This week marks 20 years since James Cameron’s Titanic opened in cinemas, crashing into icebergs and smashing box-office records along the way. At the time of release Titanic was the most expensive film ever made, thanks to ballooning production costs and a filming schedule blighted by illness and delays. Even 20th Century Fox, who distributed the film worldwide, thought that it was unlikely to generate profits. Yet, until it was sunk by Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, Titanic was the highest-grossing film of all time.
Titanic’s impact on popular culture is perhaps even more impressive than its commercial success. The film’s dialogue, iconography and soundtrack dominated the childhood of a generation. I was one such child. I knew the entire “speaking bit” of Britney’s “Oops I did It Again” (which references the film) by heart. I had a piano book of the soundtrack and learned every song. There’s even a hideously embarrassing video of me singing “My Heart Will Go On”, leaning on the banister at the top of the stairs and outstretching my arms, pretending that I was at the bow of HMS Titanic watching the sun set.
In the two decades that followed, I have met countless other gay men who were similarly impacted by Titanic growing up. But how did what appears to be a fairly conventional story of heterosexual love and heartbreak develop such a passionate gay fan base? Let’s start with the obvious: Titanic is incredibly camp. From Maggie “new money” Brown to Rose and her controlling mother, there is no shortage of iconic female characters with wide-brim hats and satin gloves. Even the way the ship crashes and disintegrates, complete with screaming, string music and the gratuitous smashing of unused china, is gloriously camp.
But the reason why I, and I believe many others, identify so strongly with the film goes deeper than this. So much of the commentary surrounding Titanic revolves around an obsession with Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. A clickbait article about how Rose, played by Kate Winslet, could have “saved” Jack at the end of the film is never far from the edges of my news feed. (Yes, we all know the door was big enough for two.) But the focus on Jack completely ignores Rose’s character transformation. Although the relationship between Jack and Rose is one of cinema’s greatest romances, Rose’s struggle to love and trust herself is the film’s most powerful narrative.
Like many young people who felt like outsiders growing up, Rose feels suffocated by the expectations placed on her by her family and society. To save her family financially, she has been pushed into a relationship and a lifestyle where she feels powerless and unheard. “Outwardly, I was everything a well-brought up girl should be. Inside, I was screaming,” she says at the start of the film. Her taste in art, including Picasso, is mocked by her abusive and controlling fiancé Cal. Her knowledge of the teachings of Freud mortifies her mother, who believes that, for women, the “purpose of university is to find a suitable husband”. The undervaluing of Rose is encapsulated by her own fiancé offering Jack just $20 for saving her from plunging into the freezing Atlantic in a red sequin dress and heels. With the huge, loveless diamond heart hanging round her neck, Rose is isolated and her struggle is ignored. These emotions resonate strongly with many queer people who grew up in the closet.
During a heated exchange, Rose’s mother concedes: “Of course it’s not fair. We’re women. Our choices are never easy.” But, with the help of Jack, Rose begins to factor her self-worth into her decision-making process. This is particularly impressive given that, as a privileged person engaged to a millionaire, she has so much to lose. Using her ballet training to show off her “tough girl” credentials, while partying in third class, marks the beginning of Rose negotiating her past life with the world that she hopes to join.
For people like me, who grew up feeling unsure over their sexuality, watching Rose coming into her own while emancipating herself sexually – after posing nude for a portrait before infamously leaving her steamy handprint on the inside the car window – is extremely powerful. This development is completed in Rose’s final few minutes aboard the Titanic. After Jack taught her to “spit like a man” in the first half of the film, Rose frees herself from the clutches patriarchy by spitting in Cal’s face, exclaiming: “I’d rather be his whore than your wife!”
As the film draws to a close, we see images of Rose living the life that she and Jack desperately wanted to share, complete with horseback riding on the beach. It would have been easy for her to slip back into her old world following the tragedy, but with her “coming out” narrative complete she seizes her new-found independence and bravely forged ahead. Clearly,Titanic is far from being a film geared specifically towards queer audiences. But in 1997, when LGBTQ+ protagonists in blockbuster films were a rarity, some of us had to look further to find versions of ourselves on screen. Remembering Jack Dawson, 101-year-old Rose insists: “he saved me in every way that a person can be saved.” But the film’s most compelling narrative is how Rose, just like so many of us, found the courage to save herself.