Cougars vs. Kittens: Claws Come Out Again on Reality TV

A new reality TV show promises that the claws will come out in the battle of the cougars vs. the kittens, and it's not happening on the Discovery channel.

"The Age of Love," on NBC, pits 40-something women (cougars) against 20-something women (kittens) in a heated battle for the love of one man, the 30-year-old Australian tennis star, Mark Philippoussis.

The network calls the show a "social experiment," and tries for a wink and nod toward feminism and anti-ageism by asking if age really matters when it comes to love.

The first bachelorette given the boot, Jodi, a divorced 46-year-old business woman, says in her farewell speech, "I hoped I've helped show that a woman in her 40s is sexy and interesting and powerful."

A number of media critics and at least one self-described "cougar" aren't buying it.

Women's Humiliation: The Money Shot

Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media and News who is writing a book about women and reality TV, says there is nothing redeeming about "Age of Love's" attempt to show older women are still desirable.

The program recycles the same basic premise as so many other reality shows -- pitting women against one another.

"I really believe that reality TV -- these dating, mating and modeling shows -- are the cultural arm of the backlash against women," she says.

"Everything leads to the money shot -- of women's humiliation, crying and sobbing, 'Why can't anyone love me as me?'"

But this time, the show plays on our culture's fear of aging and obsession with youth and beauty.

When the 20-something kittens are introduced, they "descend from the sky in a giant glass stripper box," Pozner says. Later, the kittens are shown in their apartment hula hooping. Cut to the cougars' apartment, where they are quietly doing needlepoint and laundry.

As viewers are reminded during the show, there's nothing more terrifying for many woman than to be over 40 and single.

"Do producers really want to prove that he could fall in love with an older women?" Pozner says. "You brought them here because you want to humiliate a bunch of faded old crones."

Are Cougars Confident or Predatory?

The 40-somethings are undeniably well preserved, but the kittens frequently joke about the older women's crow's feet, their expiring biological clocks and menopausal symptoms.

And when Philippoussis, who is supposedly unaware of the show's premise, first meets the cougars, he looks vaguely nauseated and uses another animal metaphor to describe the women.

"It's like throwing some piranhas in the deep end with me," he says.

Valerie Gibson, author of "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men," calls the show a "step back."

"They show the women over 40 as having an air of desperation. I rail against that," Gibson says.

"I would have dumped him within 10 minutes," Gibson says about Philippoussis. "He hasn't got the maturity to handle an older woman."

A cougar, says Gibson, is confident and financially and emotionally independent. "We're not in competition with 20-year-olds. The 40-year-olds are far better," she says. "The 20-year-olds are wonderful, they're beautiful, but they're not there yet. They haven't got the experience."

That cougar confidence can often be seen as aggressive, even predatory, by some men.

M.S., a 24-year-old New York man who asked that his name not be used, briefly dated a 36-year-old women and has had another "fling" with a woman in her upper 30s. He says both times the women pursued him and were "very forward."

"A cougar is any chick over 30 who hits on younger guys," M.S. says.

Celebrities like Demi Moore, Ellen Barkin, Susan Sarandon and Madonna have given the idea of older women dating and marrying younger men some cache.

M.S. says that, for the most part, his male friends congratulated him on his cougar conquests.

"The guys were saying, 'You bagged yourself a MILF,'" he says, referring to another term for a hot older woman, "Mother I'd Like to ..."

His female friends, on the other hand, were less impressed. "The females were like, 'Are you kidding me?'" he says.

Ultimately, M.S. sees such a large age gap as too big an obstacle to overcome for both men and women.

"In essence, it's really a fling," he says. "It wouldn't work on that deeper relationship level."

40 Not Quite the New 30

Ken Resh, a 36-year-old from Chicago, is a frequent dater who says he's open to going out with older women but admits that his upper limit for age would probably be 40.

"The older women thing is really a male insecurity thing," Resh says. "It's still not that acceptable. The first thing people think is, how long have they been divorced? How many kids do they have?"

As he gets older, Resh says he finds he has less in common with women in their 20s. "It's hard to relate to people that young," he says.

Of course, kittens do have their appeal. He says a 23-year-old female "friend" was visiting him over the weekend.

"I think most guys would say, 'If I don't know who the person is, I'm going for kitten,'" Resh says.

It seems that no matter what marketers and the media try to tell people, 40 isn't quite the new 30 yet.

"Forty is maybe the new 35," Resh says.