The first two episodes of Paramount Network's American Woman are truly dedicated to setting the scene for Bonnie Nolan (Alicia Silverstone), our titular American woman. Bonnie loves her life, finds out it’s a lie, tosses her trash husband Steve (James Tupper) to the left, to the left, and starts down the road of badass single mumdom, complete with a job of her own. That’s all necessary for the series to work, but not exactly a wild narrative ride. Thankfully, the Kyle Richards-produced dramedy finally gets to the sexy, fun part with Wednesday night’s “The Party.”
“The Party” lives up to its name, offering viewers a look at everything they could want from a breezy 1970s bash in Malibu: sex, drugs, and many references to rock and roll. Not only are those very period appropriate details a joy to watch, but, thanks to Bonnie’s first sex scene, a much-needed middle finger to misogynistic tropes. With just a few minutes of screen-time, American Woman torpedoes the idea of the cougar.
During one of the early scenes of “The Party,” Bonnie runs into a pretty-but-naive striving actress named Masha (Laura James). Although Bonnie immediately likes her fellow partygoer, the purpose of their conversation to prove how mature Bonnie is compared to the Masha. While Masha chirps about recently playing a TV rape victim and avoiding food to improve her bikini body, Bonnie looks on bemused, yet aware she is far past that kind of thinking. Then, Bonnie's ex Steve appears; Steve is Masha’s boyfriend.
When Bonnie points out how young Masha is for Steve to date, the first words out of his mouth are, “Spare me the smartass attitude, I’m not going to feel bad about this.” That’s because society has said since the Stone Age that it’s okay for middle-aged-and-older men to date much-younger women. The kind of women whose lives are just starting. That is the basis of everything from Lolita and The First Wives Club to one of The Bold Type’s best ships (Poor, poor complicated #Suttard). Of course Steve doesn’t feel bad about sleeping with a woman who is seemingly young enough to be his daughter.
Women have never had that kind of leeway and encouragement. That’s why the “cougar” moniker caught on so quickly in the late aughts, as “older” women — probably inspired by the last decade of Samantha Jones’ (Kim Catrall) unapologetic “try-sexuality” — were finally open about the fact they enjoyed great sex with younger men. The response was countless scandalised headlines, like “Rich ‘Cougars’ To Prowl Dating Fest,” and pop culture created to investigate this supposedly bizarre anomaly, including Courteney Cox vehicle Cougar Town and failed reality series The Cougar.
Could you imagine such pearl-clutching tv shows about older men? Or the story “Rich Old Men To Prowel Dating Fest” splashed across the New York Post? No, because no one would consider that behaviour shocking or newsworthy — it’s simply average.
American Woman subverts all the cougar panic when Bonnie meets younger artist and long-haired hunk Adam (Sam Morgan) at the same party where Steve is flaunting his youthful girlfriend. Bonnie is immediately attracted to Adam and goes in to kiss him about a minute into their conversation. Adam rears back in response and spills an entire glass of red wine on himself.
Hypothetically, Adam, who appears to be a “bohemian” 20-something, could explain away his shocked reaction by saying he thought Bonnie, a woman married for nearly two decades with two children, was too old for him, so her advances surprised him. Or, he could offer up the excuse he isn't into older women. Most shows would go for that obvious, passé choice.
But that isn’t Adam’s response. Rather, he adorably explains he hails from Nebraska, and women never make the first move there. He doesn’t even mention Bonnie’s age. Instead, Adam says he’s not sorry at all that Bonnie’s marriage is falling apart and kisses her passionately. The likely possibility of Bonnie being older than Adam proves to be a non-issue that no one even brings up. The best way to prove an obsolete trope, like the “cougar” construct, is obsolete is by not even dealing with it.
That’s why the next time we see Bonnie, she is pushed up against a wall as Adam goes down on her. Alicia Silverstone goes above-and-beyond with the PG-13-friendly orgasm acting as the perfect '70s bop “More, More, More” hums in the background. It’s a fun, sexy scene that reminds us Bonnie should be having just as much fun — if not more — than her awful estranged husband, with whichever man she wants, no matter his age.
Bonnie isn’t a cougar, or a “puma,” or a “cradle robber,” as this 2010 ABC article rudely refers to women who sleep with younger men. No, she’s simply a lady who just had a great orgasm.