Get Your Grubby Hands Off My Favorite Boat, James Cameron
The 20th anniversary of my love for Titanic the ship, and my hate for ‘Titanic’ the film
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If I were to write a love story featuring the Titanic, I would be the heroine, and the middle child of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of ships would be the object of my obsessive, Platonic affections. It would be the touching tale of an undiagnosed autistic girl and her best nautical disaster, transitioning through major life events such as starting kindergarten, or getting bullied, or being discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard using underwater robots.
Unfortunately, a filmmaker who grew up only twenty minutes down the road, in Chippawa, Ontario, had a somewhat different vision — and $200 million to realize it with.
I first became aware of the RMS Titanic when I expropriated my grandfather’s copy of a December 1986 National Geographic out of our mail. From what I’d come to expect from the magazine, the cover was a little boring. It mostly consisted of words I couldn’t read yet — I was an inquisitive four-year-old, not an advanced one — over a plain blue background. There wasn’t a single green-eyed girl or skeleton with snake jewelry in sight. But there was something about the central rectangular photo that intrigued me, so I took the issue to my room, flipping through to figure out what the cute underwater robot could see through that crusty old window.
I spent the next hours looking at otherworldly photos of broken benches, algae-covered crystal lamps, and the largest boat I’d ever seen. Later, my parents, able to read the accompanying article and having general knowledge of the subject, told me everything they could about the ship, its 1912 sinking, Ballard’s 1985 discovery of it, as well as his return expedition the following year, which had given the world the pictures we were now looking at. I asked more questions, and they promised they would do their best to help me find the answers. This continued on for the next eight years.
Where others might see preciousness, over-ambition, or the capricious whims of a spoiled, only child — or the abnormal behavior of an undersocialized only child — my parents saw a golden opportunity to encourage a love of learning. They gave me books and videos, and took me to the library to source whatever materials we couldn’t afford. We went to museum exhibits, screenings, and historical society presentations across southern Ontario. In October 1987, they made my young life by taking me to a talk given by Ballard himself.
After autographing my copy of The Discovery of the Titanic, he asked if I wanted to be an underwater explorer when I grew up. I’d already been leaning towards writing, but didn’t want to disappoint him, so I said yes. Oddly, he encouraged me to do well in math. I had to tell him that we didn’t have mathematics in kindergarten.
My parents’ instincts paid off beyond what they could have imagined at the time. My obsession with the Titanic didn’t just teach me about the ship itself — it was also a launching pad into other areas of study. Ballard’s work made me curious about math and science. The stories of the ship’s survivors and victims taught me about the human condition. The fact of Captain E.J. Smith going down with his ship, and the string ensemble that played as long as possible to comfort the passengers as it sunk, were my introduction to honor, duty, tradition. The choices of Isidor and Ida Straus expanded my notions of love and sacrifice, the struggles of third class passengers my class consciousness, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown became my first strong female role model.
I grew deeper into my Titanic obsession just as a lot of people in my life thought I should be growing out of it. When adults stopped finding it cute, and my classmates concluded that I was far from cool, it provided a necessary escape from a life I didn’t always understand. Rewatching a video, rereading a book, or repeating a fact in my head gave me a temporary break from not fitting in, or worrying about how poorly I was surviving the psychological warfare that awaited me at school. In one particularly low moment I told a photo of the Titanic, between sobs, that it was my only friend. And I genuinely believed that.
The intensity of my obsession only faded when I was twelve. I switched schools and made a couple of good friends. My intense focus moved on to Canadian indie rock and the spoils of my local Blockbuster’s foreign film section. I didn’t need the Titanic the way I once had, though I remained fond of the ship. It had taught me so much, and helped me through even more. I would always love it, and feel a little possessive of it, for that.
When in late 1996 I started hearing about a big-budget film focused on my old friend, I received the news with dread. The film snob in me loathed the idea of Hollywood getting its action-romance cooties all over it. I’d also gotten weary of watching people act cool for discovering things months or years after they’d made fun of me for them. And the sad little weirdo in me just wished that she could keep this one precious thing to herself.
