed in pop culture and you’ve got yourself a real winner of a TV show.

So what are we dealing with, exactly? Or: So this is a Freak Show I guess….

This episode follows a woman named Hattie who is 73 years old and is a former model and dancer as well as a self proclaimed ” “cougar” and a guy named Ron who is a 33 year old divorced father who likes older women.

[Aside: I’ve watched shows about this type of age gap before. There was a program done by  BBC one called “Sugar Mummies” that documents the lives of   older women married to younger men.  So I have some experience with the treatment of those relationships in reality TV. The only thing that I can say in favor of the Sugar Mummies program is that it attempted to be more documentary style and less reality tv stylized documentary like this show.  At the same time I don’t have a lot of knowledge about the arguments for/against these types of relationships or what the stats are on the health of the relationships are (if there are indeed stats about this). All I have for reference is my feminist beliefs and a bit of biology knowledge about the aging process.So that’s what I’ll be referring to throughout my review if I don’t directly reference a different source.]

“Over the past 15 years a new form of sexuality has emerged from the shadows”  says the deep voiced announcer over the top of ominous music as the episode begins. This is an aspect of the show that definitely bothers me- making the content of the show seem foreboding when it really isn’t. We aren’t starting a horror story, we are documenting the sexual health and lives of human beings. The idea that women who are older being with younger men is fodder for a What-Terrors-Lie-Beneath-the-Deep? show  bodes ill for the 20 minutes that follow. Also, the word sexuality is not being used appropriately in this context at all. Sexuality is about what gender/non-gender/all genders you feel attracted to and what you identify as your sexual identity (queer, straight and everything in between) and your romantic identity. Preferring someone to be drastically older or drastically younger than you is just a specific sexual/romantic preference.

Why is it emerging from the shadows? Something  being in the shadows implies something sinister happening which again, what’s with all the woo-woo creepy mystery atmosphere? I get that you’re trying to imply that now it is more socially acceptable to talk about this sexual preference of people’s but come on, calm down.

Hattie the Cougar: Patriarchy lovehates slutty women at any age

The episode begins by profiling Hattie, giving her background. First generation American, Russian and Polish, from low income background. She describes herself as adventuresome and competitive. She is 73 years old, and was a dancer and a model. She got married to another dancer and  was married to him for 25 years and had two children. When she got divorced her two children were in college and she wanted to get out into the world and shake off her bad divorce. So far I love her. She’s a sassy happy woman who seems very comfortable in her own skin. In her footage she’s dancing and cheesing it up for the camera. She talks about putting an ad for herself in the paper back in the day, single happy lady looking for a younger man. She also talks about getting three dates a day after that for many many days. She’s quoted as having had at least 100 lovers and is delighted to brag about it. On the one hand I’m thinking Girl power!  But I have reservations, as you will see.  One of the experts that the show brings in to comment on Hattie is a woman who points out that men have been dating downward in age forever now, and so women who are cougars should be allowed to do the same. This also reinforces the “girl power!”

But upon further reflection the overall message given in her introduction is very interesting. It’s very overtly sexual. Which is fine because she’s got sexuality, she’s not dead. But at the same time, they seem to trying really hard to sell her as a sexual being in the way that young women are sexualized in our society, instead of her giving a sense of sexuality all on her own. She’s dressed in a way that Lady Gaga might dress when she’s in her 70s. And maybe that really is Hattie. She’s expressing herself  as she is and that’s great. Maybe this is where a little diversity in this episode would have helped. Could we have profiled in more detail the Black woman in her 40s who seemed like a typical businesswoman but also a cougar? Could we have profiled someone like in Sugar Mummies who is already married to a man her junior and seen what her life was like? The choice of  70 year old Lady Gaga Hattie as the subject for this episode is great, but it is a bit sensationalist. Just the way TLC likes it.

The logic  goes something like this- the only way that a 70 year old woman would start dating younger men is if she is a BIG FAT SLUT. LOOKIT HER IN HER UNITARD AND TALKING ABOUT SEX WOW. they have her read her journal she keeps of all the men she’s slept with, they edited her interviews to the parts about how she’s a sexual being so that that’s the ONLY part of the interview you hear. Another  problematic thing that Hattie says that was spliced into the show to reinforce the sex crazed thing:  At some point she says something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing) – ” if I were paid for all of the great stuff I did in bed with a dude I’d be a very rich woman haha!” Basically saying I am as good in bed as a sex worker but I’d never be a sex worker that’s silly. Also implying that the only way cougars get the dudes because they are Cirque Du Soleil levels of talented in the sack is very upsetting. yeeesh. So these are two solid lines that show that TLC is trying to act like they are creating an episode of a show that is progressive and showing you new things, and then they turn around and have their “real people” forward views that in themselves are very old fashioned.

