This month marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the most successful films ever made, James Cameron’s Titanic. I was in seventh grade and less than two months away from turning thirteen when the movie was released. Like most young girls (and, let’s be honest, half the world’s population), I remember the bizarre timespan of a matter of months when life seemed to revolve around the record-breaking film and its (un)fortunate cast.
Of course I lusted after Leonardo DiCaprio, and even his adorable sidekick Fabrizio. I owned both discs of the soundtrack, I worshipped Celine Dion and sung My Heart Will Go On more times than I could possibly count. My parents bought me a tiny Heart of the Ocean replica that I wore to school religiously for months, despite the fact that my classmates teased me and spread rumors that I thought I was a Titanic survivor in a past life. (It was a creative break from them laughing about the fact that I had a crush on a “popular” boy, so this was actually a nice change of pace).
I remember making at least two or three attempts to see the film in theaters, only to pull into the parking lot and walk up to the double doors of Southland 9 and learn that Titanic, again, was sold out for the rest of the day. (Oh, the nineties — the days when a guaranteed ticket to anything meant standing in line for hours or days on end instead of simply logging onto the Internet and hoping your browser didn’t crash before your credit card was accepted).
I remember sitting in the theater, several months after the film came out, and finally watching as the story unfolded in all of its epic splendor. I remember being entranced by the music, astounded by the special effects, horrified at the way the third class passengers were treated … and in awe of the main character.
The main female character, that is. Leo was gorgeous and talented and I readily admit that my bedroom was plastered with his face for several years. But Kate Winslet as Rose Dewitt-Bukater-Dawson was, I now realize, the first time I was inspired by (and maybe even slightly attracted to) a woman.
A Rose by Any Other Name . . .
Like most of the world, I had never even heard of Kate Winslet before Titanic. I was too young to have seen movies like Hamlet or Sense and Sensibility, and I had just barely reached the age where my parents considered letting me watch something rated something other than “G” on TV or in theaters, so the female actors I was familiar with were limited to Melissa Joan Hart on Clarissa Explains it All and Larissa Oleynik in The Secret World of Alex Mac on Nickelodeon.
But Kate as Rose was for me the epitome of what I thought a woman should be – beautiful, intelligent, curious, and yes, a bit mouthy.
I loved her red hair, her pale skin, her careful, sophisticated voice, her wardrobe in the movie and in real life. I could tell right away that she was talented (that Oscar had to come sooner or later), and I knew that she had to have real guts to appear naked in one of her first few films.
I walked away from my first (and second and third and thirty-fifth) viewing of Titanic with a new appreciation for truly amazing films and truly amazing actresses and women.
When Rose stepped out of that old fashioned automobile with her wide-brimmed purple hat and close-fitting white striped suit and looked upon the largest ship in the world with a flippant remark, I remember thinking that I liked her right away. When she abandoned her wealthy fiancé for a few hours below deck with Jack Dawson and his steerage friends to chug a beer and show off her ballet moves, I liked her even more. When she asked Jack to draw her like one of her French girls and removed her robe, I remember being stunned.
I had seen naked women, of course. There was that time in my Aunt Janice’s basement where she let me watch European Vacation, which was probably the first movie I’d ever seen with nudity. The scene took place when Rusty was dreaming about going to a strip club, and the women were being paraded on stage topless, their collarbones and ribs just barely visible beneath their flawless skin.
And of course there were the diagrams and pictures in health and educational books, women with flat bellies, bony knee caps, and usually smaller breasts. Then there were the magazines and commercials filled with women in bikinis and lingerie – women who were so thin their belly buttons looked like slits and they had to wear a contraption of a bra to form any sort of cleavage. My mother had already, repeatedly, given me the talk that women like that are paid to look perfect and helped to do so with the assistance of photo editing and personal trainers, and that my body was perfect just the way it was and that you didn’t have to look a certain way to be beautiful.
But when I saw Rose, I realized that she was right! Even before Rose shed her thin robe to pose for her drawing, I could tell she was different from other women. When she ran across the darkened decks of Titanic, her breasts jiggled against her dress. When Jack heaved her over the ship’s railing to save her life, his hands made impressions on the meat of her upper arm. And when she took off that robe, I didn’t see ribs or hip bones or collarbones. Her breasts were large, her hips shapely. Her stomach was slender and cascaded into her thighs like rolling hills. She was stunning – and real!
For weeks, I secretly worshipped Kate Winslet. I loved her pictures in the magazines almost as much as Leo’s, but I couldn’t tell anybody. I was made fun of enough at school, I didn’t want people accusing me of being a lesbian, too. Of course I knew, even at that time, that there was nothing wrong with being gay, but when you’re a thirteen year old seventh grader who was being tortured on a daily basis for everything from your wardrobe to your not-so-secret crush, you kept things like this secret. It would be close to a decade before I realized it was perfectly normal, and even common, for women to have “girl crushes” on other women.
Then my world came crashing down one day on the school bus. A couple of boys were talking about Titanic, and of course they couldn’t wait to talk about the nude scene. But instead of them giggling and gushing over it like they would Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time video in two years, I was shocked to hear them say horribly mean things about my new role model.
“She’s not even pretty,” one boy said.
Another boy laughed. “She was BUTT!” another one cried, as in “butt ugly.”
“Fatty,” a third boy commented, and they laughed. And laughed.
I remember sitting in my seat fighting tears. These boys weren’t attacking me (for once). They weren’t even attacking a friend or someone I’d even met. But they were attacking the first woman I admired. And what effected me even more was the fact that if these boys thought that someone as beautiful and talented as Kate Winslet was ugly and fat, what did they think of me? What would they find attractive? What was good enough for them?
Of course it was many, many, many, many, MANY years and experiences later that taught me to dismiss such things. And in the course of those years, I watched as Kate Winslet starred in successful film after successful film, finally winning her Oscar amidst losing and gaining weight, then losing it again and gaining it again. I read about her getting married, then divorced, then remarried, and even an article where she talked about the death of her first real boyfriend just before being cast in Titanic. She talked about having children, about the media scrutinizing her appearance, and about how women are objectified unfairly. And nearly twenty (gasp) years after Titanic’s debut, I still consider her one of my favorite actresses, and, more importantly, a role model.
And as I watch Titanic now as an adult, I realize that she is a role model for more than just her body and her face, for more than her talent and her outspoken personality, but for the characters she’s portrayed, especially Rose.
Rose was a fictional character who did not sail on the Titanic. But she represents the kind of woman I look up to. Rose was a woman who was sheltered and put on display, someone who was meant to be looked at and talked at, not to, and who was not expected to open her mouth with an intelligent response. Rose was supposed to marry someone she didn’t love for money and security, and keep quiet while he abused her. Rose was not supposed to be strong enough to oppose her mother or her fiancé, or even speak her mind at dinner. Rose was not supposed to brave the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. She was not supposed to be strong enough, physically or mentally, to free the man she loved. She wasn’t supposed to prosper in life or do anything other than have children and remain quiet and pretty in the parlor of a mansion. Maybe she was even supposed to die in those icy waters. Yes, she had help from Jack. He gave her the push she needed to be what everyone could tell she so desperately wanted — free.
And once she was pulled out of those icy waters, she lived the rest of her life doing exactly as she wanted and exactly as she promised Jack. She rode horses on the beach, fished at the pier in Santa Monica, got married, had lots of babies, and watched them grow. She was an actress and was probably a suffragette. I can just picture her marching for votes for women, and laughing in triumph when she cast her first ballot.
So Rose was a fictional character played by a great actress. But it’s what they represent that inspired me at age twelve and inspires me still twenty years later.