I am a failure as a child of the nineties, because until a few days ago, I had never seen James Cameron’s 1997 classic, Titanic. (You know James Cameron, the one who directed Avatar? Anyone who thinks that directionality of recognition is odd is officially old.) I liked the movie quite a lot. There’s something about Cameron’s willingness to push film-making further than it has ever been pushed that allows the 3 hour length, the oh-so-perfect love story that also manages to be a commentary on class and the saccharine lines of adoration that the romantic leads speak to each other to work within this context of overindulgence on every level. Much has been said about almost every aspect of this movie, from the enormity of the budget, to the selection of the cast, and even to various social issues, such as class and wealth. A feminist analysis, however, has been much lacking. The only vaguely related pieces I could find were written by disgruntled Men’s Rights Activists looking for any reason to hate women and finding, of all things, “women and children first” to be the most egregious example of feminism run amok they had ever seen. Now, the movie takes place in 1912, before the modern feminist movement had really taken hold, but I guess those suffragists (no, I don’t call them suffragettes) were just going crazy, demanding to be saved from boats and all.
Anyway, what I see nothing of at all, despite the fact that in one viewing, it smacked me in the face with its obviousness, is a treatment of Rose Dewitt Bukater, later Rose Dawson’s, incredible sexual agency. Like, seriously. Lady has some game.
(Note: there are clips from the movie preceding every sub-point of analysis, and some of them are NSFW/generally graphic. To be perfectly honest, much of the writing is graphic as well. You have been warned)
The movie, as I said before, is set in 1912, and though it’s a myth that people didn’t know about female sexuality until the 1960’s, it’s still pretty incredible to see a woman, constrained by wealth and status, be so deliciously brazen about her desire for her far more virile-looking, young, handsome, swaggering lover. I mean, everything sets up for exactly the opposite. She’s pale, he’s tan. She wears rib-breaking corsets, he wears suspenders that show off his sexy back. She’s sheltered, he’s well traveled. She’s an engaged virgin, and he’s drawn nude prostitutes in Paris. It could so easily have been a story of the frigid rich girl, brought into her own by the glory of orgasm from a skillful lower class boy. But it’s not, which I think makes it much more realistic, much more enjoyable to watch, and much hotter.
Let’s start with the beginning of their relationship. Briefly, Rose wants to commit suicide, Jack saves her life, they get to know each other, Jack shows her the joyous carefree life of the lower class, they fall in love, Jack suggests that she leave her fiancee, Rose refuses, then Rose changes her mind and Jack shows her what it’s like to fly, in one of the most iconic and metaphor-laden film scenes of all times. Then, they kiss. To be fair, Jack leans in first, and then moves in first, which makes sense, since this is Rose’s first tangible instance of infidelity, and it’s a little scary. But then look! She is so into it! He’s just hanging out there and she’s got the whole hand in hair, pulling him against her thing going on. She is enjoying herself, and so is the audience.
Next, the drawing scene. Rose knows exactly what she’s doing from the start, bring Jack to her room, showing him the diamond, and while he’s obliviously examining the gem from every angle, Rose is asking for exactly what she wants. Only when she makes it mind-crushingly obvious that the drawing will be of her naked does Jack look up and realize what’s going on. Then, when she comes into the room, she’s confident in her body and her choice, while Jack is a bit of a blubbering mess. She reclaims the male gaze by telling Jack that she doesn’t want to be seen as a porcelain doll, but as a sexual being, and throws a dime at him to emphasize the point. It’s a fantastic reversal of the usual image of a man paying a woman for sex, and wonderfully so. She even embarrasses him by telling him that he’s blushing. Rose gets the image she’s always wanted, in every way possible. There’s the picture, of course, but then there’s the opportunity to think of herself as a Botticelli woman, as well as to literally watch the man she’s in love with begin to see her that way as well. And not only does the drawing last 84 years into the present day of the movie, but the mental image as well, as shown by old Rose saying to strangers and her granddaughter, a little incongruously, that being a model for the drawing was the most erotic moment of her life.
Finally, there’s the sex scene. This one is probably the most obvious example of my thesis. Rose and Jack run playfully away from the affected evil henchman character and end up hiding in a car in the steam engine level of the Titanic. At first, it’s a game, with Rose jokingly reminding Jack of his ‘place’ by encouraging him to open the door for her and get in the front to drive. He continues with the joke, asking, “Where to, miss?”, but Rose is done with the games. She acts out the fantasy we can only imagine she’s been playing in her head for days, and whispers to him, seductively and yet still earnestly, “To the stars” and drags him bodily into the back seat with her. There can be no doubt as to her intentions and yet Jack is still grinning like an overgrown schoolboy while Rose is trying to get to the point. Finally, he gets it; you can see it in his eyes. Then he has the audacity to ask if she is nervous. It’s lovely, to be sure, but one is by this point very much expecting that he is the nervous one, and his question seems meant to deflect. Nonetheless, Rose does not humor him, and with those beautiful, soulful blue eyes, looks unflinchingly at him and says no. Without further ado, she begins to kiss his fingers in one of those rare movie moments that is genuinely erotic and also sweet. Kissing fingers is something actual couples do, but doesn’t involve enough nudity to be shown all that often. It’s an act of supplication, hearkening to a history of kissing the rings of royalty, but also assertiveness, since it incapacitates hands, the parts of our bodies most associated with touch and exploration. Then she says, unflinchingly, without the embarrassment that usually accompanies such frank talk, “Put your hands on me, Jack.” Since he still, despite the clearest of directives, hesitates, Rose has no qualms in helping him along. And, if her hand smacked against the fogged-up car window is to be believed, it pays off for her quite well.
Then, finally, in what I consider to be the best aspect of the entire arc, Jack is visibly shaking in the aftermath of their intimacy, and Rose notices and points it out. He is put in the position of having to somewhat unbelievably claim that he will be perfectly all right, even when it seems quite clear he’s undergone a life-changing experience of some kind or another. Rose, not being monumentally oblivious, catches on, and kisses him comfortingly, even nurturingly on the forehead and then holds him. Despite the apparent stereotypical quality of this dynamic, in matters of sex, this is actually rather radical. Women are generally cast in the role of the ingenue, the inexperienced, being shown the magical ways of sex by an older, more mature man, and they unfailingly ask to be held afterwards. Here, the sex is deeply meaningful for both parties, and it is Jack who needs comfort, love and perhaps some recovery time. Best of all, this is entirely normal; nothing whatsoever is made of it.
James Cameron wanted to create a touching love story, and all he really needed for that was a pair of attractive actors and Celine Dion. But as the framing of old Rose telling the story shows us, this story is really about Rose, not about Rose and Jack. Rose’s story is a gripping one, filled with parties, money and illicit affairs. It moves her from being a pawn for her mother’s economic gain and an accessory to a wealthy man, to being a power in her own right, and kudos to Cameron for realizing that that must include sexual power. The sex is Titanic is loving, passionate and sexy, everything the whole arc is meant to be, and much of its strength comes from Rose, a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it.