In the past few weeks, singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow has been on ABC's Cougar Town playing a wine vendor named Sara who serves as the protagonist's romantic foil. Created by Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence, who were behind Spin City and Scrubs, the half-hour comedy, still in its first season, focuses on Jules Cobb, played by TV veteran Courteney Cox. Cobb is a 40-something real estate broker based in Florida who is also a recently divorced single mother re-entering the dating scene.
Despite some harsh reviews over its regressive depictions of maturing women and leaden jokes, the show has garnered some support, is getting good ratings, and has been renewed. Having not seen it out of trepidation, the recommendations of a few feminist girlfriends and the casting of Crow led me to watch.
First, I'll admit to not being fond of the term "cougar." I have no problem with older women dating younger partners, but the name suggests maturing women are aberrant, rabid, and predatory. That there's no culturally accepted male equivalent term and that older men continue to pair off with younger women with little mention further suggests a panic around this particular iteration of female sexuality. Of course there's also the alignment of women with animals that the term suggests, which is just demeaning. 30 Rock drew comedy out of these matters with season two's "Cougars," particularly drawing attention to the idea that cougars have to act young. This continued obsession with youth may also speak to the increased on-screen presence of Botox and how it results in actors having to modify their acting styles. Kristen Schaal also offered an incisive and hysterical critique of the term's sexist connotations in a Daily Show segment.
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As for Cougar Town, I'm not impressed. While I'm glad Cox is able to continue working and television and retains some control of the project as a producer, I find the show to be fairly regressive and not particularly funny. There are some funny lines that, in the spirit of 30 Rock, bring distinctly female issues to light -- though sometimes with potentially misogynistic undertones. I'm also happy that Busy Philipps, who plays Cobb's assistant and close friend Laurie Keller, has a steady gig. Philipps, like fellow blond comedienne Anna Faris, often delivers good performances in weak material. For those unfamiliar with her work, her superlative work as working class burnout Kim Kelly in Freaks and Geeks is a fantastic introduction.
It's also interesting that Cox's Cobb is far from perfect, despite being a successful career woman. She's obsessed with her body, a borderline alcoholic, is overprotective of her teenage son, and awkward when it comes to dating. However, she is not alone, Liz Lemon being another recent example of flawed, neurotic white single women in American sitcoms that includes Carrie Bradshaw, Ally McBeal, and Mary Tyler Moore. Cobb is also shrill and neurotic, and thus not that far removed from Cox's Friends character Monica Geller, who started out the series as my favorite character but became screechier and meaner with each season.
So, I'm not particularly sold on Cobb's imperfections as new and interesting contributions to gender representations on television (incidentally, Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation gets little recognition for being an emotionally stable, professionally successful feminist -- she's like the unsung drummer of feminist television). I also find that the female relationships tend to abide by the stereotype that women can't be friends. Cobb's friend Ellie Torres (Christa Miller) is threatened by Keller, who has a horrible relationship with her mother.
This brings us to Crow's Sara, who in essence serves as Cobb's romantic rival. Sara is dating Grayson Ellis, Cobb's friend who tends to date much younger women but with whom she shares chemistry. Thus, Cobb is intimidated by Sara, who is not only a contemporary but also a smart, nice person -- at least as much as the show's cartoonish writing will allow.
I'm not sure what to do with Crow in this format. Despite a few acting credits and cameos, Crow is not a natural actor or comedienne. All I can thin is that Crow might have related to the material. She is older than Lance Armstrong, with whom she was once involved. She's also been diagnosed with breast cancer and recently adopted a son, Wyatt, who she is raising as a single mom.
Finally, she's a veteran musical artist who has matured past the current stable of glamorous female pop stars right along with her potential target audience, who may also be viewers of Cougar Town. With 100 Miles from Memphis coming out later this year, she may be trying to meet market expectations.
While I commend Crow, and Cox, for refusing to abide by sexist and ageist notions of female celebrities' shelf lives, I'm not sure if latching onto a show that aligns itself with women who are treated like faddish subculture without providing much critique, nuance, or humor is the way to do it. It makes me wonder what Murphy Brown, The Golden Girls, or the ladies of Designing Women would have to say about cougars. Something tells me the jokes would land better.