In Carey McWilliams’s California: The Great Exception, there is a section about a startling type of woman living in the mining towns born in the Gold Rush. These women were neither wives nor mothers. Not maids, not cooks.
A popular barroom ballad from the decade:
The miners came in forty-nine,
The whores in fifty-one;
When they got together,
They produced the native son.
Melinda Clarke, the actress who portrayed Julie Cooper on the popular teen soap The O.C., is the only actor in the main cast who actually hails from the show’s titular region. Peter Gallagher and Tate Donovan are both obvious New Yorkers. Kelly Rowan, with her giveaway accent, is from Ottawa; like fraudulent, opulent Estella Havisham before her, Mischa Barton is from Hammersmith. Alan Dale, the actor who played the gruff tycoon Caleb Nichol, is nakedly Australian. Benjamin “Ben” McKenzie is from Austin. Adam Brody is from Carlsbad, near San Diego—close, but, as any Californian can tell you, so far. Rachel Bilson is the denizen of a proper Los Angeles showbiz family. It was Clarke who grew up in a harbor town with the society the show so authoritatively eviscerated. Dana Point, to be more precise, so named for the sailor Richard Dana, author of a definitive Gold Rush memoir about shipping hides up and down the coast.
Her father John Clarke was an original cast member on Days of Our Lives. And for seventeen episodes, she was also on her father’s show (billed as Mindy Clarke), playing Faith Taylor, a beautiful singer at a local bar called Wings. Days fans remember her as having a significant relationship with a character named Patch. Maybe she was in a coma at some point. Someone cheated her. This was in 1989, and those episodes rarely rerun.
When Julie Cooper is feeling low on Valentine’s Day, she is glad her younger daughter Kaitlin won’t be home, because she wishes to take a bubble bath and listen to Bob Seger loudly. “We’ll close the windows,” neighbor Kirsten Cohen responds.
This loyalty to Seger, and its accompanying class significance, is a persistent and charming personality quirk. “My wedding planner is a passive-aggressive nitwit who has the audacity to question my taste in music,” Julie whines in a season 1 episode. “Bob Seger is not so over.”
It’s Seger’s “Night Moves” that plays when Luke, the eighteen-year-old ex-boyfriend of Julie’s daughter Marissa, shows up at her doorstep to tell her what a beautiful woman she is, beginning their tawdry affair. Luke listens to “Night Moves” upon hearing that Julie is engaged to be married to Caleb Nichol; he blasts it, in fact, just before crashing his car. “Night Moves” is what Julie sings with her daughter Kaitlin in the penultimate episode of the series, among the wreckage of an earthquake, because it is the only song (according to Kaitlin) that Julie knows how to sing.
We all know the words to “Night Moves,” right?
We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it
We weren’t searching for some pie-in-the-sky summit
We were just young, and restless, and bored
Living by the sword
And we’d steal away every chance we could
To the back room, to the alley, or the trusty woods
I used her, she used me, but neither one cared
We were getting our share
But Kaitlin exaggerates. Julie also knows all the words to “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
When I was too young to know what I was watching, my best friends and I took in every episode of Beverly Hills 90210 available. When my father went down to Los Angeles for work and asked me what I wanted from the city, I not-so-jokingly asked for Tori Spelling’s autograph. From the North, I visited the South looking for something like what I saw on television: BMWs, rollerblades, the Peach Pit. I had a lunchbox with the full cast on it. It was purple.
A month or so after I turned seventeen, The O.C. aired its first episodes. I remember going back to school and talking to my Spanish teacher, who had been in high school when 90210 aired. “So it’s like 90210?” she asked. “These kids have romances, and their parents do, too?”
I stared. “No,” I replied seriously. “Not at all.”
I might exaggerate, but you tell me. Who on 90210 resembles my favorite character on The O.C., the one and only Julie Cooper? No one. That’s who.
Hold onto your Summer Roberts fandom. Keep your troubling crush on Seth Cohen. While I admit to loving Sandy and his eyebrows, and we can fawn over Ryan’s tank tops any day you like, my favorite character was and remains Julie Cooper, the gold-digging, beauty-obsessed, reputation-concerned, class-focused villainess of Newport Beach. She was Lily Bart, with more rubber than glue. And a taste for male strippers.
Julie, raised in relative poverty in Riverside, elbowed her way into the upper echelons of Southern California society (insert your own joke here) with the help of her sweetheart Jimmy Cooper. At the age of eighteen, she gave birth to Marissa Cooper, The O.C.’s gun-toting homecoming queen. She is twice divorced, once from Jimmy and once from Caleb Nichol. She had trysts with doctors, sleazebags, and one very earnest high school student. Once she was a CEO, and once she was the star of a sex tape. She lived in mansions, and she lived in trailer parks. She wore outfits like this:
And she often drank like this:
She had an even tan, nice arms, and more than one a pink terry cloth jumpsuit. But lest you think she was a prototypically “real” housewife, let’s remind ourselves that Julie Cooper was more alive than most. She was better lit. She had better material.
