Julie Cooper: hardly what you'd call a model mother. She was definitely never anywhere in the vicinity of being a model wife, with her marrying strategically the first two times round for money, money, money, and, when the going got tough, she was nowhere to be found. And as a friend, she was lackluster at best and scheming and malevolent at worst. So, yeah, Julie Cooper's worst moment on The O.C. was pretty damn low. But she's also great here, because this is about as real as Julie Cooper gets.
Wind your way back to The O.C. Season 1, Episode 26. When Cooper's first husband Jimmy announces he's been stealing money in his capacity as financial planner from his wealthy clients to fund their family's extravagant lifestyle, Cooper's the first to jump ship. It's not long before she finds herself a new man to fund the life she's accustomed to: Caleb Nichol, Kirsten Cohen's father and a man literally old enough to be her father. When Kirsten throws her a hen party, Kirsten's little sister Hailey hires a stripper. The stripper propositions Julie, and it only takes a little bit more back and forth before Julie's scurrying off to ditch the party that Kirsten's organized for her and to cheat on Caleb in a steamy one night stand with the stripper.
Do me a favor and watch this clip to see what comes next.
How many terrible things does Julie do in a minute and a half here? She flirts with someone who's duty-bound to be sexual around her due to a cash transaction; she sasses him for propositioning her (that sardonically arched brow, that "I'm getting married") before pulling a 180 and deciding she's going to cheat on her future husband with him; she gets ready to ditch the party Kirsten prepped for her early; she doesn't just lie to Kirsten but does so in the most hypocritical way possible, explaining she's hurrying home to see "the boys" (i.e. her future husband, Caleb); she tries to get Hailey in trouble with her sister, again via brazen hypocrisy ("Is your sister flirting with the stripper?") and then she hits Hailey when she finds out that Hailey was potentially just scheming up a way to break up her and Caleb.
And yet I'd argue this is, despite the glaring evidence to the contrary, Julie Cooper's finest hour. Yes, in a lot of ways Julie is the worst in this clip. But this juxtaposition of Julie's catfight in the pool and Kirsten's eye-rolling is telling. Kirsten is reading Julie's behavior as hideously déclassé. Julie might have married money long ago, but, at least in Kirsten's eyes (or how we're prompted to read her reaction), Julie's still acting like trash. This tiny split-second moment causes us to think about the class implications of both characters.
Sure, Julie is trashy and materialistic, but she has to be. When you're born into a moneyed family as Kirsten is, it's easy to never talk about or think about money, because it's always there. The instability of Julie's economic background — she was raised in a trailer park, got pregnant at 18 — forces her to constantly think about money. She's not able to marry for love as Kirsten did; she's too busy trying to escape her past.
So, sure. She hits on a hot stripper. She's ready to cheat on her fiance. But when viewed through an economic lens: Julie Cooper has to spend her life effectively chasing men she probably doesn't actually like in order to break the cycle of poverty and give her children, and yes, herself, a better life. One night of pure pleasure with someone she's actually attracted to first in the context of a lifetime of putting money before her own desires? Doesn't seem so bad now, right?
And before you get on your high horse and ask why Julie Cooper was too good to get a job, honestly? The odds for the working class minus a college degree aren't great in the U.S., and Cooper was probably smart in terms of levying her looks into a salary. A 2016 Pew Report Center report confirms what you probably knew already: the middle class in America is shrinking further and further, and this is in part thanks to a lack of high paying positions for the less educated. They call it a cycle of poverty for a reason. It's pretty damn tricky to break out of.
So next time you rewatch The O.C. and get ready to judge Julie Cooper, learn from this scene. Bear in mind what Cooper's options were and blame the politics, not the person. For all of her many, many flaws, Julie Cooper certainly made you think.
Images: Warner Bros. Television; Giphy (2); Sophie Atkinson/Bustle