rose and titanic’s real love story

Forget that Jack didn’t have to die, there’s a bigger story to consider.

by Anne T. Donahue
01 December 2017, 1:33pm

She sits across from her audience at Titanic’s close, remaining relatively emotionless as she wraps up the story that defined her adult life. Her granddaughter cries while Brock Lovett remains stoic in knitwear. “But now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson,” she tells them. “And that he saved me in every way that a person can be saved.”

She doesn’t even have a picture of him. (A fact that usually makes me cry if I haven’t started crying already.) But that isn’t the lie, because the person who saves Rose is herself. It’s a love story, yes, but one between her and her independence.

When we meet Rose, she is unhappy. She’s desperate, she’s likening a luxury liner to a slave ship (which is indicative of her privilege and of James Cameron’s ignorance/idiocy), and she’s willing to fling herself off the back of a boat in order to escape a loveless and abusive relationship. She doesn’t meet Jack in her prime -- at her most confident or most self-assured -- she meets him as he literally talks her off the ledge and does what any responsible person would in his position. So ultimately, Jack is just a dude who chooses not to be the worst. And while his attentions and authenticity illuminate another possible life path for Rose, it’s Rose who takes the necessary actions to get there.

Because the fire that Jack loves about her existed long before the two crossed paths. We see it when she ignores Cal’s remarks about her Picasso and Monet pieces, we see it when she likens Bruce Ismay’s preoccupation with size to Freud’s teachings about the same things. We even see it when she claps back at Jack’s first attempts to pull her back over the rails (“I know what ice fishing is!”) and when she calls Cal out on paying Jack only $20 for saving her life. Jack merely exacerbates what’s already there. He’s a catalyst, but certainly not her saviour.

“Think of how many times she could’ve tapped out and continued to live her super-chill, plushy life. Then think about how she doesn’t, and risks death just to follow her own path.”

Especially since she had so much more to lose than him. As a drifting artist who won his ticket in a lucky poker hand (“a very lucky hand”), Jack had absolutely no stakes in his own life. He meanders about to the point of having no actual plans aside from making each day count. But on the flip side, Rose carries the financial obligations of her family. At 17, it’s up to her to erase the legacy of her father’s debts and to save her mum from destitution. And she’s grown up to know nothing else: true, she reaps the benefits of being at the top of the class system, but she’s been groomed to believe that her only choice is to marry rich and maintain the financial status quo. In fact, the woman’s so used to this brand of normal that her only response to the Heart of the Ocean is a non-plussed “Good gracious”. So to rebel against this system is to be left completely and utterly alone.

Which she is. While we watch Rose slowly evolve into a more determined and independent brand of herself, not until the ship begins going down do we see what she’s capable of on her own authority. She chooses to flee her fiancé’s valet and to pose nude (and later have sex with) this man she met only 48 hours before. She chooses to abandon her mother and Cal and the assured safety of a lifeboat. She chooses to seek out Mr Andrews and to find out where Jack’s being kept after his arrest. She chooses to secure an axe and to punch the unhelpful man in the face when he won’t listen to her, and then she chooses to submerge herself in freezing cold water to save her pseudo-boyfriend. Finally, she chooses to jump out of another lifeboat because she wants to be with the guy she’s into. It’s Rose who makes these choices. And while they’re sparked by a blossoming relationship, they’re also carried out under her own authority and on her own terms. Think of how many times she could’ve tapped out and continued to live her super-chill, plushy life. Then think about how she doesn’t, and risks death just to follow her own path.

Jack may have been the excuse, but Rose became her own hero.

Which we learn at the film’s close after Jack dies. For those of us who grew up with Titanic, we’re more than familiar with the controversy surrounding the wardrobe door -- and we know that there were other options than to keep Jack submerged in the water that eventually killed him. (They could’ve used the door in shifts! They both could’ve fit had they not attempted to board it at the same time and on the same motherfucking side!) But Rose chooses survival, monopolising the door for her own use and physically separating herself from the corpse of her beloved to swim to a whistle and secure her livelihood. Girlfriend is ruthless. She is determined. She is strong, she is not going down without a fight. And in the end, she chooses herself, cloaking herself in Jack’s last name to be sure she will never be found by anyone who tried to keep her down.

There is a difference between a catalyst and the cause. And while we can argue that Jack’s real talk and capacity for making it count were what saved Rose in the end, it was more realistically her own traits, fire and readiness that morphed her from teen to a grown-ass woman. She saved herself and fell in love with who she became to the point of completely abandoning her former incarnation. She embraced who she knew she could be instead of clinging to her family or choosing to die after Jack did. Instead, she forged ahead, newly coupled with her authenticity and a name that reminded her of the exact moment she grew the fuck up. She may have loved Jack, sure, but she’s the reason she got to live.

kate winslet