For those of you that don’t know, Rose is the main character of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Titanic. The film revolves around a rich girl and a poor boy who meet and fall in love on the famous ship – and then are catapulted into one of the worst shipping disasters of all time, so as you can imagine that puts a bit of a damper on all the snogging. The film was a smash success, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time, launching the careers of its two leads, and cementing into popular culture just as firmly as the famous disaster. Rose herself has become equally well-known, delivering some of the most well-known lines in Hollywood and launching thousands of debates about whether two people could fit on a floating piece of wood.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
It’s pretty easy to make the case that Rose isn’t really in control. After all, the movie is about an enormous ship crashing into an iceberg – as Rose wasn’t the one driving the boat, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the most life-changing event she goes through was completely out of her control. Even before the iceberg hits, a substantial amount of the film is about the pressure Rose is under – as a result of social class, poor finances and the expectations placed on women – and Rose’s own sense that she is drifting through life with no real control is very firmly established.
But what’s really interesting about Titanic is that in many ways, it is about a young woman trying to take control of her own life. Rose starts the movie as Rose DeWitt Bukater, an aristocratic young woman who must marry a man she doesn’t love to regain the family fortunes. Rose finds the pressures of upper-class life stifling to the extent that she tries to kill herself to escape them – but then she meets Jack Dawson, and Leo’s adorable little face convinces her that she has something left to live for.
As their relationship progresses, she starts to steer her life in a direction she’s more comfortable with – slowing leaving her society ways behind, becoming more sexually forward, and ultimately throwing off convention for the sake of love. When this is taken away from her, she doesn’t give up and decides to turn her back on her former life, walking away from everything she’s ever known. She starts her story as someone who’s forced into a life she does not want, but by the end of it, she turns her back on all the restrictions that were placed on her and makes a life of her own choosing. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Rose’s hobbies are actually pretty well-established. She’s very unconventional for a woman in 1912, eschewing most of the popular pastimes for young ladies (such as dancing, singing and swooning on chaises longues) in favour of collecting art and reading Freudian theory. She appears to have formed her interests and tastes on her own, too. She prefers Monet and Picasso to more conventional painters – a preference that her fiancé and family frequently dismiss.
Her goals and beliefs are also very well-established. Obviously, once the iceberg hits Rose’s biggest goal is not to drown, but even before that we see that she’s started working towards taking control of her own life in whatever way she can. She’s also established as a young woman who believes the social conventions forced upon her are unfair, and who values her independence more than physical comfort, family disapproval and – in extreme cases – her own life. She’s firing on all cylinders here, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
We don’t see a lot of Rose’s skills, but for the most part, her character is largely consistent. She’s intelligent, brave, passionate, fiercely determined and very independent. Her outlook on life changes wildly throughout the movie – she goes from wanting to kill herself to wanting to run away with her lover and start a new life together in a very short space of time – but as her reasons for this are pretty well-established, I’ll overlook it just this once.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A fiercely independent young woman finds new meaning in life when a tragic disaster allows her to shake off social convention and begin her life again.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
A substantial amount of Rose’s decisions are influenced by her love life. So much of what she does can be traced back to the fact that she fancies Leo rotten: she sneaks off down to third class with him, decides to leave her horrible fiancé for him, and ultimately decides to turn her back on her social class because of what he taught her.
However, this all takes on a slightly different light when you consider exactly what Jack meant to her. Jack wasn’t just a boyfriend – to Rose, he was also a way out. It’s made very clear at the beginning of the film that Rose hates her upper-class life: she hates the restrictions placed upon her, she hates the lack of control she has, but most of all she hates her horrible fiancé.
She hated her life to the extent that she was prepared to kill herself to escape it – and then she met Jack, who offered her another kind of escape. She sees that his life is free of the restrictions and pressures she so despises, and after some dithering on her part, she realises that by leaving the ship with him, she can leave all of that behind. When the iceberg hits, Jack dies but Rose is saved, but instead of revealing herself to her family and fiancé she takes Jack’s last name and sets out to make a new life for herself.
For me, this is really where her motivations get a little tangled. It’s easy to say that she did all she did for love, and she chose to move on with her life because that is what Jack would’ve wanted her to do. But equally, it’s easy to say that perhaps Rose loved Jack because he represented the possibility of freedom. We mustn’t forget that everything she did for love also ended up being in her own interest, as it allowed her to finally escape from all the pressures she was under.
