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“Cougar” is Not an Appropriate Label for Renee Dwyer

January 28, 2010

Reading around the Twi-net, I find that Renee doesn’t get much love. Charlie gets a lot more attention and fan affection (just as he gets far more “screen time” in the books). Renee is usually interpreted as ditsy, as more of a friend to Bella than a mom. While these interpretations are certainly justifiable given the less than positive (and far from fully rounded) representation of her in the texts, I feel Renee isn’t given the respect she deserves.
She married young and then had Bella before she was allowed to live her own life as an independent woman. Though we don’t get the back story on this, I suspect there was some “no nookie before marriage” rules going on – maybe due to her upbringing or to Charlie (who later polices Bella’s virginity).

Sorry, but 18 is too young to get married. So is 20. Heck, I think people should wait until 25 or so – when the brain and personality are more fully developed and solidified. The crazy virginity fetishizing our culture currently labors under makes many marry sooner though – especially young people who are told premarital sex will send them straight to hell or some other such nonsense. Yeah, cuz marrying the wrong person so you can do the nasty makes way more sense than recognizing human beings are sexual creatures throughout their lifespan – not only after they ‘put a ring on it’!

Renee was probably taken with Charlie’s rugged good looks and his teddy bear nature. She probably thought a life with him would be the bees-knees. Pregnant in ’88, she may have had her sexual education curtailed by the likes of Ronald Reagan and his “family values.” Like Bella, she may not have suggested her man put a wrapper on it…

She leaves Charlie (we don’t know why – maybe she got sick of coming last after all his fishing and sports watching) and lights out on her own with Bella. Given that when we meet Bella she has grown into a pretty remarkable woman, mightn’t we assume Renee had some part in this? Did her single mothering for the majority of Bella’s life not count for anything? Should she have stayed in an unhappy marriage instead?

And, though we are given no details of her years prior to meeting her younger baseball-playing love, she is suddenly a “cougar”? For all we know, she could have been celibate all those years (I hope not for her sake).  Yet, when she finally finds love in a committed relationship she is scorned for loving her beau more than her daughter – a reading that reveals more about the sexism of our culture than the actual content of the books.

In fact, in the texts, Charlie is depicted as never having gotten over his love for Renee. How bad could she be if he still has a torch for her 17 years later? And, lest readers forget, Renee tries to get Bella to live near her, comes to her side in the hospital, attends the wedding, communicates through email and phone (which she would like to do more but Bella is too busy being the center of a love quadrangle…)

In episode 30 of Imprint: A Twilight Podcast one of the hosts notes “I feel Renee is a cougar…nothing wrong with that.” Similarly, in a comment thread at Letters to Twilight, a discussion thread of Charlie and Renee as parents garners this response: “Renee, the consummate cougar, is the one that baffles me.” Sorry, but I take issue with the designation of Renee as cougar.

I hate the term cougar in general, and I don’t feel this sweet, misunderstood woman deserves such a hateful label.

As Renee Martin of Womanist Musings notes, the idea behind this term, “is that after we reach a certain age we become conniving, desperate, manipulative creatures, in search of male boy flesh.   A cougar will do anything to sleep with a younger boyfriend and her self-esteem is strictly determined by her ability to sleep with younger men.”

As Renee further notes, “As men age they become ‘distinguished.’  When they decide to trade in their first wives for a younger model it is not considered predatory…We don’t have any pet names for this behaviour.”

Yes, and if Charlie had remarried a younger woman, would we being reprimanding him in comment threads? I severely doubt it.

I have never watched the show Cougar Town. Like Juliana Tringali, the word “cougar” in the title puts me off.

It lives on, as noted at The Gender Blender Blog, because we live in a sexist society:

“Calling women ‘cougars’ suggests that women who enable themselves to age naturally, and desire and actively pursue sex are animalistic.  It shames them and suggests that they are not properly feminine – patriarchy constructs femininity as forever youthful, docile and passive.  Any woman who defies this, any woman who follows her natural aging process and actually wants and likes sex, is vilified, stigmatized and instantly otherized.  This maintains male privilege and helps maintain other sexist double standards like the he’s a stud/she’s a slut one.

The “cougar” label also over-privileges youth and beauty, as if those are the two most important things in life.  It implies that “cougars” are so desperate not only to get in bed with younger men, but also to cling onto their youth which is quickly fading and escaping them.  Instead of celebrating and embracing aging, a natural and inevitable process, the “cougar” label continues to reject it and make it seem repulsive and undesirable.”

