And in the next few paragraphs, you will read a reference to, and I quote, "glamorous French cougars dans les rues."
First of all: can we stop using "Mrs. Robinson" as shorthand for "sexy cougars?" Not like I think anyone will. Yes, Anne Bancroft was hot. (She was also only a few years older than Dustin Hoffman.) But it's a story of obsession and dysfunction and control and it's tantamount to calling "Lolitas" sexy temptresses, rather than the objects of perverse fantasy. Anyway. In 1966, Stephen Vizinczey wrote In Praise of Older Women. It was a salacious bestseller and now Penguin's doing a reissue. The timing can't be a coincidence, given that it's a seminal part of the Cougar Canon.
And don't worry, the Times of London is on the beat: "As teenage models fly in for the start of Paris Fashion Week, we celebrate instead the glamorous cougars dans les rues." The cougars dans les rue, you understand, are the ageless, elegant French women who are still respected as sexual beings.
This French reputation for respecting women d'un certain âge - and not just respecting but loving them - is more than a myth. We can begin with a roll-call of actresses: Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani, Emanuelle Béart, Juliette Binoche, Leslie Caron, Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Moreau, Nathalie Roussel and Anouk Aimée, who are adored and enjoy professional lifespans far beyond those of any Hollywood actress (barring Meryl Streep). Then there are all the fashion muses who retain their allure into their fifties and beyond - from Inès de la Fressange and Loulou de la Falaise to Carine Roitfeld.
And that's the weird thing: writer Lisa Armstrong is actually writing about something real, about a paradigm that values women of different ages and what we can learn from it. Quoth she, "Cougars? The French have been celebrating them for centuries." Well, no, they haven't, actually: they've celebrated sexy, often older women. A "cougar" is a modern conception, an aging version of the shallow ladette who corresponds to similar criteria but with a mysterious wink-wink hint of "experience" that always evokes Stifler's mom and costume-shop disciplinarians. "Cougars" isn't about appreciating intellect or refusing to let mature women get sidelined (with which virtues she credits the French) but about yet another goofy stereotype. You've got your sexy secretary, your sexy nurse, your stewardess and, yes, the cougar.
I guess I get frustrated when the two are so consistently conflated, and "cougarism" is celebrated as a triumph for increased societal wisdom and aesthetic breadth, because the two seem like very different things and the trendiness of the one makes it equally ripe for quick discard when our attention span wanes. In an interview with Stephen Vizinczey, the Independent asks the author what he makes of today's "cougars," expecting, one supposes, him to take credit or be thrilled or something.
Does he think 2010 is a good time for Older Women? "No no, that's very different," he says dismissively. He wouldn't praise them? "I don't praise or dispraise, but these are not the women I was writing about. My book comes from a different civilisation."
What was the difference?
"This idea that you just fuck somebody and move on. They call them all-night stands, or one-night stands, just recreational sex.,,,In the world I grew up in, sex was never just sex. It started with some kind of connection. The older women wanted to give something – not money, not a loan – to give something of themselves. You were friends, you had some point of unity. Intelligence was very important."
If the paterfamilias of the genre has spoken thus, can't we take notice. No. It's so much more fun to talk about big cats.