That sex tape, for instance. “I was young, living on rum, and I needed the money,” Julie says to explain her brief foray into pornography, her “naked mistake” that she spends a few episodes in season 2 trying to cover up [Ed. note – A sex tape that was mystifyingly titled The Porn Identity, an obviously play on The Bourne Identity, despite having been supposedly filmed during the 80s]. This, needless to say, is one of my favorite plotlines, next to her affair with her daughter’s boyfriend and her attempt to start a magazine for “beautiful Americans.”
As many others have already pointed out during the year of its ten-year anniversary, The O.C. covered an awful lot of new ground. It was about high and low; outsiders, spectacle, and self-consciousness; the concern of being faceless and the anxiety of making your “debut,” at an awkward age, into a community that already knows who you are—the dumb girl boys tire of easily, the girl who tried to kill herself in Mexico, the jock with the gay dad, the kid from Chino who burned a house down. It was also about being young, and restless, and bored, with loves too big for such short lifetimes.
In this show about these things, there had to be a sex tape story. What better symbol for the vulnerability, idiocy, and vanity of youth? And who better to stand at the story’s helm than the character who came of age with a shotgun wedding and an undying love for Bob fucking Seger?
I didn’t revisit The O.C. until a year ago when I re-watched most of the first season (unequivocally the best of the three and a half) with friends who weren’t from California. This difference between us didn’t become relevant until the third episode.
“He basically called me white trash!” Julie scoffs to her husband Jimmy. “He said I was from Riverside!”
“Honey,” he replies, “you are from Riverside.”
She spits back: “It was his tone.”
Trust me. If your family had lived in Riverside (not when you were alive, of course, my God), you would have laughed, too.
Before Italian neo-realism, there were Telefoni Bianchi films, so called for the white telephone, a symbol of status and social heights, often filmed prominently in the hands of beautiful actresses. These Italo-Hungarian movies mimicked American melodramas and comedies from the 1930s. The plots were all about marriage and society, love and roses. The sets were spectacular visions of opulence, all art deco fixtures and soft focus. Telefoni Bianchi films were disdained by proponents of realism because of their alleged, indirect support of the fascist regime. Even when they were lightly satirizing the richer classes, these movies arguably propped up a kind of exceptionalism that was dangerous to the country’s image of itself. There is something threatening about a conservative society shown so lushly. Perhaps the threat comes from the image’s depth, in contrast with the subject’s shallowness. Or maybe the cause for alarm is the genre’s emotional resonance, how effective it is in providing escape. These films are discussed pejoratively.
Similarly, there is something threatening about a powerful portrayal of a woman performing well within a conservative structure. Your Martha Stewarts, your Anna Wintours: they are obviously enjoying themselves, but something must be wrong. They must want love they cannot get. They must fall down.
Julie has affairs, businesses, husbands, and houses. She goes shopping, and she buys her daughters Marc Jacobs dresses and a pony named China. Her desires are capitalistic and sexual. Other characters are scared of her, but this fear mingles with attraction more often than not. This is especially true with Julie’s ex Jimmy.
“I was easier to love back then,” she says about their youth in one episode. “I was beautiful and much nicer.”
“Jules, c’mon. You’re still beautiful,” he says. “And we both know you were never nice.”
Julie loves that.
On the commentary track for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Roger Ebert notes that characters in Russ Meyer’s films often say everything they are thinking. They show the camera all their intentions, most winningly when they are lying to someone else in the scene. A woman with heaving breasts will sob to her partner, and then she will turn to smile, not directly at us, but angled so that only we can see.
The O.C.’s brand of emotional contextualizing came close to this Meyer tendency most often with Julie. The physical choices Melinda Clarke made as an actor—to hide her eyes, for example, with her manicured hand when her husband is punched out and called a thief at the Cotillion ball—were often just shy of mustache-twirling. For The O.C. was primarily a soap opera, albeit a self-aware one, with melodrama at its heart, however deeply affecting it was at its best. And Julie Cooper was its soapiest character, glorious within the confines of that genre, doing more than a social climber should. She wanted money. She wanted love. She got what she wanted, and she lost it, too. And then she would go out and get it back.
Even her daughter, the spoiled Marissa, recognizes this in the end. “You know the strength it takes to start over, to go out on my own?” Marissa says through tears. “That has to come from being Julie Cooper’s daughter.”
Shame, for Julie Cooper, was a conquest. She survived it. And sex—the arrangement of it, the falling-in-love part of it, and the decision to end it—was prioritized. It’s this value that made her a villain. But, unlike Betty Draper, another homemaker known for iciness, Julie kicked through divorce and death and trauma. She still sang all the words to “Night Moves.” Working on mysteries without any clues. There was still life in her, even when the show was gasping for air.
I mean, what does success look like to you? How will you get your share? Is there something you would do anything for? What do you want your life story to be?
“I am spirited, aren’t I?” Julie says to Marissa.