irst of all, I’m not giving up my seat on a lifeboat to Catherine McKinnon, who yammers on about all relations between a man and a woman being rape. If I get to the lifeboat first and there’s no seat left for her, she’s on her own. We’re in a new age now, one of gender equality, and I hope Miss McKinnon appreciates how much I’ve learned from her as she gurgles her way to the bottom of the ocean.
As Titanic wallows in its 14 Academy Award® nominations, I want to make clear that this is the most abominable artistic adaptation of an historic event that I’ve ever encountered. In plain fact it’s not an adaptation of a historic event at all. There’s a ship, an iceberg, lifeboats, and cold water sloshing around, but they’re no more the subject of the movie than the plague years are the subject of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which is about the adventures of Moll Flanders. Titanic is the big, gooey love story of Jack and Rose, fictional characters, naturally, not a single detail of whose romance is historically authentic. Near the beginning of the film, Rose, a first-class passenger — naturally disgusted with the suffocating atmosphere of great wealth — makes a bravura attempt to commit suicide by climbing over the rail at the ship’s stern and thinking it over for a while. Along comes Jack Dawson, a passenger from steerage, but educated, artistically gifted, a kind of young Picasso. We’re shown in fact a pastiche of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which fills in casual 1912 shipboard conversations about Sigmund Freud (whose “Interpretations of Dreams” had not yet been translated).
Jack talks Rose out of committing suicide and their love affair blooms. He takes her down to steerage where they dance with glorious abandon among happy proletarians of indeterminate ethnicity. Jack teaches Rose how to spit. Whereupon, at her initiative, she poses for him in the nude. They carry on in this glamorous bohemian manner until, at last, Titanic hits the iceberg.
When I heard of the Titanic disaster as a child I was told first and foremost that men had given up their places on lifeboats to women and children and gone to their deaths in acts of great gallantry. At the opening of the 20th century there had been talk about the passing of the age of chivalry, but the figures for survivors of Titanic are still startling. If there are too many Astors or Guggenheims among the luxury passengers for your taste, let’s take second class.
Some 81 percent of the women and children in second class survived, as opposed to only ten percent of the men. In steerage, where access to the boat deck was difficult, 47 percent of the women and children were saved, as opposed to only 14 percent of the men. In first class, among some of the world’s wealthiest people — exploiters of the poor and weak in Marxist analysis — 94 percent of the women and children were saved, while their men drowned in the icy black waters of the North Atlantic.
To this day the most prominent humane characteristic of this great maritime tragedy is the men stepping back and letting not only their wives and daughters, but other men’s wives and daughters, take their places in the lifeboats. It’s hard to imagine this today. With society having decided that women should share the same level of attainment as men in one professional field after another, including the military (where courage in the face of death is a professional requisite), there seems to remain no reason at all why a soldier should break ranks and offer his life to save that of another soldier just because she’s female. In modern military tactics, moreover, it might be more than a bit clumsy.
Suffragettes of 1912 were often confused. If they wanted all men’s rights, and a new era for women was dawning, why should they continue to claim all these traditional courtesies? Harriet Stanton Blatch, president of the American Political Women’s Union, said that since men had drafted the laws that governed the ship, they should be the ones to go down with it. Lida Stokes Adams declared regretfully that the women passengers of Titanic had lost one of the greatest chances ever presented to advance the cause of women’s suffrage when they failed to prove the bravery of women by going down with the ship. The introduction of fictional elements into an artistic portrayal of a historic event doesn’t necessarily mean the portrayal is rubbish — witness Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Titanic is rubbish on its own merits. Everything in the movie is of course upside down, but upside down with a purpose. After the main part of Titanic’s hull had gone down, the crewmen manning the ship’s lifeboats — generally half-empty — wanted to turn back to pick up survivors floating in the water. But the screaming women in the boats wouldn’t hear of it. Details like this of course had to go.
Two weeks after Titanic sank, Nellie Taft, the President’s wife, gave the first dollar toward a dollar-per-woman fund honoring the men of the Titanic. The resulting monument is an 18-foot statue of a half-clad male, posed on a 30-foot pedestal on which is engraved: “To the brave men of Titanic who gave their lives that women and children might be saved.” It can still be seen in Washington across from East Potomac Park. These days no one visits it.
Richard Grenier is a columnist for
The Washington Times.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
FEB. 13, 1998, A21
R E T U R N T O R E A D A B L E S