Tuning In: Sheryl Crow on Cougar Town

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.

by Alyx Vesey
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

There is even a convention for them ...

Yikes, kind one. I read something about this around the time when a friend forwarded a news item and it still bums me out.

"It makes me wonder what

"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."

Firstly, it would have been FUNNY. I find neither Cougar Town nor 30 Rock particularly funny. While I agree with your assessment of the neurotic white lady trope, I don't think Carrie Bradshaw deserves inclusion here. I found her more often than not very self aware, thus not nearly as neurotic or annoying. Though perhaps I am being more charitable because I actually found SATC quite funny, though not without its own set of problematic female focused tropes. Believe you me, you don't have to tell the chubby black girl SATC was riddled with privilege fail and a host of other things.

Your analysis was so great. It affirms my belief I'm not missing anything by avoiding Cougar Town.

I totally hate the word "cougar". Not only do I find its application classist - it's a pejorative when used towards working class women and hardly used for women of class privilege unless they are famous - I also think it is more of that "damned if you do. damned if you don't" framing of womanhood. If all the so-called age appropriate men are dating 20something, just who exactly are all these "aged" women supposed to date? I guess they aren't supposed to, which makes cougar such a hard working slur. Shaming, othering and problematic.

It makes me wonder what

Thanks for bringing in the classed dimensions of the term "cougar," Snarky's Machine. And fair point about Bradshaw. The key difference between Bradshaw's neuroses and the other sitcom ladies I mentioned is her total lack of self-awareness.

However, it makes her more annoying to me, as it often channels itself in self-absorption. Think of all the times she's been completely clueless about, say, Miranda's needs, because she's so focused on Aidan, Big, or some other boyfriend. Remember when Miranda finally realizes that she loves Steve and confesses it to Carrie right when she spots Berger walking by and runs away from her best friend mid-conversation? Ugh.

Oops! I was writing "Carrie"

Oops! I was writing "Carrie" but thinking "Samantha"! Yes, I absolutely agree with your assessment both in the original post and your comment. When I heard "cougar" I think of Samantha since she was often framed that way, despite dating quite a few men her age and really only having a relationship with ONE guy who was significantly younger than she was (Smith).

Sorry about that!

Chicken or the Egg

Were women seen as neurotic in real life then portrayed as such? or are the media examples of neurotic women causing more women to become neurotic?

Either way neurotic is bad! and when you get more neurotic as you get older it's no wonder no on wants to be with you. I agree portray women in the media as thought driven, logical conclusion minded saints. Good luck finding one. Where the hell is Margaret Thatcher when you need her, she is no joke!

Chicken or the Egg

I don't think neurotic is inherently bad, nor do I have any interest in seeing flawless female characters on television. But I would like "neurotic" to no longer mean "self-hating" or "constantly intimidated by and vilifying other women."

In defense of The Neurotic

I have to agree with Alyx here that neurotic women are not inherently bad when they appear on television. As a somewhat neurotic person and most certainly flawed woman myself, I too like consuming complicated and flawed characters as a part of my media diet. However, I also think Alyx is right that "neurotic" or "flawed" shouldn't equal "obsessed with men" or "completely self-loathing." You hate your shoes! You hate your hair! You need to get laid! WE GET IT.

I can't help myself from once again plugging Leslie Knope here (as Alyx did above as well) as a pretty neurotic, flawed female character whose neuroses are usually focused on jobs and friendships (you know, normal stuff) and who still loves herself. Go Knope!

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

Obsession in any form is not a path to Hapiness

The path to happiness is the means between two extremes. obsession of anything is an extreme. This has been a cornerstone idea of philosophy from Aristotle, Plato, Confucianism to Buddhism. I really hope you see the problem with neurosis.


senses of the word

Thanks @Anonymous (both of you, if you are two different people) for your comments!

I must confess that I didn't mean neurotic in the DSM sense of the word, more in the "woman on TV who has problems and sometimes overthinks things" sense of the word. Probably should've been more clear on that.

Anyway, I'm sure you're right that balance is best in most cases, though I don't see that conversation taking place any time soon on <i>Cougar Town</i>.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

I like Cougar Town. I do. I

I like Cougar Town. I do. I think it's funny, it has that same off beat humor that Scrubs once had and I like seeing older women in leading roles. It doesn't happen that often and it's always good to see.
I hate the term cougar. Mainly because it's just lame. Guys get the word playboy and we get stuck with Cougar. But I think the show had an idea and the only way it was going to get it's point across was to mask it as something else. The same way How I Met Your Mother did.
In Cougar Town, Courtney Cox is NOT a cougar. She dated two guys who were younger than her and one that was her age. The rest of the show really deals with her being a single mom, her regrets with becoming a mom at a very young age, her friendships and relationships and her neurotic behavior. I think it's good that they address her insecurities in a funny way because a lot of women feel like that. I am only 26 so I have no idea what it's like to be 40 something, single, and readjusting to a new role in life. So many women are going through that and when they see the men that they would like date constantly going after girl who are my age that would be difficult to handle.
Yes the show has MANY problems. MANY MANY problems and as a feminist it is hard to watch at times. Just like its hard to watch reruns of SATC (really Carrie? How many times can Douche-Bag Big break your heart and you forgive him?) BUT there are these moments in a lot of these shows where you see the progress we as women have made.

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