Jennifer Armstrong
September 26, 2009 AT 03:00 PM EDT

So cougars are everywhere these days — most notably in fall TV, baked right into the premise of Accidentally on Purpose and into the very title of Cougar Town. But also, partly because of said shows, in trend pieces and web sites and themed cruises and reasoned calls to quit using the darn term altogether. We got it: Ladies are now more often than in the past dating males who were born after them. Viva la post-feminism. I’ve given up trying to argue against cougarism as a concept — that is, as an anomaly worth naming and dissecting, as if it’s akin to the oddity of being a freegan or the genuine progress represented by, say, growing acceptance of interracial marriage. Salon’s Broadsheet even had a good argument for just going with the cougar thing.

What concerns me more is the portrayal of coug-ing. Even though it’s almost always presented wrapped in glossy “you-go-girl” empowerment (the kind that’s just as fake and outdated as the phrase “you go girl”), the two new sitcoms wallow in pathetic details: Jenna Elfman’s paramour has doofy friends who use her mother’s cremation urn to smoke up. Courteney Cox flashes a kid in the street to prove she’s still got it and makes the same peanut butter crackers for her one-night-stand that she makes for her teenage son. (Okay, the peanut butter crackers were a little funny, and the episode as a whole had good moments, as noted by my colleague Michael Slezak.)

Yes, dating someone of a significantly different age than yourself can yield awkward and funny moments sometimes. Everyone’s played the game of “oh my God I can’t believe you weren’t even alive yet when Footloose came out” or “holy crap you actually saw The Sting in the theater.” But when did dating a younger man get so demeaningly wacky? And when, incidentally, did we start treating young men like disposable pudding cups? (That’s just not good for any gender, and I’ve met several men in their 20s who were worth more than their pecs.) Heck, even How Stella Got Her Groove Back played the same situation far more sanely, way back in 1998. Granted, it wasn’t going for hilarity. But even that movie, which made coug-ing its entire focus before the word was invented, tacitly acknowledged that, in the end, Stella dusted off her groove not because Taye Diggs was young, but because he was sexy. (Two different things, by the way.)

The good news? I’ve seen the next episode of Cougar Town,  and it gets funnier, focusing more on Courteney Cox’s Jules discovering she can’t — and doesn’t really want to — party like a 20-year-old anymore, at least not every night. (It also does not force Courteney Cox to utter ludicrous, no-way-this-woman-would-say-them phrases like “hot as balls” — sorry, Slezak! — and “thinking with my coochie-cooch.”) But she’s still pulling muscles trying to execute sex positions her man-candy deems “more of a young chick thing.” We’ll know Jules, and we, have made progress when she stops trying so hard to please the boys she’s supposed be “empowered” by.

What do you think? Are Cougar Town and Accidentally on Purpose depressing or empowering? And how hot is Jules’ age-appropriate neighbor, anyway?

Photo Credit: Elfman: Art Streiber/CBS; Cox: Michael Desmond/ABC

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