Because at the end of the episode she says some wonderful wisdom that she has learned about life, that seems a lot more moderate than the image that TLC wants her to have- she says ” I want sex, love, and a life mate. I’m ready to align and be with whoever it is that God wants to couple me with. As much as I want to have a lover and be in love,  with or without a partner, I’ll keep dancing. ” I think that’s a wonderful statement. But TLC makes sure that you don’t get that full complexity of a person she clearly is.

Cue the Disapproval and Differing Viewpoint from a “Concerned” Bystander

And then we see the one on one interview with Hattie’s son and that’s where things start getting annoying.  He says ” I was a little creeped out at first… She’s wasting her time that she could be using to find an appropriate life partner” On the one hand, okay he’s giving his genuine opinion. On the other his opinion is  terrible.  I’m really not overjoyed that the producers decided to include it into the show.(probably edited the clip of him being interviewed to make it more sensational) They are endorsing the message his opinion is sending which is sexist and terrible. He’s buying into the stereotype that older women wanting anything blatantly sexual or anything that makes them seem younger than they are is “creepy”. He also is ignoring the fact that older men have been dating/marrying/having sex with younger women since time immemorial and that has not been thought of as “creepy” by mainstream culture.  As for the second of his comments- since when does he get to judge the behavior of his grown mother as to whether or not she’s wasting her time? If this is what makes her happy in her old age, then so be it. As long as she’s practicing safe sex, no one should be saying boo about this. She’s clearly still in her right mind, and has a strong view of what she wants from her life right now as evidenced by her balanced statement about life and love at the end of the show.

 

These are not experts they just play them on TV

All of the people who are experts on TLC shows like this make me immediately suspicious. Especially those who are writers who topically researched something and then are just giving their opinion for the camera. Or only interviewing one doctor for the whole of the show. Or interviewing someone who says they are a psychologist because that could mean pretty much anything. Only psychiatrists are the licensed medical doctors. Anyone could set up shop after taking two or three psych classes and call them psychologists. I mean you could do that as a doctor as well.. but anyway you get the point. These could all be actors. They could all be really bad at what they do. All I can tell you is that none of them are high profile.

I take issue with the woman who is the “cougar expert” who is in fact just an author who wrote a book about cougars, who says that the reason that younger men are going for older women is because they are “tired of being hit over the head with younger women’s biological clocks” There’s some woman bashing women sexism if I’ve ever heard it. Not every younger woman is out there throwing their biological clock at men their age. That’s such an outdated stereotype I might barf. And besides, if someone really wants to have a baby with a partner, then yes, they need to focus on good biological time period to have that baby and see if the man they want to be with even wants children. AND SOMETIMES MEN FEEL URGENT ABOUT HAVING BABIES TOO. jesus.

One of the experts started talking about Freud and the Oedipus complex and I just want to punch her in the face. I cannot believe that it is 2014 and people are still mentioning Freud outside of his historical context as if he’s someone who said something important that should be relevant in psychology again which is the OPPOSITE of what should be happening. Death to Freud etc. etc.

 

Ron the Divorced but Loving Father Who Hates His Female Peers

So after we’re done meeting Hattie and after the commercial break, we meet Ron. He’s 33 years old and has 2 children from a previous marriage. He’s divorced but loves his kids. We are shown Ron playing with his children, working at his job, talking to a friend and going to the bar. All we ever see Hatty doing is dancing around in her unitard, picking out an outfit and going online to look at her dating profile. Coincidence? Not likely.

Ron doesn’t like the feeling of dating women the same age as him because he hates having them rely on him for money. Cougars don’t do that. The female Cougar “expert” (remember the one who just wrote a book about it) chimes in supporting Ron’s view, by bashing younger women. “Men want to be with cougars because they are independent and don’t need them for money”  Well Ron does not know a lot of ambitious and wealthy younger women it would seem.

