The week that I write this Titanic turns 20 years old—the movie, that is. The actual mothership has been chilling in twinsies at the bottom of the North Atlantic since 1912. But anyone who was anywhere in the world in 1997 remembers that colossal film careening into theaters and basically becoming The. Biggest. Deal. Ever. Consequentially, a lot of us have been sifting through the nostalgic cargo of Titanic’s 20th anniversary.
Straight-up confession: I’ve never been a fan, and I was smack in the middle of the target demographic. I was a preteen white girl living in bible belt suburbia, to whom Leonardo DiCaprio had already been overexposed thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s neo Romeo + Juliet (because ‘+’ instead of ‘&’, you guys). I grew up in the kind of town that lapped up songs like Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, and that Cœur de la Mer necklace? No joke, I went to school with girls who wore that kind of crap to gym class. I did, however, get to be one of those annoying people who know all about something or someone before everyone else does. I’d been a fan of Kate Winslet since Heavenly Creatures, and fully obsessed by the time I had Sense and Sensibility, Jude, and Hamlet under my viewing belt. I adored her and her earthy Pre-Raphaelite vibe, and so my heart sank like everything else that went to the bottom of the sea when Titanic was released, went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time (until Avatar hip checked those figures), and cleaned up at the awards, only for Winslet to be repeatedly mocked for baring her precariously-sized body.
I grew up watching—jeez what do I call them?—arty films. Foreign, if I really want to sound like someone’s grandmother from the 1950’s. My parents pretty much let me watch whatever wasn’t behind *that* curtain at the video rental store, so my education began early and with minimal censorship. I regularly watched films where sex and nudity were no big deal, and thus approached them in the same vein where storytelling was concerned. I was privy to Ewan McGregor’s painted butt in The Pillow Book, all of Jane Campion’s catalogue, The Lover, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love—you get the point. I had seen Winslet nude in films prior to Titanic, so her “I want you to draw me like one of your French girls” scene wasn’t exactly pearl-clutching stuff. I didn’t care, but everyone else sure did. If the year of Titanic taught me nothing else, it was that Americans really, really don’t know how to handle sex and nudity not hawked as porn. Developmentally, we’re still those mouth breathers on the school trip to the natural history museum pointing at Neanderthal boobs.
Maybe Titanic being marketed as fun-for-the-whole-family fare, resulting in said families being treated to thirty seconds of Kate Winslet’s nude upper torso, rocked the trusty MPAA foundation. True story: I remember a girl telling a group of us that when she went to see it with her dad he made her cover her eyes during “that” scene. To which I will forever be proud of little Em retorting, “So, like, do you close your eyes when you’re changing in front of a mirror, too?”
It turned out the response to Winslet’s nudity was only half the rude awakening. Let me just say it’s a sad day when 11, 12, and 13-year-old girls are seated around a lunch table dismissing your then-favorite actress as a “fat cow.” Previously I’d never really scrutinized actresses’ looks beyond two categories: pretty or meh. I cared even less about how old they were, something that’s apparently of dire importance today. I’d never approximated an actress’s talent to her weight, and certainly not in the case of Winslet’s perfectly healthy BMI. I adored her as an actress and happened to think she was beautiful, period. It hadn’t occurred to me up until then to analyze her waistline or the thickness of her arms. Sure, I didn’t think Titanic was the best demonstration of her talents, but neither could I hold that against her; it was her It’s Britney, Bitch career move.
I’m on the side of those who posit that James Cameron wanted to show off his super new state-of-the-art CGI technology and gadgets n’gizmos aplenty, and that the ship that went bump in the night was the perfect showcase. Throw in top-notch production values, an epic score, costumes to die for (no pun), and a universally appealing wrong-sides-of-the-track romance and boom: blockbuster gold. (Titanic won the Oscars to prove it, too.) But is it a great movie? I don’t think so, but rather that it’s something of a time capsule. We all remember how old we were and where we were and what we were up to when Titanic came out. Like Romeo +/& Juliet, Clueless, She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Craft, and Moulin Rouge, it was one of those mile-marker films for Gurls of my generation. (Jimmy Fallon once called Ever After the Godfather for adolescent girls. He’s not wrong.) It makes me think I understand a little of where first wave Star Wars fans are coming from.
When you get right down to it, Titanic is total boilerplate: convenient flashbacks for the core story and flashforwards for the filler material, poor little rich girls falling for penniless free spirits, villainous fiancés and unsympathetic mothers, third class Riverdance parties where everyone seems totally cool with the upstairs/downstairs thing, and even backseat sex. I wasn’t much of a Leo fangirl to begin with, but he was a double-hard sell as Edwardian artist Jack. Like Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, and Tom Cruise, DiCaprio is the posterchild of all things modern; put any of them in anything further back than, say, the 1970’s and I have a hard time buying it. Granted, the schmaltzy script gave DiCaprio little to work with. Titanic’s dialogue ranges from clunky to embarrassing to downright laughable. And for the last time, I think we can all agree Jack would have fit on that goddamn door, debate CLOSED.
So it wasn’t Kate Winslet’s best performance, but neither would I rank Titanic among her best films. What I did appreciate, even back then, was the very thing that seemingly ended up backfiring. I genuinely loved how Rose navigated her sexuality and attraction to Jack on her own terms and yes, in her own skin. Asking him to sketch her portrait, knowing full well where it was going and determined to take it there when and how she was good and ready, was truly a badass example for young women—if only we’d been allowed to understand it that way.
