“I’m a Bond girl!”
The gangly freshman boy, clad only in a women’s lacy slip dress and voluptuous blonde wig, twirled around, gesturing at the homemade “007 girl” sign affixed to his rear.
“See?” he yelped triumphantly, then scurried away.
My eyes swiveled around the Mayo- Smith ballroom, taking in a truly eclectic cast of characters. To my left, I spied two Hawaiian tourists playing beer pong against the Statue of Liberty and a poor Trump imi- tation. To my right, a couple dressed as Fifty Shades of Grey strode in, the senior girl in a lingerie-style nightgown and rope-tie bracelets leading a nervous, suit-clad freshman boy by the hand. In front of me, half a dozen of couples had already commenced dance floor make-outs; one classmate momentarily detached her face from her date’s to shout a hello to me and my date. As the choking heat rising off the crowd of partiers filled my throat, I thought to myself, what have I just stepped into?
Cougar Formal — which draws its name from the Urban Dictionary definition of a cougar as “an older woman who frequents the club in order to score with a much younger man”— purports to offer a grand “fuck you” to social norms that glamorize predatory bachelors while stigmatizing older women who pursue younger men. The event is a time-honored Amherst College tradition; at the very least, it’s been held annually since before my freshman year. It’s simple enough: senior girl asks freshman boy; they plan a cutesy couples costume and then enjoy a fun evening of inter-class bonding. Senior girls also praise Cougar Formal as a unique opportunity for bringing together disparate members of the class. Think of it as a girl-power fiesta, where women who’ve perhaps never talked to each other, let alone been in the same room, gather to enjoy an evening of dancing, drinks, and patriarchy-bashing.
From the beginning — despite my strong support for female empowerment, inter- and intra-class bonding, and smashing the patriarchy — I couldn’t help but feel as though there was something off about the idea of Cougar Formal. At first, I attributed my hesitation to being in a long-distance relationship: call me crazy, but I found it uncomfortable to hit up my boyfriend for tips on how to ask out a freshman. But later, at a welcome-to-ultimate-frisbee outing at a local swimming hole, I discovered my true hang-up. There I was, surveying a horde of shirtless freshman boys and discussing their relative merits with male upperclassmen friends, when it dawned on me: this was kind of creepy. The malaise only grew as someone in the newly formed Cougar Formal message chain suggested logging our dates in a GoogleDoc, so that no one need suffer the indignity of being rejected by an eighteen-year-old boy. I cringed internally at the thought of a third party discovering the spreadsheet full of freshman boys sitting in my Google Drive. What could I possibly tell them that would make it not weird?
Reservations notwithstanding, I decided that I had to attend, if for no other reason than to say that I did. So I invited Jason, a nice boy with dark hair and brown eyes, whom I met at a Hillel Shabbat dinner and who was recommended by my male friends as “not a douchebag.” When I asked him — probably the most awkward social situation I’d encountered since the hysteria of find- ing a junior prom date — he was bemused but excited. Later, after I texted him the event details, he thanked me profusely for the invitation. “I think it’s really cool to be at a college where upper and lower classmen can form friendships like this,” he told me. I didn’t have the heart to inform him that forging lasting intergenerational friendships would probably not be the night’s main theme.
Jason suggested we go as Blue’s Clues, since he owned a carbon copy of Steve’s iconic striped shirt. Although I initially blanched when a friend, reading the text message over my shoulder, informed me that in going as Blue I would “literally be his bitch,” I decided that this was almost certainly not Jason’s intent, so it would probably be fine. Besides, I had no desire to be the one who dragged the beloved childhood classic through the mud. I invited him to a pregame beforehand, making sure to tell him that there was no pressure to drink if he didn’t want to. At the pregame, we chatted with other senior girls and their dates about such topics as our high schools, winter sports, and whether or not Disney owns Pixar, and then played a short but entertaining game of “Cheers to the Governor.” As we set out for Formal, Jason seemed at ease, bantering back and forth with my friends and their dates, and many of my initial concerns began to ebb away.
