A man's defense of a movie commonly thought to be meant for teenage girls
At first glance, Titanic needs no defense. James Cameron's epic earned largely positive reviews upon its release, went on to win 11 Academy Awards—including Best Picture—and still remains the second highest-grossing film of all time (behind Cameron's 2009 film Avatar).
But Titanic, which has been rereleased in 3D this week to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking, has always been more polarizing than its Oscar gold and box-office gross would indicate. A 2003 BBC poll saw readers dub Titanic the worst movie of all time. Legendary director Robert Altman called Titanic "the most dreadful piece of work I've ever seen in my entire life." And even more damning critiques have appeared in the run-up to Titanic 3D's release—including this week's scathing takedown by Jezebel's Lindy West, who argues that Titanic is "basically a 3.5-hour-long Zales commercial" and adds that she "could not wait to get to the second half and watch all [those] motherfuckers drown." But more than anything, West's criticism of Titanic, like many of the film's biggest detractors, boils down to a single point: It's a film "for 15-year-old girls."
This is the conventional Titanic narrative: Thanks to 15-year-old girls, who were infatuated with the blue-eyed, floppy-haired Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic earned 15 consecutive weeks of unprecedented box-office domination. A 1998 article make references to ongoing Titanic screenings packed with "second, third, fourth and fifth-timers, the vast majority of them teenage girls." Advance screenings of Titanic 3D, promoted under title likes "Chicks at the Flicks," capitalize on this reputation by calling the rerelease "the perfect girls' night out."
But recent years have proven the conventional Titanic narrative wrong. Dismissing Titanic as fodder for "15-year-old girls" would be overlooking James Cameron's actual accomplishment: that his grandiose, 3+ hour historical romantic drama is a film for everyone—including teenage boys. And they've started to realize it. On IMDB, Titanic is ranked 8.2 out of 10 by males under the age of 18—a number on par with teenage boy-targeted hits like Iron Manand the latest Star Wars movie, and higher than films including Captain America and all three entries in the Transformers franchise. Perhaps even more tellingly, Titanic actually ranks higher with contemporary young men than with the 15-year-old girls—now in their early 30s—who saw it three, four, or five times during its initial 1997 run.
Why were boys so reluctant to let their Titanic flags fly? "There are certain arenas where male crying is deemed appropriate, like the loss of a favorite sporting team, the death of a parent, or war," said Mary Beth Oliver, a media professor at Penn State, in 2010 interview with the BBC about the tear-jerking effects of a different film. "For many men, there is a great deal of pressure to avoid expression of 'female' emotions like sadness and fear. From a very young age, males are taught that it is inappropriate to cry, and these lessons are often accompanied by a great deal of ridicule when the lessons aren't followed."
I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up Oliver's claim. As a 10-year-old boy, I was entranced by my first viewing of Titanic, laughing and crying my way through the film and developing an instant (and so far tragically unrequited) crush on Kate Winslet. But I quickly realized that Titanic fandom carried a stigma on the elementary-school playground. I spent the year as a closet Titanic fan, mocking the movie out loud before sneaking back home to listen to "My Heart Will Go On" for the 100th time. As I grew older, I dismissed Titanic as a sappy, pandering blockbuster that unjustly robbed movies like L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting at the Academy Awards. It wasn't until last February, when I attended an early screening of Titanic 3D, that I remembered what 10-year-old me had known: Titanic is pretty great.
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Much of the credit for Titanic belongs to James Cameron, who knows more about what audiences want than any other director working today. Prior to Titanic, his work included Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, both of which are plausible contenders for the greatest action movie of all time and feature two of the greatest action heroines of all time. Cameron's genius was applying the lessons he learned from his traditional genre fare to a historical romance. If Terminator 2's Sarah Connor is Cameron's heroine of the present, and Aliens' Ellen Ripley his heroine of the future, Rose DeWitt Bukater is his heroine of the past.
It's this collection of elements—the history, the romance, the action—that made (and continues to make) Titanic an irresistible proposition for audiences of all ages across the globe. Titanic has flaws, but for all its legacy, it's better than its middlebrow reputation would have you believe. It's a great movie for 15-year-old girls, but that doesn't mean it's not a great movie for everyone else too.
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