A year ago, the word "cougar" made Pearl Molloy cringe.
It was a term reserved for scantily-clad cradle robbers with fake tans and in denial of their age. She was married. She was a high-school teacher. She would never have considered dating a man decades her junior.
All that changed last Thanksgiving when the Calgary resident separated from her husband of seven years. The 44-year-old signed up for dating sites and the requests from cute young men started rushing in.
"Suddenly you have all these 20-year-olds after you," she says. "It did surprise me. That's when people started to say to me, 'Of course, silly, it's the whole cougar thing.' "
Now, like more and more women in their middle-aged prime, she's donning the cougar badge with pride. New shows such as ABC's Cougar Town starring Courteney Cox, which hits the airwaves next week, and The Cougar reality show, hosted by Vivica A. Fox which premiered on TVLand in April, have planted 40-plus minxes firmly into the spotlight. But real cougars in the dating wild feel misrepresented by such contrived characters.
A scene in Cougar Town shows Cox explaining away her C-section scar by telling a naked young hunk that she was knifed as a kid. Stacey Anderson, the main prize in The Cougar, said she was out to reclaim the term from its derogatory status.
It's just not like that, says Linda Franklin, who runs therealcougarwoman.com, an online community hoping to brand the cougar as "smart, sexy, independent … and proud to be over 40."
There's not enough emphasis on female empowerment, she says.
"The real cougars that are actually in relationships with the younger guys are not being helped by these Hollywood representations," she says. "It makes them look almost cartoonish, and that's the last thing they want."
One of the most stinging misconceptions is that these women are in denial of their age, says Valerie Gibson, Canada's foremost expert on dating for women over 40, and author of the 2001 book Cougar, A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. By declaring cougardom, they are in fact embracing it.
"Being a cougar nowadays isn't sleazy or disgusting or not normal," she says. "It is grasping our independence and freedom and, particularly, our sexuality, and making the most of it."
Rachelle Blake, a 44-year-old CEO of a computer firm in the San Francisco Bay Area says she finally accepted her age the day she started calling herself a cougar. "It was hard for me to admit that. I thought I was just a young woman looking for a cute young guy."
She's injected fun and energy back into her life, going out to bars and meeting guys. On one recent occasion, she rode home from a club on the back of a young blond and blue-eyed man's motorcycle.
And while many so-called cougars, such as Madonna or Sharon Stone, both 51, do date men young enough to be their sons, many don't: The gap can be as little as five years. Ms. Cox, 45, is seven years older than her husband David Arquette while Demi Moore, 46, is 14 years older than her partner Ashton Kutcher.
Women like younger men because they're energetic, idealistic, not self-absorbed and haven't "let themselves go" physically, says Janice Laurence, a 44-year-old Vancouver teacher, who calls herself a "Vancougar."
Wider society is becoming more accepting, Ms. Laurence says. People rarely bat an eye when she's out with her boyfriend James Conway, 25.
"We have to laugh a lot because every day someone thinks I'm his mom," she says. "[But]nobody says 'What the hell are you doing?' "
Younger men are actually the ones driving the trend, cougars say, as they seek confident women who skip the drama and do, in fact, take care of them (but not in a mom-like way).
Dating sites have rushed to capitalize on it. When chief operating officer Michael Beads started a beta-version of CougarLife.com in 2006, women were hesitant to call themselves cougars. But since launching in full in June, more than 40,000 people have signed up. While the member ratio is 48 per cent men to 52 per cent women, the site has men as young as 18 "looking for [a]hot older woman."
"It's only really been in the last six months that we decided… [to]launch this service in full and start talking about older women and younger men and the term cougar and trying to help remove what we think is an unfair stigma."
Still, many steer clear of the term, believing that stigma remains firmly affixed.
In July's issue of InStyle magazine, 51-year-old Michelle Pfeiffer said she loathes the term. And the word is still shunned in Britain, says Wendy Salisbury, author of The ToyBoy Diaries .
"It signifies a predatory, prowling animal," the vivacious 63-year-old says. "It also indicates that it's the women who go out looking for the men. I've dated younger guys for the past 22 years and they have always come looking for me."
There are divisions within the cougar community over what a real cougar is and should be. For example, the first annual Cougar Convention, held in Palo Alto, Calif., in August, was not for everyone.
"It wasn't something I wanted to be a part of," Ms. Franklin says, though she's quick to say she doesn't judge. "It does make it harder for the other women. It does look a little déclassé."
Despite all the TV shows and websites, it's unlikely the cougar life will become a mainstream trend, says Laura Hurd Clarke, a sociologist and professor at the University of British Columbia who researches body image and aging.
"In some respects it's very sensationalized," she says. "I don't think this phenomena is all that common, because there's so much social discomfort around it."
But those already part of the scene have fully embraced what they call an exciting and liberating lifestyle.
Calgary's Ms. Molloy has recently dated guys as young as 18 - and she's not ashamed to say it.
"We always make fun of or are not very tolerant of those things we don't understand," she says. "For me, right now, all it is is simply having fun, or hanging out, or hooking up."
Know your feline
How do you spot a cougar in the wild? Lest we misidentify, some in the dating world have categorized single women according to their feline counterparts. Here's the breakdown:
Kitten - a woman in her 20s
Puma - a woman in her 30s (sometimes called a cougar-in-training )
Cougar - a woman in her 40s or 50s
Panther - a woman in her 60s or older
Any man over the age of 18 on the prowl for an older woman is always considered a cub .