K, my oldest and best friend, and perhaps the only non-blood relation who never told me to shut up about the Titanic, consoled me by promising that we would go and make fun of it together. As adolescents of the ’90s ironic viewing was the most withering insult imaginable. But that plan fell through when she started hanging out with my bullies. I handled it as you might expect a girl with undiagnosed social issues and years of being bullied would. By the time Titanic finally came out that December, my former friend and I couldn’t even sit in the same theater together, let alone side by side.
Eleven years after I’d first laid my hands on the issue of National Geographic, I was back where I had started: staring at an image of the Titanic alongside my supportive parents. I possessed just enough self-awareness to know I should probably approach the film with an open mind. But as genuinely cool as it was to see the Titanic launching, sailing, and sinking, thanks to the prohibitively expensive special effects, everything that happened on it and after it filled me with bitter rage.
I wasn’t particularly fond of Titanic the film. The love story was insipid. As far as dreamy blonde passengers went, Jack was no match for A Night To Remember’s Harold Sydney Bride. It wasn’t even the best film about a sinking vehicle to come out that year. But as a Titanic nerd, I was incensed. No amount of digital wonder could make up for the way James Cameron had used the disaster’s real-life victims and heroes. I knew full well that the ship hosted more interesting stories than that of a poor rich girl, living like common people, doing what common people did, sleeping with common people, then running around on a sinking ship for another hour of runtime. All of them deserved better than to be treated like bit players in Rose and Jack’s hollow journey.
I was not in the majority when it came to people’s feelings about Titanic. The film was an inarguable success, breaking box office records, winning eleven Oscars and remaining in theaters for a year. I tried to stay positive, because it seemed to make other people extremely happy, and I wanted to be happy for their sake. But I was miserable. My beloved coping mechanism had been co-opted seemingly by the entire world. I’d endured years of being told that I was weird and unlikable for loving a boat too much — and suddenly those very people were obsessed with the same damned boat. And yet, I was the weirdo again, because now I didn’t love it enough.
It took more time sulking alone in my room, ingesting morbid music and Ingmar Bergman films, than I would care to admit, but I finally got over it. I discovered new, weird interests like cult ’60s spy shows, new shipwrecks (the Lusitania, and the likely apocryphal but too-bizarre-to-resist Ourang Medan), and new friends who had passions like mine. I actually forgot about Titanic’s approaching 20th anniversary, until the first wave of thinkpieces fell upon us. But I figured I would be able to read them with an open mind.
I wasn’t. I’m not, as it turns out, anywhere near mature or objective enough to navigate the current wave of Titanic nostalgia. But I have the empathy to realize that the film meant something very different to a box office-bursting number of people than it did to me, and possess enough life experience to appreciate their stories in a way I was neither equipped nor inclined to at the time. The people who flocked to it had their own issues, their own dreams, and clearly the story gave them a touch of whatever it was they needed. I’m happy it made romantic young women feel less guilty about their passions, and that Rose’s plucky heroism may have acted as a kind of gateway drug to feminism. I just wish these epiphanies could have been inspired by a film about anything else in the world.
Here’s where my new outlook crumbles like brittle fracturing steel against an iceberg: I understand that Titanic changed many young lives for the better, but what I remember is how it reinforced the social pecking order, and made those of us not cool enough to be part of a major cultural moment feel even more isolated. Every time I try to stop being a petulant teenager about the film, I start to feel like a sad little girl instead, still on the outside, still incapable of loving the right things at the right time, or responding in the right way.
My childhood hero, Dr. Ballard, always argued that the Titanic shouldn’t belong to any one person. He was speaking about the actual artifacts at the bottom of the Atlantic, but I believe this works metaphorically, too. The ship doesn’t belong to me any more than it belongs to James Cameron. We can each have our own personal meanings, our own stories. For all I know, K might be out there right now, pasting my scowling face onto Billy Zane’s body and talking about how the movie helped her celebrate her emancipation from her dorkiest and most pedantic friend.
My story is that I lost my best boat and my best friend in the ass-end of 1997 and, in 2017, am still telling it. The irony is that perhaps after all I did take something away from that non-tragedy of a plucky young woman who escapes her barely stifling life against the backdrop of a major maritime disaster. Just like Rose, the hero in that tale, I have also never let go. And I am beginning to suspect I never will.