Redhead With A Rep Part 2: Rose from "Titanic"

To continue our series on redheaded characters who deserve more respect, I introduce you to Rose DeWitt Bukater of the 1997 film Titanic, played by Kate Winslet. (Missed Part I about The Little Mermaid ? Find it here).

If you haven’t yet seen this movie, I beg of you to crawl forth from your rock and acquaint yourself with pop cultural touchstones of the last 20 years. (I gulped a bit on the number 20, but we’re only three years away from that anniversary for this film. Excuse me while I go take my Centrum Silver).
Now Rose is, in some ways, a bit trickier to defend. When I reviewed Ariel’s character, I had the goodwill of many stalwart Disney fans who loved the movie growing up, but Titanic itself, as a movie, became fashionably uncool by summer of ’98. Many people simply have jaded memories of an emotionally manipulative flick featuring teen heartthrobs.

And really, the love story in Titanic is kind of silly. It definitely has that Romeo & Juliet feel—you know, where the characters make commitments without knowing anything about each other? Rose has been criticized by parents (and youth leaders, if you were a church kid like me) for ditching her family for a teen fling, disregarding even her safety in the jumping-from-lifeboat scene. Some of the acting in the film is sub-par *coughLeonardocough* and many of the characters are stereotypes. (Rich, arrogant abuser? Check. Grasping, snooty mother? Check. Brash, good-hearted “new money” character? Check. Dreamy, sensitive, playful-but-penniless artist? Check). Rose often gets lumped in with the rest of that stiff cardboard cast and written off.

But here is why I love Rose, and ultimately, the film.

Her Character is Interesting, Dangit!
Rose is one of those characters who is part of a famous “duo” but is rarely recognized as actually being the better half.

Leonardo DeCaprio got a lot of attention for being a teen heartthrob. Titanic rocketed him to that status virtually overnight. But between the two of them, Winslett was the better actor. You believe her more when she speaks. Plus, she had a wider range of emotions to portray. DiCaprio’s character Jack is going about his life and falling for a girl, but Rose must appear repressed, curious, frightened, abused, and finally triumphant as she breaks free. There’s just more for an actor to work with.

And while we’re on the subject of Leo being hot, I’d draw your attention to the fact that Rose isn’t your average Hollywood lady. Wild hair and being above size 2 weren’t super popular then or now, but she rocked it, and I give her serious props for that. In an era where girls were beginning to starve themselves, I remember wanting more meat on my bones so I could look healthy and robust like Rose. That’s awesome, and good news for some of my favorite foods, like cheeseburgers.

Rose is also the one with the clearer character arc. At the start of the film, Jack is a street-smart and carefree guy with a big heart. At the end of his life, he’s…a street-smart and carefree guy with a big heart, who happily found the love of his life for four days. Rose, on the other hand, begins the movie as a repressed and angry teenager and ends the movie as a free, self-confident woman who has learned to stand up for herself.

In fact, you could argue that Rose is the only character who has an arc at all. Most other people, good or bad, stay the same throughout the film. Cal never learns his lesson. Rose’s mother may have, but only at the last minute when it was too late, and we don’t get to see the aftermath. Mr. Andrews may be the only other person on that ship who gets even one line of actual dialogue indicating that his awareness of himself has enlarged (“I’m sorry that I didn’t build you a stronger ship, young Rose.”) She stands out from the rest for that reason alone.

Further, much of the action in the story hinges on Rose’s decisions. She’s the one who decides if loving Jack is a go or not. She’s the one who decides to leave her family, thus initiating the conflict with Cal as the ship is sinking. She’s the one who goes for the key when Jack is handcuffed and drowning. She’s the one who jumps off the lifeboat and lets us see the sinking up close. Finally, she’s the one who survives and must decide what to do with the rest of her life.

In light of that, and the fact that she’s the narrator, I would say that Rose and Jack are not co-protagonists. I believe Rose is the main character and Jack is the supporting figure.

But people see them slapped together on the posters and peg Rose as being just somebody’s girlfriend in a tragedy flick.


The Romeo and Juliet Effect

I have to admit, I’m not the biggest fan of stories that simplify the realities of relationships. For instance, I raged about the last book of The Hunger Games, where [SPOILERS] Katniss and Peeta are able to form a successful marriage based entirely on shared trauma. (What??) So you’d think Titanic might annoy me to the core, because it’s a story about a teen love affair that takes place in four days and induces a girl to leave her family. At least, that’s what many of the film’s critics couldn’t come to grips with.

