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Culture - Media | August 27, 2021, 10:29 CDT

The Rise and Reinvention of the MILF

Jennifer Coolidge of 'American Pie' isn't backing down from the label.
Paul Schrodt

Written by

Paul Schrodt
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It was July 1999 when Jennifer Coolidge invented the MILF. Well, she did for most of us, anyway, embodying the archetype as Stifler's mom in the hugely successful "American Pie" series and popularizing the word in the process. Coolidge is an object of desire for the movie's teens, including Jason Biggs' Jim, who remarks in one of the more memorable scenes of a photo of his friend's mom, "I can't believe a fine woman like this produced a guy like Stifler."

John Cho, credited simply as "MILF Guy #2," spouts out the term in response as he drunkenly sways behind Jim at the party. "Dude, chick's a MILF," he announces, then spells out the meaning for the audience: "M-I-L-F, Mom I'd Like to Fuck!"

If you're of a certain age—Generation X on down—you're probably familiar with the MILF trope. Defined by Oxford as "a sexually attractive older woman, typically one who has children," the term has actually been around for about 30 years now. But what might surprise you more is the way that it's transformed throughout those decades, having been embraced and reclaimed and generating offshoots like GILF (for grandmothers, or Helen Mirren at the Oscars) and DILF (signifying hot dads, this sibling acronym is increasingly searched by women on porn sites, according to a 2020 Psychology & Sexuality article—equity!).

Defined by Oxford as 'a sexually attractive older woman, typically one who has children,' the term 'MILF' has transformed throughout the decades.

Self-identified MILFs aren't backing down from the term, which, as loaded and as complicated as its history is, has normalized a woman's ability to be defined beyond maternal duties and instead centered on her sexuality. Coolidge, now 59 and childless—bearing offspring is no longer a requirement for being a MILF, if it ever was—enjoys the title of OG MILF.

"It feels very good," the actress told Variety at the premiere of her bitingly funny new HBO show "The White Lotus," whose season came to a close earlier this month. "I know there's other people that are supposed to be MILFs, but I hope I'm the first choice."

How did MILF become acceptable even to empowered women?

As with so much slang, pinning down an exact origin appears impossible. The first recorded online usage comes from a 1995 post on Usenet (an internet 1.0 version of a message board) about a Playboy photo spread of sexy moms. "American Pie" was simply catching up, and the Fountains of Wayne hit "Stacy's Mom" four years later solidified the term's prominent cultural status.

However, MILF had already been circulating in academic circles: Linguist Laurel A. Sutton identified it in a list of gendered slang used by Berkeley undergraduates in the 1992 book "Gender Articulated." The second chapter, titled "Bitches and Skankly Hobags," notes MILF's male "condescension" toward women above a certain age. It's easy to imagine MILFs as the subject of snickering in university hallways in those days.

But what if the script were flipped? As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, a fascinating shift happened, fueled by pop culture and—crucially—women themselves. Coolidge has a cool, knowing agency about her as the fixation of her son's adoring friends in "American Pie"; she's as much wanted as wanting, and unafraid to espouse her desires or preference—much like her scotch, "aged 18 years. The way I like it."

When Coolidge's character sleeps with her son's classmate Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) late in the movie, ending his virginity, he's anything but condescending. He's instead awed at the gift she's given him, a new man with eyes opened to life's sensual possibilities. It's the opposite treatment afforded to Anne Bancroft's poor Mrs. Robinson in 1967's "The Graduate," a progenitor to the MILF, sexually used by Dustin Hoffman's smug Benjamin Braddock and shamed and dismissed by a movie that nevertheless lets its young but fully adult male protagonist off the hook for engaging in an affair with a married woman. Mrs. Robinson was unfairly sullied, while Coolidge came out a savior.

MILF in the early aughts could suddenly be owned by women

A 35-year-old divorced mom credited the MILF boom with boosting her self-confidence and sex life in New York magazine. Britney Spears wore a MILF IN TRAINING tank top. The pop star had her shamers then, but in light of the #FreeBritney movement and her unabashed romantic relationship with 27-year-old model/trainer/hunk Sam Asghari, she now looks like the unsung hero in that story. A "meme" replica of Britney's shirt is currently available to buy on Etsy.

Spears isn't the only one who has pushed "MILF" in a more positive direction. In another interview, Coolidge was careful to distinguish the slang from "cougar" (an older woman who actively pursues much younger men), which "just sounds more predatory"—though the Courteney Cox sitcom "Cougar Town" tried to reclaim that term, too.

Who's using it, its emphasis, the perspective of the person hearing or reading it—and more importantly, being referred to that way—are critical.

Whether MILF is or isn't empowering depends on context. Who's using it, its emphasis, the perspective of the person hearing or reading it—and more importantly, being referred to that way—are critical. Coolidge, Britney, Fergie and the female-led Showtime series "SMILF" might've switched the point of view, but that doesn't mean other women don't feel rightfully objectified by a label that probably doesn't need to exist (it's been known for all of humanity that moms can be hot, in addition to all of their other human dimensions).

Yet MILF, far from a returning fad of '90s nostalgia along with low-rise jeans, isn't going to go anywhere soon. As language does over time, it's just expanded, and its trajectory undeniably signals progress. Coolidge, whose acting career is thriving as ever in the acclaimed "The White Lotus," and other women who have moved on from "girl next door" hot can choose how they are or aren't defined as a MILF (or turn the power of the lingo on thirst-trapping DILFs). It's no longer up to the boys in "American Pie" to declare Coolidge a MILF, and she knows it. She's ascended to her Queen of the MILFs throne herself, and she sure looks comfortable there.

Paul Schrodt

Written by

Paul Schrodt