Titanic came out around the time the internet was becoming an everywhere commodity, used by almost everyone and for everything, including celebrity gossip. Prior to that, actors were dished about and dissed in magazines, newspaper columns, and tv blips (remember when E! was all about showing movies and behind-the-scenes tidbits and biographies and red carpet fashion?). You either read or watched the trash, discussed with friends, then got on with your life. The internet changed all of that, as chat rooms and message boards and blogs and novice fan sites kept the conversation going 24/7. Thus, Winslet’s body became an around-the-clock topic. Add some screenshots from “that” scene and literally it was like the RMS never sank. We’re still there in that stateroom, snickering behind Jack’s sketchpad because bewbs.
Here is what I recall from pre-Titanic Winslet interviews: she talked about her work, a little bit about her upbringing, and early career choices. Here’s what I remember post-Titanic: she talked about Titanic and her body. Twenty years in and you’d still be hard-pressed to find an article where her weight isn’t brought up, followed by a consolatory you-go-girl about how she’s a great role model for curvy women. I can and can’t imagine that kind of incessantly reductive bullshit; I’ve been there myself at various points in my life and it’s as tedious as it is demeaning.
Fast forward only a few years after Titanic’s release and that nude scene made it onto all the porn sites. Which would go on to mean any actress who had any nude scene of any context in any film would make it onto the porn sites as well. These days, the only thing that seems to be breaking that trend is an overwhelming preference for private footage posted without consent. A woman choosing to get naked of her own volition isn’t sexy anymore; she needs to be violated for us to get off.
I guess I hadn’t fully grasped until Titanic came out just where we were in terms of women, their bodies, and how we regarded them on a mainstream consensus. I should have known better, but that’s innocence for you. As a kid who was physically developing much faster than she’d have liked, I certainly understood what it felt like to not be in possession of your own body, to have it up for grabs—literally and speculatively—with or without your consent. It would be years before I reclaimed ownership and, wonder of wonders, actually took pride in what I had. What I didn’t realize, and what the then-22-year-old Winslet must have realized, was that you, your work, and your personal agency could all be undercut in an instant on account of a physical technicality. I can’t tell you the number of swipes taken at Winslet during Titanic’s run, from an ode penned in a haute fashion magazine about the “Titanic girth” she squeezed into her nude-and-black lace Golden Globes gown to all the tired critiques on how Rose should have been played by a much slimmer actress. (Fun fact: Gwyneth Paltrow was James Cameron’s initial choice, but she passed on the role.)
This game of treating women like auction block meat is older than Hollywood itself, and those who pursue any kind of spotlight—however unwittingly—are damned if they play it and out of work if they don’t. Winslet has enjoyed a pretty steady, prestigious career, and her countless nude scenes over the years, as far as I know, haven’t been coerced—which only reinforces the above point. Choosing to get nude means you deserve the backlash #slut, pressured to get nude means you should have known better #sorrynotsorry. When I speak of films that encapsulate a certain moment, that’s what Titanic was for me: the moment I understood how the culture I had been born into and brought up in really viewed women, on and off the big screen. And you know what it felt like? Someone’s dad shielding my eyes against my own anatomy, co-opting something that was rightfully mine.
Just as my teenage self embraced Kate Winslet as one of my own, I likewise adore the Salma Hayeks and Kat Dennings and Monica Belluccis and Fill in Your Own Favorite Curvy Celebrity of the industry, and will gladly admit it’s partly because I can more or less relate to their collective body type, and admire their zero-fucks-given attitude about public perception. It’s both a relief and point of pride. And yet they’re still the unicorns in 21st Century Hollywood, a rare exception to the time-honored rule that less is more where leading ladies are concerned. Granted, they’re the “acceptable” kind of curvy, which means being in a constant state of 10 pounds away from ridicule. In the end, they all have to devote breath and space to justifying their bodies, as well as the work they’re doing with them. (Read anything about Christina Hendricks that doesn’t involve even a passing mention of her measurements. Go on, I’ll wait.)
As for Titanic’s enduring legacy, I get it. I’m not sure how it could have been any different in the hands of another director; maybe it had to paint by certain numbers. After all, the sinking of the Titanic has Hollywood written all over it, so much so that the very first movie was shot a mere month after the disaster, starring one of the survivors no less. If nothing else, it’s obvious Titanic was and always will be James Cameron’s baby, as evident from his many deep-sea explorations of the leviathan. (Thank you South Park for the “Ballad of James Cameron,” btw.)
Maybe 1997 just wasn’t ready for Rose Dawson DeWitt Bukater. Even Cameron, who’s had an iffy rapport with empowered women of late, reflected in a statement concerning Rose and “that” scene: “You know what it means for her, the freedom she must be feeling. It’s kind of exhilarating for that reason.”
Here’s looking at the next twenty years.
Emily Linstrom is an American writer & artist living in Italy. Her work has been featured in a number of publications including Three Rooms Press, Nailed Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Continental Review, The Wisdom Daily, Literary Orphans, and Yes Poetry, as October’s featured poet. She was the first prize recipient of Pulp Literature Press’s 2015 The Raven short story contest. Linstrom is a regular contributor for Quail Bell Magazine and The Outsider, as well as faculty historian for The School of Witchery. You can view her work at: www.emilylinstrom.com and follow her adventures on Instagram at betterlatethan_em