Titanic is about the death of masculinity and in this metaphor, yes, the iceberg is feminism
Recently I had a fight with my sister about the film Titanic, and what it means to me, and how good I think it is. She took great pains to point out the bad script (“Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing. Trust me!”) the idiotic love story (three days! they knew each other three days!) and the over-baked, histrionic performances (Jill, the ship is going down, people are dying, work with me).
For every jab, I parried. I love the campness of the script: I love Rose yelling “better his whore than your wife!” or cooly observing that Titanic “doesn't look any bigger than the Mauretania” from underneath the brow of her giant hat. I love the melodrama of Rose leaping from a life boat back into a sinking ship.
I love Rose. I love that one of the highest grossing films of all time is about a woman who, at the beginning of the film, is very sincerely ready to kill herself. I love that, only when death is certain, Rose finds reasons to stay alive. I love that a woman who begins the film bitchily observing that the boat doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauretania, ends the film crashing around the flickering fluorescent lights of its lower decks, axe in hand, water travelling up to her chest, the boat slowly devouring Rose as punishment for her arrogance.
Who’s smaller than the Mauretania now, eh, bitch?
I love the femaleness of boats generally – the constant she, the her – that starts in 1912 with numerous tuxedo-faced men proclaiming that “she’ll never sink!”, to 80-odd years later when a friendly old racoon tells Rose that “she's got her whole ass sticking up in the air - and that's a big ass, we're talking 20-30,000 tons.”
Julie Cohen, on our episode about Flowers in the Attic, pointed out that all haunted house novels are a metaphor for the psyche: that the attic, with all its balled-up secrets and moth-eaten memories, is a natural stand-in for the sub-conscious. (Note: Julie said this in a sort of matter-of-fact ‘as everyone knows’ kind of way; on the podcast, I pretended as though I had heard this theory before. I hadn’t, although I agree with it.)
Similarly, with Titanic, you can take the boat itself as a living map of Rose’s psyche. The top decks is where Rose is at her most useless and her most helpless. It’s where where she looks at the void and where the void looks back. The first twenty minutes of Young Rose’s story is simply her looking at things: conversations are a listless din, napkins are folded and re-folded, children dress up dollies and are in turn dressed up by their mothers. (I pointed these scenes out to my sister in my defence of Titanic; she answered, impatiently, “well, yes, and I can get that in an Edith Wharton novel”, which is, y’know, fair enough)
Everyone on the top deck of the Titanic is trying to pretend they don’t have an anus (another thing you can get in an Edith Wharton novel).
We go one level down: Rose learns to party with the Irish. (Aside: people often ask me how I feel about the depiction of Irish people in Titanic. The answer is, I feel great about it!) Another level down: Rose is in getting eaten out in a car park. Down, down, down: Rose is wielding an axe. By the end of the movie she’s a feral, spitting animal, hitting a porter who tries to escort her to safety. “To hell with you!” he says, jabbing the lift button.
The longer Rose spends in the deepest belly of the ship, the more uncontrollable she becomes to the men around her. Characters that began the movie chirping that “this ship will never sink!” quickly change their tune to “I assure you, she can, and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” At the same time, we have this mirror situation of men confidently handling Rose (“I may have to start minding what she reads from now on”) to them unable to get her on a fucking life boat. One more time, let’s all sing along: I'd rather be his whore than your wife.
Cal has lost Rose, and the men have lost the ship. Everyone has lost everything, and for the same reason. Each had the ego to think they owned something that, in fact, they only ever had a very limited grasp on.
There’s been a lot written, in the past few years, about the feminist reclaiming of fairy tales. People seem to like it. I don’t go much in for it myself. But what I like about Titanic is that it’s the perfect feminist fable: at the centre of it, there’s this “she” that no one can control, and whether the “she” is Rose or the boat is completely interchangeable. They’re all going to die anyway, who cares.
And that’s the thing. The crucially important thing about Titanic-as-feminist-fairy-tale is that all the men fucking die. They die because they needed the ship to go faster; they die because too many lifeboats would ruin the promenade; they die because they want to get to New York by Tuesday night and surprise ‘em all. They die because chivalry demands that Rose have the entire door (a note on the door: I don’t want to talk about the door, or how much room there was on it. Please do not @ me about the door). They die because of ego, and they die because the Victorian period is long over, and King Edward is dead. They die because an era of unchallenged ownership of white men over everything is about to end, but nobody can see it yet. No one can see the iceberg until it’s right in their faces.
Funnily enough, Cal survives. He survives because he picks up an abandoned crying child, cradles her and turns to the lifeboat captain. “Please,” he says. “I’m all she has.”
To wit: the only man who survives Titanic is the one who pretends to be a woman.
“There, there,” he says, as the lifeboat pulls away from the screaming wreckage. “There, there.”
And the last we hear about Cal is that he kills himself after losing his fortune following the Wall Street crash. Which, y’know, is a funny sort of bookend for a movie that begins with a woman trying to kill herself.
I explained all this to my sister, plus a great deal more – this will not be my last newsletter about Titanic, I assure you – and she didn’t buy any of it. A nickname I have for my sister is Frost/Nixon, because she likes to ask people questions relentlessly until their resolve breaks down. She responded by saying that it is not possible to like something because it is camp and silly, and also like it because it is sincere, and intelligent, and beautiful.
I disagree. Titanic is a fairytale, and as with all fairytales, the lesson can be overwrought, the characters can be stock, the story can be predictable, and the love story can be silly. It can be all these things, and still be loved sincerely. This is how I love the movie Titanic: like a story I never get tired of hearing, horrifying and dangerous and magical enough to trap me every time.