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,
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
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
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