It’s true that, IRL, committing to a guy you just met could lead to disaster rather than freedom. I don’t want to downplay the fact that Rose’s results are not typical for a four-day romance. I chose the Romeo and Juliet comparison, though, to demonstrate that Titanic is using a classic storytelling technique. It’s common for old fairytales and plays to “speed up” the rate at which people develop relationships. Romeo and Juliet is the most famous example, but lots of other movies followed, including many Disney movies. Snow White knew her guy long enough to do a duet with him; Ariel loved Eric based on one night of eavesdropping and a statue; Briar Rose practically got engaged to some dude her woodland friends introduced her to; Jasmine knew Aladdin for one evening, and then pined for him so much that she didn’t want other suitors.

Sometimes it’s necessary to tell a concise story in a fast way, and I think that’s what Titanic did. Since the movie is about the fated voyage of the ship, it makes sense (again, from a storytelling perspective) to have all the action happen onboard—otherwise, it would feel like a period drama that slapped the historical event on at the end. Sloppy.

But if the whole movie has to happen on the boat for storytelling reasons, and the story is about the blossoming romance that saves a woman’s sanity, then that entire romance has to blossom while on that ship. And according to history, that can only take a few days. Add water and stir, and you have a recipe for a sped-up romance.
Okay. The water joke might be a bit uncalled for.

What Rose’s Rebellion Is “About”

But what about the fact that the movie portrays a 17-year-old leaving her entire family for a boyfriend? Will this teach teens to rebel? Will it teach them that their high school relationship is more important than their safety?

(Now, I must admit to a bit of a handicap here. I was a church kid. I heard about this movie from the perspective of parents and pastors in youth group. Maybe this particular point didn’t bother people in the secular world, but it was all the rage to talk about in Brio magazine and Bible studies, so I’m going to assume it’s worth addressing.)

People’s reaction against the message of Titanic seemed logical to me as a teen, but in retrospect, I disagree pretty thoroughly.

Yes, it’s kind of stupid that she jumped off the lifeboat. Yes, it’s unusual for a teenage romance to be the real thing. But let’s look at the bigger picture. Rose was in an abusive family. Her mother was emotionally manipulating her and withholding love so Rose would marry for money, saving the family from ruin. Cal, meanwhile, wanted a trophy wife and had no qualms about knocking her around. Rose had been taught to stuff her emotions. She wasn’t allowed to express opinions, pursue university studies, or even order her own food. The most she could manage was to lash out in small, passive-aggressive ways. She was marching toward marriage with an abuser she didn’t love and a mother whose love for her is, in my opinion, seriously in question.

Through the “abusive family” lens, finding Jack wasn’t about rebelling or running away on a mindless fling. It was about learning that it’s okay to say no. You can say no to your family if you have a bad feeling about the guy they want you to date. You can say no to said creepy guy when he comes to your room and night wanting sex. You can say no to getting married (even if the invitations have gone out and all of Philadelphia society will be there). You can say no to being abused.

You can even say no to living with your family if they are toxic people.

In this way, I see Rose as a wonderful character. But the thing a lot of parents took away from this was that Rose was over-infatuated with her high school BF.

Now, I want to be very clear. I do not think parents who reacted against Titanic are okay with abuse. I just think their “teen rebellion” button got pushed and made them so upset and nervous that they forgot to think about the larger context of Rose’s situation. This is a really important point to me. I think it illustrates how easily well-meaning adults can overlook issues of female agency. I’m sure that many parents who railed against Titanic really hate physical abuse, and wouldn’t want their daughter to marry a jerk. Yet something at a subconscious level reacted against the idea that this young woman might know better than her boyfriend and know better than her mom. I think it shows how adults can sometimes start to idolize their own power and demonize teenagers’ intentions.

On a side note, this is why the jumping-from-lifeboat scene, which I do find outrageous on a literal level, is at least halfway defensible from a storytelling perspective. When Rose is put in that lifeboat, she’s put there by Cal. Metaphorically, she is submitting to his plan—a plan that will end with him getting off the ship and knowing exactly where she is, while Jack dies. She’ll be right back where she started--in Cal's grasp, doing things his way.

From that perspective, jumping out of the lifeboat isn’t a statement that “true love means you have to kill yourself.” It’s a statement that even when things look hopeless, it’s better to be true to yourself than submit to an abuser.
Now maybe you think I’m reading too much symbolism into this scene. Eh, maybe I am. But at the very least, I think the metaphor is useful for having a discussion with your teen. I think it’s a way to explain that scene while still encouraging kids that in real life, no high school relationship is worth risking your safety. It’s an opportunity to show that storytelling devices should not always be interpreted literally--something your kids need to learn anyway, if for no other reason than their English grade in high school.


The moral of the story is that Kate Winslet is awesome, Rose is a fun character, and I am going to eat a cheeseburger to become more attractive.

Is the movie hokey? Kinda. Is the romance unrealistic? You bet. Are (most of) the characters as underdeveloped as camera film? Oh yes. But you have to give kudos to the woman who appears in this goofy script and steals the show.

Hats off to you, Rose DeWitt Bukater Dawson.