For all of these reasons, I don’t understand why women want to claim this term to describe themselves, like the “Twilight Cougars” whose tag line quips, “Would you like a side of Cougar to go with that Mountain Lion, Edward?”

I get the intentional humor here, but I still find the sexism/ageism that underlies the term problematic.

Further, accordigng to their definition, “Cougars are non-committal, choosing to move from mate to mate without ever settling down. It is not uncommon for the same Cougar to attack (sleep with) many different men in the same group of friends.” As such, Renee certainly need not apply. She is hardly “attacking…many different men” in the saga. In fact, it seems she may only have “hunted” Charlie and Phil. (Though I imagine the chaste-sexuality of the text kept her years of sexual exploits silent – thank goodness, or imagine how much more ire would rain down upon her !)

I find it ironic that the fandom openly celebrates female sexual desire, yet derides Renee for having desires of her own.

I agree with Renee Martin that “Not only is calling someone a cougar blatantly sexist, it is ageist.  Instead of normalizing this label we should focus on something that is more life and woman affirming; don’t we already have enough ways to shame women just to maintain an artificial difference?”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Roxie permalink
    February 1, 2010 1:24 am

    I think a lot women view the term “cougar’ as something powerful, very much associated with the animal of course” Powerful, calculating, cool, unapologetically aggressive. They see the sexual aggressiveness as something they haven’t been previously allowed to express, so the term has a bit of cool cache. Most people don’t use the term very disingenuously to the point where if the man is younger than the woman AT ALL, she’s a cougar…or a puma…or a jaguar, or whatever jungle cat they decide.

    However, I don’t think those people realize where it comes from and what others who use it in a very serious manner really mean when they say it.

    But deriding two consenting adults as wrong & inappropriate just because the woman is older IS wrong & inappropriate.

    • natalie wilson permalink*
      February 4, 2010 7:03 pm

      Roxie,
      I agree with you that many “women view the term “cougar’ as something powerful.” But, then again, women are often their own worst enemies… I think internalized misogyny is at play here. Unfortunately, animalizing women (and POC) has long had “cool cache.” As such, I refuse to play!
      Your comments have got me thinking – is something similar going on with the reclamation of “bitch” – yet another woman as animal term?

  2. February 3, 2010 7:29 pm

    On the matter of Bella not asking Edward to use a…uhm…”love glove”:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to deride Bella for not demanding a condom. If I recall correctly, Edward didn’t believe he was capable of fathering a child and it was only when Bella became impregnated that the Cullens began looking for other human/vamp spawn and found Nahuel. Pregnancy wasn’t even on the radar.

    And Edward claimed to be a virgin, so maybe that was enough for Bella on the STD front. Although, considering he’s over 100 years old and quasi-invincible, I would probably be wondering what kind of nasty stuff was lurking all over his body…but that’s just the germaphobe in me. She was going to become a vampire too – so I guess any health problems would have been quickly wiped out that way.

    On “cougars”:
    You’re right! Renee is not a cougar. She just happened to fall in love with someone younger than her. Hopefully the increasing public awareness of real and fictional pairings of this kind will help to get rid of some of that ageist stigma. But something in the way even women (some of them middle aged themselves!) are judging Renee and Phil’s relationship makes me doubt it.

    I do agree with Roxie that many women have taken on the mantle of “cougar” in an attempt to legitimize perfectly normal sexual desires as they grow out of the narrowly circumscribed age of sexual competence society has set aside for women. Witness women telling each other “You look so cute today, you cougar!” However, I don’t think they can make cougar into something empowering in a larger context. Just like there is no acceptable way for a woman to have a body in our society, there is no acceptable way for a woman to want or have sex.

    • natalie wilson permalink*
      February 4, 2010 7:09 pm

      Imaginary Heroine,
      I get your points about Bella’s not asking Edward to put a condom on it as “Pregnancy wasn’t even on the radar.” Yet, even though he is supposedly a virgin and not able to spurt baby-juice, it seems it would have been prudent for them to at least have a condom-convo. Given the many young fans (who thanks to Bush, Reagan, et al) may have never had sex ed, Twilight seems another book that fails to teach positive sexual lessons…

      As per cougars, I agree that the judgement heaped on Renee and Phil does not bode well.

      I hope no one ever says to me “You look so cute today, you cougar!” Gag.

      And, “Just like there is no acceptable way for a woman to have a body in our society, there is no acceptable way for a woman to want or have sex.” Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! That needs to be on t-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards…

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