Editorial – Boys, Toys, and Cougars

When actress Courteney Cox signed on for the new show Cougar Town, she probably didn’t foresee that her latest career move would be part of an ongoing social debate.

TV ratings aside, the argument over the word ?cougar? is heating up. On the one hand are those who use it to lay claim to the image of a strong, confident woman, middle-aged and happily using the power and experience of her years to pursue younger men.

On the other hand are those who cringe at the term, calling it sexist, demeaning, and just one more way of reducing women to sexual stereotypes. Newspapers and blogs are commenting on it, and Air New Zealand has pulled an ad over the controversy.

Whether you care about Courteney Cox’s career or not, It’s important that this debate is even happening. It’s another sign in a major social shift that, with apologies to the early women’s rights activists, didn’t truly gain popular traction until the ?60s: that sexual stereotyping is demeaning, limits opportunities, and is never, ever acceptable.

So why does no one seem to object to another popular but degrading label: toyboy? As in a younger man used for sex and then casually discarded, or as a distracting plaything in an ongoing affair. Either way, It’s part of a dangerous double standard.

The word crops up everywhere from reputable news site to dating services, with one even offering ?Toyboy Speed Dating.? The Telegraph has used it liberally to describe the teenaged lover of Irish politician Iris Robinson, and even as the headline of another article. The Globe and Mail‘s TV columnist tossed it into a review, and one blogger’s recent post describes the perfect age for a ?toyboy du jour ? an accessory at the very zeitgeist of dating fashion.?

Substitute the word ?toygirl? in the same way and you can bet there’d be a backlash. Sure, there are some who’ll likely say that It’s payback. That women have been subjugated by men for millennia and It’s about time they got a taste of that same medicine: to hold no value except for sex, and to have their opportunities in life limited to what they can achieve with physical attraction.

The problem is that, whether you ignore the trend or consider it fair turnaround, it simply perpetuates the notion that sexual stereotypes are an acceptable part of the social fabric. It doesn’t eradicate the problem. It just reinforces those social norms in a different direction.

So in all the commotion about cougars, the two camps can argue it out all they want. Whether It’s an empowering term or an insult is a moot point. Because as long as we can casually hang sexual stereotypes on any group without raising an eyebrow, we’re all fair game.

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