Ron only talks about his looks and what he thinks about sex one time each. Once he talks about how he has nice arms from his work as a carpenter/electrician. The other time he says “If you haven’t had sex with an older woman at least once in your life, you’re missing out” That’s it. So we beat Hatty’s looks to death, but with Ron it is just one incidental throw away comment. And then when it comes to sex with older women, it’s a pity comment. Like older women are some untapped resource and we should pity them and have sex with them because they are just great and no one knows it, not even them.  And then of course another expert pipes in saying “Men are with older women because they think they are bringing something to the table that an older woman will not get otherwise”  They don’t say what it is the men think they’re bringing to the table, but I can hazard some guesses- male approval, the self esteem the ladies clearly don’t have any more (sarcasm), a virile male presence in their lives (cause god knows we’d die without it amiright ladies?)

(And I think this is all hilarious because when Hattie is checking her online profile, she’s talking about how she gets tons of messages and the men are basically selling themselves to her and asking her out and this and that. )

Ron says that he thinks that long term relationships don’t happen with cougars. Which is a  stupid generalization.

Ron’s friend says that the term for male cougars is dirty  old men. Ron’s friend is on to something here. That’s about where the sage advice from the friend ends though, because he says something to the effect of Ron should be dating someone younger because it’s not a real relationship when he’s with a younger woman. Also the friend’s complete lack of horror towards Ron’s dating practices compared to Hatty’s son’s horror at her dating practices is a telling contrast. It’s the shows way of enforcing the standard of “Why the hell is Hatty doing something so CARAZAY and Ron is a little weird but he’s a cool dude”

Hatty’s son chimes in to reinforce this idea by saying  ” I do worry about my mom. sometimes I worry about a guy who’s interested in her who’s young is a little bit nuts. I think about that more than I judge what she’s up to. I worry that she is with the wrong kind of guy.” Ugh shhhh please be quiet son.

No one ever mentions that Ron would struggle to get a date. He’s a Great Looking Father Nice Guy and he pities the poor older sexless women so of course he’ll never struggle for a date.

So then what happened?

Like any good reality tv show, this episode also had to have some sort of story arc (even though in real life there is no perfect story arc to people’s lives)

So then Ron and Hattie go on a date. They go dancing because that’s what Hatty wants to do even though Ron says he’s not really a dancer. Hatty says she’ll teach him (again cue the maternal guiding mother Cougar stereotype)

Hattie shows up looking wacky but slutty in her dress (a super sexy one that her granddaughter aged friend helped her pick out) and cheetah print cowboy hat and feather boa  and states  “Well at least they aren’t wheeling me in, I’m walking in! ahahah” that’s terrible. She is saying that society and Ron think she only deserves a chance because she is still able bodied and sexy. “No love allowed for Cougars who are in wheelchairs! No love for those fugly 80 year olds! hahaha!

On the date between Ron and Hattie, Hattie says that she does not feel the 40 year age difference between her and Ron only that they’re two people having fun. Cue my least favorite expert Freud Lady coming back in with her maternal dynamic creepy Oedipus complex shenanigans. Granted she at least throws in the idea that not all cubs (men who seek out Cougars) are looking for the maternal dynamic (but she implies that most of them probably are).

Hattie tells Ron that her ex-husband  cheated on her repeatedly while they were married and she knew about it and she didn’t break up with him, and that’s one of her biggest regrets. In a solo interview she gives at some point she says  something to the effect of when I got divorced I decided to use the 25 years of my marriage to turn back the clock to when I was 25. I would date and have the sexual life of a 25 year old woman.  This reveals a lot. Hattie literally desires being younger as a way to cope. That smacks of a societal thing, honestly. “Never get old! BE YOUNG ALWAYS” and she does it by only dating young guys because that’s what 25 year old women do right? They date guys their own age. And younger girls sleep around a lot right? That’s just what they do. So I will do that, and it will turn back the clock. That’s how I will stay happy. What a message. I am only reading into this critically because of what I saw on Hattie’s website 

Ron says that he likes that Hattie knows who she is and what she wants. (feeding into the Cougar Lady expert’s stereotype from earlier that all men  who want to be with an older woman because they are sure of themselves)

Hattie’s son finally says something nice for a change and says that his mom is a pioneer of what it means to be an older woman in America- if older men can go out and get younger women, then older women can do the same. (Update: I think this might be the tagline from her website, so maybe they made him say this)

Ron has a delightful time on his date with Hattie because of course he did who wouldn’t? And Hattie says they will be going on a second date to a comedy club.

Hattie says “Well sometimes people  ask me ‘are you waiting for love?’ and I say ‘no. I am living a life of love. I would like that love to be coupled with a man with whom I would express that love sexually.” Interesting that at the end of the day this unconventional woman expresses such a conventional old school wish for her life.