Ultimately, I think it’s up to interpretation. It could really go either way – but personally, I think Rose’s love for Jack and her desire for independence are so closely linked it’d be impossible to separate the two. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Rose does develop over the course of the story. She starts out depressed, apathetic and constantly looking for small ways to lash out at people, but as the film goes on she finds joy in life, becomes more adventurous and goes out of her way to become more independent. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Rose doesn’t really have much of a weakness. It’s true she can be a little catty, but more often than not this is used to portray either her unhappiness or just who ‘feisty’ she can be. She does some pretty daft things – like voluntarily going back onto the sinking ship to look for Jack – but this only makes her more sympathetic, as it’s used to portray the depth of her feelings for him. What really holds Rose back are external pressures more than anything else – all the decisions she make that hamper her progress through the story can be directly traced back to the stifling social conventions placed upon her. Even her suicide attempt is chalked up to this, rather than any mental health issues that she might have to address. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Rose has to get saved a bunch of times – once from her own suicide attempt, and the rest from various dangerous situations on the sinking ship. However, this is not the limit of her influence on the plot. It’s her actions that instigate her first meeting with Jack and propel him into her social circle, she is the one who takes the lead when their relationship becomes more sexual, she chooses to go back for Jack and sets him free, and ultimately, she chooses to go on with her life without him. I’ll be generous and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Rose is actually a really interesting character to look at in terms of gender stereotypes. Unlike many other fictional characters, gender stereotypes are directly shown to have a negative influence on Rose within the movie. The audience is left under no illusions that expectations of female behaviour are what’s keeping her quiet, what’s forcing her into an unhappy marriage and what ultimately drives her to attempt suicide. When Rose finally throws off these stereotypes she’s much happier for it, and it’s all portrayed as a very positive development – even the gross stuff like gobbing over the side of the ship is played as a fun, silly little moment.
That said, it’s still pretty easy to interpret the movie as a woman who finds new meaning in life because she meets a man. This does tie into some really dated gender stereotypes – but I have to say, I don’t think they really apply to Titanic. What really sets the film apart from more traditional stories is that it’s made very clear that Rose’s life goes on after Jack’s death. Unlike other famous love stories, where women kill themselves because they cannot bear living without their lovers, Rose goes on to live a full and happy life without Jack. After his death she travels the world, becomes an actress, takes up exciting and dangerous hobbies, and eventually settles down, marries someone else and has a few kids. Her love for Jack isn’t undermined – even at the age of one hundred, she still remembers him fondly – but she still finds meaning in life without him.
Personally, I think this is kind of revolutionary. So many love stories never show the characters in old age, or if they end in tragedy, they take great pains to show one character mourning the other for the rest of their lives. But Rose’s story shows in no uncertain terms that a woman doesn’t need a man to be her reason for living, and that she’s capable of finding a different kind of happiness when the love story has ended. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Rose doesn’t really relate to that many other female characters. She’s often shown surrounded by them but this is more often used to illustrate Rose’s isolation, as she very rarely does anything more than sit there silently and look distraught. She’s shown to remember a few female characters fondly – such as the unconventional Molly Brown – but we don’t actually see them interact much.
Rose’s most interesting relationship by far is the one she shares with her mother. Rose’s mother is a very cold woman, concerned mainly with the state of her family’s finances. She is the source of much of the social pressure Rose ends up rebelling against. She won’t let Rose smoke, socialise with people she disapproves of, or attend university. She arranges the match with Billy Zane, Terrible Fiancé. She forces the standards of an upper-class Edwardian lady onto Rose, without caring how it will affect her, and seems genuinely shocked that Rose might resent her for this. As far as Rose’s mother is concerned, keeping up appearances is the most important thing, and this is the source of all the antagonism between them, which has clearly been building up for quite some time. Ultimately, it’s what drives Rose to turn her back on her mother completely, allowing her mother to believe that she died on the Titanic – and that her own actions drove Rose to reject her chance at salvation. Do not make an enemy of Kate Winslet.
However, Rose’s relationship with her mother is really the only significant relationship with another woman we actually see. True, Rose interacts with her maid a fair bit – she comforts Rose after Terrible Fiancé starts threatening her – but like most of the other female characters the relationship isn’t explored in much detail and she doesn’t go much beyond a part of the background. I’ll give her half a point.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Rose is a consistent, determined young woman who takes control of her own life, directly influences the plot, develops through the story and subverts gender stereotypes. She may not be perfect – in fact, part of her problem is that she pretty much is perfect – but she’s certainly passed my test!
A significant part of this is due to the fact that even though Titanic is a love story, Rose’s love life is not all that makes up her character. She’s given goals, beliefs and hobbies outside of making out with Leonardo Di Caprio, her status as a love interest doesn’t stop her from growing as a character or influencing the plot, and her story doesn’t stop when her relationship is over. In short, Rose seems much more like a real person than many of the token love interests that Hollywood smacks into a lot of blockbuster films. She’s not perfect, but I’d certainly like to see more characters like her.
Next week, I’ll be rounding up the Month of Love with one of my favourite characters. Bridget Jones, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.