February 18, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

Remember when it used to seem empowering to be the older woman paired with a younger man? There was a time when it was all about getting your groove back, tadpoling, and being Demi Moore (whose relationship with Ashton Kutcher — coupled with her bikini bod — seemed to raise more collective cheers than sneers). Nowadays, this phenomenon is happening with such startling frequency that nary a day goes by without some pop cultural rumbling about “cougars.” We’ve got TV Land’s dating show The Cougar, the in-the-works Courteney Cox sitcom Cougar Town, and, god help us, the Jennifer Aniston pet project Pumas (about “aspiring cougars,” whatever that means). But therein lies the problem: Ladies of a certain age who date younger guys have gone from being celebrated to denigrated (frequently), in one not-so-flattering term. Getting your groove back=fun; tadpoling=cute. The term “cougar” comes from a predatory animal, and the human kind are often depicted as trashy, desperate, and clinging to youth for dear life. (See: Saturday Night Live‘s “Cougar Den” skit, which, I should add, really is hilarious. Alec Baldwin as a “cougay”? Even better.)

This all seems to have culminated with the (shocked! horrified!) coverage of Madonna choosing a 22-year-old model as her post-divorce transitional person. Now, the company Madonna keeps in her spare time is hardly relevant to, well, anything relevant, but what is relevant is the way it’s being depicted — as if she is a crazy, dirty old lady locking an innocent boy up to serve her pervy interests. (Side note: How is the main news here not that a person named Madonna and a person named Jesus spent Christmas together?) She’s a “lascivious pop diva” who’s old enough to be his grandma, they say (never mind that it’s only true in a family with some pretty young moms). It doesn’t seem that crazy to me that she’d want to date him — if you’ve seen his picture, it’s pretty clear he’s smoking hot — or that he’d want to date the biggest pop star in the history of the universe. Hell, I’d date her if she asked me to. (And we’ve all made such a big deal about how hard she works to keep her bod toned that surely it must not be all bad.) It’s only a matter of time, I guess, before she gets the pitch for an HBO reality show (Truth or Cougar? Cougar Ambition? Material Cougar?). Until that’s on the air — in which case, I’m totally watching — is it too much to ask that we retire the tired old term for good?

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