 

More Opinions that Do Not Fit into the Synopsis

There are many many problematic or weird things going on here with this episode. But first off: the problem with reality TV shows is that they lull us into a false sense of thinking “Okay so this is kind of weird, but it must have some level of truth or realness to it because it doesn’t involve actors, it involves real people”. This allows us to forget that there’s an entire production team, writers, producers and editors who are all working to bend the footage they have into a form of reality they think we all want to see. Or a reality they have convinced themselves “needs to be seen”.  Jennifer Pozner’s book Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV has a few things to say about that-

“‘We shoot 100% of the time and air 1% of what we shot ,’ then edit ‘the really good stuff’ to suit their purposes, an anonymous Bachelor producer told NPR. ‘We even have gone so far as to ‘frankenbite’, where you take somebody saying, ‘of course I’d like to say that I love him’ and cutting the bite together to say ‘of course I love him.’ …[It’s] misleading to the viewer and unfair to the cast member, but they sign up for this. ‘

…Yet most of us remain unaware of practices like Frankenbiting. Even fewer understand that pretty much every part of a reality show is manipulated to support producers’ chosen narrative. As Time tells it, ‘Quotes are manufactured, crushes and feuds constructed out of whole cloth, episodes planned in multiact storyboards before taping, scenes stitched together out of footage shot days apart.'”

(p. 26-27, Reality Bites Back)

The annoying thing about TLC documentary reality shows like this one is that they try to market themselves as progressive and non-judgmental, and that they are doing this to teach everyone else something “new”. When all they’re really doing is capitalizing on how 1. we have a more open, sexually progressive and connected society nowadays and 2. that the genre of reality tv prides itself on making everything up for grabs for filming and exploiting. 3. No  one will blink an eye at the message we’re sending because “It’s real people you guys!”

They try to act like they are unbiased when they are clearly sending us a message,-one that is not sex positive or sex critical, not factual in any way, and is forwarding limiting, stereotypical views.  The psuedodocumentary style makes me even more nervous for uncritical viewers who take that style as a stamp saying “yes this is all true, real, fact checked and expert approved” . Even TLC’s name- The Learning Channel gives its programming a vague sort of authority over mainstream life in America.

Okay so- What would I say to everyone about the idea of a Cougar-Cub relationship?

Well like most adult romantic/sexual relationships it requires consent and communication. That’s #1. I also think that a little reflection on your sexual and/or romantic preferences never hurt anyone. A lot of times we don’t realize we have internalized problematic messages from society that are making us seek out relationships that are not healthy for us or the people that we are engaging with. But if you have mutual consent and communication (with maybe some internal dialogue with yourself) and you’re only engaged with a legal adult in a noncriminal way, then go ahead and do what you gotta do. Be with someone the age of your grandma. Be in a relationship with a consenting 18 year old. But know that their are a lot of societal messages you are receiving that influence you unconsciously and your relationship does not occur in a vacuum where everything is perfect and balance of power is equal. That is my official disclaimer. That being said, is a cougar-cub relationship socially acceptable? Is it problematic? is it healthy? what are we looking at here.

The only problem I can see with this preference is it is a preference that relies on an intrinsic quality that the person cannot change. So that raises the question- Is liking older women a fetish? If someone walked around and only wanted to date people who had glass eyes and exclusively dated people with a glass eye because they had certain assumptions/stereotypes about people with glass eyes and their identity, this also would cause me pause. I suppose it varies from person to person, but I believe that yes you could have an older person fetish if you exclusively wanted to date them for qualities you think that they all have (are unsatisfied sexually, have low self esteem, will be happy about any sexual attention they can get)  and/or you could only get off if you were with someone older than you.  On Ron’s part I think this is a case of positive ageism if my interpretation of its definition is correct. So instead of the typical stereotype which is “Ew I don’t wanna date someone who is old enough to be my grandmother, instead we fly all the way to the other end of the spectrum with- oh that’s so sad she’s never gonna get any kind of positives in her life cause she’s an old grandma, I’m the only one who can help” and that’s not good either. So on the part of the cub I believe what we’re seeing here is a case of some ageism and benevolent sexism. Now if someone finds that occasionally they date older women, but not exclusively, I think that would be a little less problematic. That means you’re dating someone based on who they are as a person regardless of age. But the exclusivity is a bit much.

