After twenty years and eleven Oscars and eleventy billion dollars, we still don’t really talk about Titanic.
We’re a generation that happily blogs and Tumblrs and inspo-boards across the messy, dorky spectrum of female-focused retro-fandom, from My So-Called Life to Mean Girls to Buffy to Hocus Pocus, but if someone mentions Titanic at a three-bellini brunch, every woman in attendance will suddenly receive a crucial text message the length of Billy Zane’s fake widow’s peak. Titanic is the one we don’t talk about—the middle-school boyfriend with the bad mustache whose picture we keep buried in the sock drawer.
Of course it’s not unrelated that 2017 marks Titanic’s two decades of being beaten black and blue by the Internet snark gauntlet—with Jezebel’s take so hysterical it even briefly set up a cheeky subdomain solely dedicated to mocking the film. Thanks to this ilk, all of us—Kate Winslet included—know that James Cameron filmed it in a plastic kiddie pool, and that there was room enough for both of them on that door, and that Leo was wearing lipstick, and that we were all idiots forever paying money to see this steaming pile of dung.
What’s done is done, and your ticket stub is still at the bottom of your crocheted bucket bag. But even in 1997, Titanic wasn’t cool. Not even ironically. Cool was Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, with their fresh-scrubbed, Ivy League-dorm-room-style bromance and their guaranteed Oscar nod for writing Good Will Hunting. (A Harvey Weinstein production, of course. Did you really have to ask?)
James Cameron, meanwhile, was a megalomaniacal hack who regularly imperiled the lives of his stars and risked the viability of his action films (Terminator, Alien) by casting them with female leads, and was now doomed to have a $200 million bomb on his hands because he was mucking up the story of the biggest maritime disaster in history by grafting on some stupid, star-crossed love story starring the same heartthrob who played Luke from Growing Pains.
At least, that’s what those who knew said, and those who knew were largely adult men, and in 1997, adult men were still the unchecked Arbiters of Everything.
So what’s changed in twenty years? Well, nothing, evidently—except now, we are finally starting to realize how dangerous that is.
I saw Titanic three times in the theater. The second time, I went by myself. The first and third times, I went with Brandy, a girl with wine-colored hair who had adopted me after my grade-school friends decided I liked books too much to hang out with them anymore. My parents hated Brandy because her house smelled like cigarettes and her father had bad grammar. Her thing was humiliating people—she’d walk down the hall, point out something wrong with every single person who passed, and laugh loudly, so they could hear it. She liked to bully me into confessing how much I masturbated. She was my best friend, and I hated her, and I was stuck with her, and we were both miserable and powerless and trapped in an unfair world, dying for something to take us out of it. All the better if it turned out to be a beautiful, life-loving boy who could draw us naked.
In other words, we were just like Rose, and we walked out of the blue miasma of the movie house clutching each other and wailing, because it was December of 1997 in Minnesota and life sucked and it was cold as hell and it felt so good to feel so sad about a pretty, one-hundred-year-old fictional dead boy.
Meanwhile, over in the real world, Jim Cameron, his ego, his cringy dialogue about secrets and oceans and ships of dreams was being eviscerated by the SNL everyone’s-a-screenwriter crowd, while Rose’s poor-little-rich-white girl Feminism 101 was side-eyed by adult women who’d Seen It All Before.
We, the fans (and that means you; the numbers prove it), didn’t really have the tools to fight back. We couldn’t retreat into Tumblr gifs or YouTube fanvids, and there was no Archive of Our Own stuffed with steamy Cal-on-Jack fan fiction (though there is now, and I highly recommend it). Me, I did the fighting on my lunch hour, defending Leo’s sexuality to my male classmates, who said he was gay, which really meant “this person is wrong, and you are wrong for liking him.”
But at thirteen, I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell them that, or explain why I liked it, so everyone just assumed it was for stupid reasons, or no reason, because, like, why do girls like anything?
And gradually, we started to believe them.
So here’s why I liked Titanic. I liked it because it led me to the Gilded Age, to Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis, to Caleb Carr and E.L. Doctorow—and in particular to Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, the first film project our Leo (growing up so fast) ever optioned with his own money, which of course was the only reason I read it. In turn, a poem inspired by the book netted me my first-ever writing award when I was fifteen.
Pray you be careful near steamships and waves, I wrote.
“It’s a love poem,” scoffed the contest judge. “But it’s a good love poem.” To this day I’ve never received any higher praise.
I’d always been a writer, but I was becoming a creator, and a capital-R Romantic, who, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “hopes against hope that things won’t last,” who prays to find somebody to love so she can tell the story of how she lost him, and make it better in the telling.
But it started that day at the theater. Maybe Brandy liked it because it led her somewhere better, too. Or worse. Or just somewhere. At the very least, I know that for a few minutes at least, it led her away from that freezing parking lot outside that crummy suburban multiplex in a brutalist mall with sticky floors and no cupholders, since torn down, where we shook off the shit we were drowning in and held onto each other, as if we would never let go.
Because the legacy of twenty years of Titanic is not really about Cameron’s VFX, or Rose’s rah-rah girl power, or Leo’s angelic face—none of which has survived.
What has survived is what was not invited in, I suspect, by anything Cameron designed. What survived is us—Brandy and Jackie and Jamie, all the lost and wayward squads of 1997, our goths and preps and skaters, who kept the film at the top of the box office for fifteen glorious weeks, and now laugh and shift our eyes, because, really, Titanic? As Stephenie Meyer, mother of the most female and thus most uncool franchise since Titanic put it, “The foundation of feminism is this: being able to choose.” Of course, I chose to hate Twilight, but a thirteen-year-old named Brylee from Utah loves it, and her skin is not mine. It is not yours. It belongs to no Cameron or Weinstein, and it has nothing to do with what’s cool. It is the skin that has been raked over fire by everyone except a luminous immortal vampire named Jack Dawson—er, Edward Cullen.
Ugh, that’s so gay.
Right? Because of course anything a tween girl cares about that much must be worthless. Because tween girls are worthless. They are moody and mouthy and snotty and wear Uggs and leggings and drink pumpkin-flavored coffee and moon over shaggy-haired dickless wonders and contribute nothing, and it is our job, as a society, to remind everybody to hate them, so that the ones who work against them can stay in power.
Titanic (and Twilight, its supernatural descendant), was a blip on that power grid, a crank forward of fortune’s wheel. It did not last.
But someday, it might.
These days, Titanic shows up on cable weekly. I usually avoid it. I have to be ready for it. But I do watch Titanic, again and again and again, ever since I dug into my crochet purse to preorder that two-tape VHS set from Reel.com. When I see that title screen with its spidery submersibles splitting the gloom, hear the theme music with its alien vocaloid moaning, I cry, dammit, big and loud and ugly, because fuck if Jack cared that Rose had frozen snot plastered to her face.
Recently, in response to the unmasking of a predator, women have begun posting photos of their fourteen-year-old selves on Twitter. So far, I have not. But if I did, that would be the person I’d cry for. Not for Jack and Rose, not anymore. They are Hollywood; they can handle themselves. I’d cry for my elastic, amoeboid self, the one that used to live in this skin, putting poems in a black notebook—the one who, thrilled at a penny whistle, in thrall to a doomed man in an ocean’s belly, glimpsed the morning.
Feature image via Creative Commons.