Expectations were high as we walked into Mayo-Smith. I eagerly awaited my invitation to play beer pong with the girl I hadn’t talked with since freshman orientation, or to engage in deep conversation with intelligent young men from the class of 2020 about what they hoped to accomplish while at Amherst. But no such offers arrived; instead, I saw girls clustered in their usual social groups and boys milling around in packs, shotgunning beers. The whole place smelled like spilled Natty Ice. As Jason and I passed Bond Girl, Christian Grey, and Hawaiian vacationers, I noticed the color beginning to drain from his face. With a sinking feeling, I realized that this event was just like every other party I’d ever been to: loud, sweaty, and in no way conducive to forming new and lasting friendships. I could tell that Jason wanted to flee, but, ever the cordial date, he suggested we take a lap to greet various friends. Timidly, we entered the ballroom horde. People pushed against us from all sides, swaying and grabbing each other to the thumping beat, stopping only occasionally to coo over our costume. I was acutely aware that — just like at most other parties — the social space was male-constructed and dominated. But now, recognizing the age gap, I felt even more uncomfortable than usual. It was highly disconcerting to be catering not only to the patriarchy, but also to a bunch of teenagers.
Finally, after a very large, very drunk freshman boy demanded repeatedly that Jason fetch him a beer, I asked if he wanted to leave. He nodded yes, the relief on his face palpable, and we walked back to the freshman quad. It had been all of about 20 minutes.
I had long suspected that I wasn’t the only one with lingering uncertainties about Cougar Formal. Indeed, there was a point when it seemed like an emerging debate within the Cougar Formal message chain (which, importantly, was made up entirely of senior women) would put the kibosh on the event once and for all. The disagreement began as a few senior women voiced their concern about the event’s inherent heteronormativity, charging the group to make Cougar Formal more inclusive. Some- one mentioned that the “bad connotations” associated with Cougar Formal made it feel unwelcoming to some, but no one elaborated on what the bad connotations were. Various possible solutions were floated: an all-senior all-freshman formal (quickly dismissed because several people expressed discomfort at the thought of harmful pres- sures on freshmen girls), cougar formal held as-is with an accompanying sophomore-junior formal (considered too complicated, and not the seniors’ job to plan), and an all-school formal (determined to be pointless, and at that point not even worth planning an event at all).
While we made headway on the inclusivity front — clarifying that any senior who didn’t identify as male was welcome to attend the newly re-branded “Senior Women’s Formal” with a freshman of any gender identity — the group assiduously avoided the elephant in the room: that we might feel uncomfortable objectifying freshman boys. Or, more importantly, that freshmen boys might feel uncomfortable themselves. The entire debate now became self-serving and, frankly, hypocritical. According to the group, bringing dates didn’t really matter, and the important thing was getting to hang out as a class of strong, awesome women. Yet any suggestion of eliminating dates – or the grade requirement – was immediately shut down. Further, while we collectively shuddered at the thought of a vulnerable freshman girl receiving an unwelcome invitation from an intimidating senior boy and feeling compelled to accept (an experience that I imagine many women in the group had themselves contended with), it was taken as a given that all freshmen boys would jump at the opportunity to attend Cougar Formal. In the end, the only concerns that were taken seriously were those pertaining to senior girls. And senior girls, apparently, wanted freshmen boys.
I want to clarify that I think all of the premises behind Cougar Formal — facilitating senior women’s bonding, challenging unfair gender-based social norms, and encouraging inter-class friendships — are great ideas, and that I don’t find consensual freshman-senior hookups morally objectionable. Most importantly, I do not wish to condemn, or even judge, anyone who attended Cougar Formal and enjoyed him or herself. What’s baffling to me is how we ended up where we are now, how the fight for social equality became freshmen boys parading around in lingerie. Exalting Cougar Formal as patriarchal kryptonite blinds us to what it really is: a mirror image of the very institution it claims to overturn. The assumption upon which Cougar Formal is predicated – that all freshman boys are eager to attend a senior-girls-only party, and moreover are likely DTF – perpetuates harmful norms of masculinity that further hinder the feminist agenda. But equally dangerous is our own unwillingness, or inability, to admit that the problems with Cougar Formal run deeper than just its name. I truly believe that Cougar Formal began with the best of intentions: creating a space for senior girls to let loose, buck social conventions, and make new friends. But things have spiraled out of control. It is only when we have the courage to admit that we feel weird about the current state of affairs, that something about this practice is decidedly creepy, that we will have a chance to create an event that’s truly feminist and fun.
After I deposited Jason on the freshmen quad, I returned to Mayo-Smith to rendezvous with a friend whose date had since ghosted. We stood outside with a few other girls whose dates had also vanished into the ether and watched a stream of couples spill through the fire exit. Someone suggested getting cookies, so the four of us took off. Sitting in the air-conditioned store, laughing to- gether about our costumes and absentee dates while dipping still-warm hunks of chocolate chip cookie into milk, I couldn’t help but notice that this was the most fun I’d had all night.
Maybe, if the women of 2017 really wanted to bond, we should all have just gone to Insomnia.