Now on the part of the cougar, what’s happening there? First, I think it’s a little ridiculous that we need a specific sexual preference in men to illustrate the idea that older women still want sex. It’s dumb. Of course if you are an older woman and you are interested in sexual relationships you may still be interested in them when you’re 70. Or you won’t. But being sexual should  always be a safe  option as a woman. We are not light switches that are just turned off at a certain point and we shouldn’t be policed as such. That’s just a stereotype surrounding menopause. Some women lose their desire for sex post-menopause and during menopause, and some don’t. It’s all ok! And keep in mind, some women may be more interested in sex after menopause cause hey! no chance of getting pregnant! That’s pretty big bonus. Other women may feel more sexually confidant and mature in that stage of their life. It’s not an absurd concept. I think it would be great if mainstream society started being more accepting towards the idea of older women still being sexual creatures without giving them weird nicknames. And by not stereotyping old women at all. Don’t call them frigid dry old hags. Don’t call them cougars. Don’t derogatorily refer to them as grandmas.  Just because the patriarchy doesn’t think they’re fuckable anymore doesn’t give you the right to treat them like shit. It just goes to show that no matter how old you get, no matter how much you’ve learned or how talented you are, the patriarchy still thinks it’s in charge of you.

Saying someone is a cougar is labeling women for letting their “creepy old lady sexual desire” touch the “sacred” youthful masculinity. Like how could they dare?!!!  and in turn, that makes cubs seem like weirdos. Which they might be, or might not. I think calling them weird hides the critical way we should look at how they’re using their privilege to engage in a relationship where all they get penalized for is going for “expired” women but not anything else. While women who engage in the relationship have their entire judgment questioned and their lives ridiculed.

Also thanks a lot “Cougar experts” for meanly comparing cougars to younger woman. Saying that the reason men flee to cougars is because women their age are gold digging insecure whores is pathetic. I’m sure some men believe those things, and that is terrible. Don’t spin it as if it’s a way to gain acceptance for older women dating younger men. Don’t turn this into a competition between us. There are some women who are in Ron’s peer group who I’m sure are independent financially and in the rest of their lives and know exactly what they want, but spoiler: none of them want to date Ron because he is a fucking asshole who thinks his dick is a gift to all 40+ yo women.

All of the cougars and cubs interviewed for the show were portrayed as being uninterested in any kind of meaningful relationship with a partner (except Hattie mentions it in passing at the end of the ep.). And by that I mean they didn’t even portray them as happy unattached people. I am sure there are many people out there cougar/cub or otherwise who like having sexual relationships with many different partners and never settle into anything committed. There is every type of relationship( romantic or sexual)  and commitment under the  sun out in that big world. Did TLC voice any of that? no. They just went straight to the box of tropes for all of the “normal people” interviewed.  The predatory sex for amusement stereotype a la Samantha from Sex in the City (for the cougar women interviewed), benevolent sexism crossed with sexual merit badge  with “an older woman”  stereotype for the cubs, “My divorce made me hate most women” but I’m a father good guy stereotype for Ron and outlandish sex crazed slut (for Hattie)

tl;dr So basically according to {strange} sex  a cub is a promiscuous connoisseur with an acquired taste and a need for an independent mom figure to take care of him and give him sex because clearly that’s what he’s entitled to. A cougar is an outlandish promiscuous  predatory sex-crazed crazy woman who’s probably doing this to make herself feel younger because that’s what we brainwashed her into thinking she should do.

and of course we had to make this about white people because otherwise no one would watch it. And we couldn’t make this about a transwoman in this same scenario or a lesbian couple or a bi couple in the same scenario. TOO MUCH REPRESENTATION TOO MUCH STRANGE IN ONE PLACE says TLC. ugh

Small Little Addendum: 

Upon further research: I think Hattie might have been chosen for this show because she’s an entrepreneur who has a website all about reversing the aging process, which is pretty much the constant message sent to everyone in America 24/7. Again with the idea of TLC saying “Look at this show so progressive and liberal! “And then sneaking in a status quo type message and messanger in the form of an ageist Cougar. Also she starred in a TLC special in 2012 called Extreme Cougar Wives. From the description it sounds like it’s more along the lines of Sugar Mummies on the BBC minus the marriage.  And it’s probably another gem of TLC manipulation. I am going to take a pass on watching it.

Jennifer Pozner’s Website

Menopause on Planned Parenthood’s Website ( this is cissexist language-  those who identify as men can also go through menopause,  but it is scientifically accurate)

Thoughts on what I’ve written? Hit up my ask box or talk to me in the comments! 🙂 (anything misogynistic, rude, or inflammatory will be deleted, fyi)

 

 

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