by: Nico Lang
Last night, I saw Titanic for the first time on the big screen, in all 3Ds of Celine Dion octave-jumping. I’ve seen it about twenty times on home video, and I actually still remember the original box set of the film my grandparents bought when it first came out on VHS. However, seeing a beloved film in the theatres can completely change the experience for you, like when I sat through a retrospective of the Godfather series a couple years ago and was forever scarred by how bad Sofia Coppola is in the lesser-loved Part III. Sometimes the big screen can really bring out the total ineptitude of a character, and when I saw Titanic again, I wasn’t struck by how gorgeous Cameron’s sets are or how masterful his use of light is. I was too wrapped up by what a total toolshed Rose Dawson is.
If there’s any female character in history definitely in need of a Sassy Gay Friend, it’s Rose Dawson (née DeWitt Bukater). Although the movie seems to think of her as being strong-willed and fiery, we only really see that in two scenes—one where she drinks beer (wild woman!) and another where she makes a joke about the size of the boat and men’s Freudian preoccupations with size. (Better tell that Dorothy Parker to watch her back!)
For the rest of the film, this “pistol” allows herself to be pushed around by whatever male or authority figure happens to be in charge of her. She’s not exactly Xena: Warrior Princess. First, she’s controlled by her mother, who orders her to marry a rich man she doesn’t love to keep Rose and her mother from becoming seamstresses. Because she can’t do anything for herself, I’m guessing Rose wouldn’t have an aptitude for any sort of labor, and so I see where the mother is coming from.
However, Rose’s fiancée is so cartoonishly horrible that I wondered why Rose didn’t even try to bring up how detestable he is. Sure, the woman is kind of a selfish prude, but Rose’s mother isn’t a monster or a Culkin parent, and it doesn’t sound like Rose tried to reason with her much about the situation. Maybe you might want to explain that the guy she’s marrying you off to is a potential wife beater and clearly a sociopath? Just a thought.
And while were on the subject of Cal, I have a hard time seeing what Rose could ever see in him in the first place. Throughout the entire film, Cal is the worst person in existence and barely tries to hide it. What about him denigrating someone for being poor, stealing an orphaned child to get a seat on a boat, flipping over a table and calling her a whore (but in fancy language) or trying to shoot her ever said: “Marry me!” I know that it’s the early 20th century and things were different for women back then, but marrying for money never had to mean shacking up with Phil Spektor. Weren’t there any other non-psychotic rich dudes to choose from?
Some may argue that Rose starts off as spoiled and selfish as Cal is—based on her comments about Titanic not being that impressive—but Jack shows her how to not be a total tool. And that’s good. She learns.
But she doesn’t really. She just gets pushed around by a new guy. She does that thing that a lot of people I know do and starts becoming more like whomever she’s seeing, which includes dancing the jig, spitting and engaging in some rumpy pumpy in a Model T. All of this sounds like a lot more fun than trying not to pass out because your corset and class options are too constricting, but Rose still has a long way to go before she we can call her “empowered.” After they meet, Jack spends the rest of the movie politely ordering her around, and during the last third of the film, he’s all but pushing her through the boat to help her not drown. “Swim, Rose!” “Jump, Rose!” “Chop off my handcuffs with an ax without making me a lefty masturbator, Rose!” How about: “Do something for yourself, Rose!” or “Stop standing around like a ninny, Rose!” I longed for Katniss Everdeen to burst in and shoot something with an arrow.
Some might say that her moment of choice—the moment where she decides to become her own woman and not be controlled by other people—is when she chooses to go off with Jack and not live the life her mother has planned for her. I have some problems with this. First, if you’re going to go off with a guy you’ve only known for, like, two scenes, maybe you want to do a background check first—because if not, you get into some serious Bella Swan or Juilet territory. (Is he co-dependent, a serial murderer or a vampire? It might be good to find out.)
And it seems to me that if one plans on doing the Juliet thing and running off with a guy you just met, maybe one wants to actually help him live. At least Juliet had an excuse because she was 13 and too busy thinking about Justin Bieber concerts to have common sense, but what’s Rose’s problem?
In one scene, Rose wastes up a spot on a lifeboat (by jumping off the damn thing) that could have gone to someone else…just to watch her new boyfriend die? How does that make any sense? Because after the boat sinks, Rose doesn’t seem that interested in her boyfriend’s well being or survival. He lets her sit on the raft—because he’s a much better person than she is—and then she slowly watches him freeze to death. Does she try to make space on the raft? Nope. There’s no way that raft could have held both of them, but it would be nice to at least offer to share. If not, she could have tried to find him his own raft. Rose is literally surrounded by people who are dying, sitting on rafts that are soon to be available. If there’s not a free raft right now, just wait five minutes and one will be.
I would cut Rose some slack here—because maybe hypothermia played a small role in her inability to do anything for anyone else—if a) she didn’t suddenly spring to live when her own survival was at stake and b) she weren’t a complete wet blanket the whole movie.
What I find most insulting about his death is that at the end of the movie, it’s all totally okay. Why? Because he lives on in her memories. I would be tempted to say that this is the most crazily selfish romantic fantasy I’ve ever heard, if I weren’t convinced that old lady Rose has dementia. By the end of the movie, I got so fed up with her feebly romanticizing the whole thing that I actually preyed someone would just push her off the boat at the end. Rose, you want that Heart of the Ocean to rest at the bottom of the sea? Good, because you’re going with it, and then we can all just go back to watching The Hunger Games, where no one’s even heard of Celine Dion.
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, the New Gay and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.