Twenty years ago, “Titanic” seized the hearts of millions of teens girls and became an international sensation.
It’s never let go.
The movie remains a cultural phenomenon, with the most iconic scenes cemented in our collective subconscious. Its fandom morphed from “Tiger Beat” posters in 1997 to gifs and Tumblr in 2017. Hearts still flutter when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are photographed together.
Starting on Dec. 1, the movie returns to select theaters for one week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its premiere.
So what about “Titanic” makes it so intoxicating for teens?
First of all, yes, Leonardo DiCaprio became America’s biggest crush after the movie released. But there’s more to the film’s draw than knocking back at the incessant thump of teenage lust.
The appeal is in the depiction of 17-year-old Rose. She is an exceptionally accurate and realistic portrait of a teenage girl, with her complex mix of angst and rebellion.
At the start of the movie, Rose can’t do anything and her severe mother — rocking her impossibly large hats — is yanking her into a suffocating corset. Meanwhile, her fiance, Cal Hockley, is attractive but cartoonishly pompous and paternalistic. He orders her meal for her (“You like lamb, don’t you sweet pea?” he asks her as an afterthought).
No one understands Rose. No one listens to Rose. Rose is miserable and trapped and dramatic and oblivious in the particular fashion teens have experienced for millennia.
“I know you’ve been melancholy but I don’t pretend to know why,” is Cal’s response to all of this.
No one understands. No one gets it.
What adolescent who has their basic needs met doesn’t experience flashes of melodrama and frustration at the lives their parents set out for them? What teen doesn’t feel like they are never heard? One can easily sub in the being forced to marry a rich man for the dilemma of arguing with parents over the choice of college major (choose whichever one is most practical).
Of course, with the teen melodrama comes the lack of perspective, another aspect of adolescent psychology that the movie captures so well. In a really unfortunate line, Rose compares her trip on the “Titanic” to being a slave.
“To me, it was a slave ship taking me back to America in chains,” she said.
This kind of false equivalency is embarrassing and incredibly adolescent. It’s the kind of oblivious and awkward line that you could pluck straight out a teen’s diary, LiveJournal or tweet depending on your generation.
Enter Jack Dawson, the kind of guy who Rose’s mother doesn’t want her to date, let alone marry. Jack, the artistic, charming “bad boy” of a lower class. When he finds Rose on the back of that ship, considering suicide, Rose is shaken by the practicalities of jumping into the ocean. It’s the cold water that could kill you sweetie — not the fall.
She knows what Jack’s thinking: “Poor little rich girl, what does she know about misery?”
It’s 1912, afterall. Rose is white, on a cruise ship, and about to marry into a wealthy family. Her boyfriend just gifted her a massive diamond necklace. But Rose isn’t wrong when she says she is as trapped as a porcelain doll. Even the name “Rose” suggests the character’s conflict, she is beautiful but not to be touched.
Jack gets it.
Jack takes her to the underworld for a raucous party, with its bawdy music and beer. It’s like Rose is at her first college party and she’s going to party hard.
And like that, Rose transforms into the the “bad girl” to Jack’s “bad boy,” reminiscent of Sandy from “Grease” and the dozens of “girls gone wild” tropes that litter pop culture. Rose is going to strip off her corset, she’s going to pose nude for a drawing, she’s going to have unprotected sex in the back of a car.
Meanwhile, her family and fiance are desperately looking for her like a teen out past her curfew.
“It’s a ship, there are only so many places she could be!” Cal yells frantically at whichever servant happens to be nearby. He’ll spend much of the latter half of the movie chasing after Rose and Jack, firing his gun wildly at nothing.
Billy Zane’s performance is so deliciously over the top, I hope it was a deliberate choice. A choice James Cameron made to make Cal act so deliriously dickish that Rose couldn’t possiblybe expected to stay with him.
“It is a little slut, isn’t it?” Cal says after Rose boldly comes back to her room, hand in hand with Jack. Cal’s boorishness perfectly displays teenage black-and-white thinking, where the villains loom large and twirl their mustaches.
Jack and Rose try to warn Cal and her mother about the iceberg, but no one listens to a teenage girl and a lower-class man (again, appealing to the teenage perception that you’re never heard even when it’s a really big deal). Jack is arrested after being accused of theft and Rose is carted off to a lifeboat.
In a fit of reckless teenage abandon that has life-or-death consequences, Rose jumps back onto the “Titanic” to go find Jack. And not just once.
Cal calls Rose a whore and she snaps back: “I’d rather be his whore than your wife!”
Rose retaliates his slut shaming with an assertion of her independence. She’s going to do whatever she wants, and she’ll go down with this damn boat if she has to.
Rose finds Jack in handcuffs, but no worries, she has an axe and she’s going to crack off those shackles in a literal clean break with her past. “Titanic” is not a subtle movie.
In the end, Rose and Jack end up where they first met, at the bow of the ship clinging to a railing. As Rose watches her fellow passengers flutter like ragdolls into the frigid water, she is confronted the reality of death and her loss of innocence.
Her childhood ends in the Atlantic, together with Jack and surrounded by buoyant frozen bodies. Rose clings to her lover’s icy fingers and they promise to never let go.
But she does.
Like the teens watching the movie, the only way Rose can be saved is by saving herself. She uses her own voice and blows the whistle for help.
The final moments of Rose’s adolescence are a release valve on the frustrations she experiences in her constrained, controlled life. Teens everywhere can relate to that feeling of being stifled and held back by their parents and society. It makes perfect sense that it such a character would resonate two decades later. It’s the adolescent experience of love and rebellion, bottled like a ship.