Strong women in "Titanic". Rose DeWitt Bukater's and Molly Brown's break with the typical 20th century female image

Term Paper, 2014

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Women at the beginning of the 20th century
2.1 The role of women around 1912 in general
2.2 A prototypical woman: Ruth DeWitt Bukater

3. Rose DeWitt Bukater
3.1 Rose’s break with early 20th century society
3.2 Rose as a heroine? - Her function in the film.

4. Fiction VS. Reality - The Unsinkable Molly Brown

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

On the 14th of April in 1912, just at the time of first-wave feminism (cf. Bisignani 2013: without page numbers), the allegedly unsinkable Titanic perished in the Atlantic Ocean after running into an iceberg at full speed. It is an event that not only bothered the people at that time, but also today. This interest today is only partly based on the tragedy itself, but also on James Cameron’s screen adaptation from 1997, which is one of the most expensive ones in history. Cameron combines a catastrophe with a love story by using real and fictional characters which are formed in a way that leaves space for further interpretation. With some of his characters he also thematises the above mentioned first wave of feminism and the associated emancipation of women which is an extremely interesting topic from nowadays perspective, since equality of men and women is taken for granted in today’s society.

The elaboration at hand takes a closer look at the fictional character Rose Dewitt Bukater and the non-fictional character Molly Brown and her portrayal in the film. Both of them are analysed with regard to the new model of femininity they represent which runs against the common image of women of their time. Moreover it will be shown whether the two of them function as role models or even heroines for other people on the ship and in front of the silver screen. As a result there are two basic questions that this elaboration tries to answer: To what extent do Rose and Molly break with the common image of women at that time; to what extent do they not? And what is their character’s function in the film?

To answer this questions the first step is to give an overview about the common model of femininity in and around 1912 with a typical example given in the screen adaptation from 1997 which in this case is Rose’s mother, Ruth DeWitt Bukater. It will be easier to then realize what is so striking about Rose Dewitt Bukater’s and Molly Brown’s behaviour. Thereafter, this behaviour will be described and analysed with regard to the expectations of women in the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, some dubious statements found during research in international literature are questioned. In the course of this the basic questions mentioned above will be answered.

2. Women at the beginning of the twentieth century

2.1 The role of women around 1912 in general

“Die gutbürgerliche Frau war von Beruf Gattin, die familiäre Vorherrschaft hatte der Mann inne.” - This quote taken from Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen (2013) on (without page numbers) summarizes the initial situation of women in the 19th and early 20th century in a slightly metaphorical way. Nevertheless it describes things like they were at that time, because women had literally nothing else to do than to care for the family. Although it in this case describes women in Germany, it was the same in whole Europe as well as in the States.

In his article Geschlechterverhältnis und bürgerliche Familie im 19. Jahrhundert the author Reinhard Spree (2011) offers a good overview on the topic: While men were responsible for earning money and making decisions concerning their families, including their wives, women’s priority was to care for the family and the household. Besides this realization of her husband’s decisions the wife’s role was to function as an accessory of her man and therefore to represent his power with her outward appearance. To fit into these requirements on their outward appearance they for example put themselves in way too tight corsets. This attitude clearly shows the suppression and submission of women under their husbands.

In addition to this, Spree points out that many women even in the 20th century were educated to see the sexual act only as a means to become pregnant which again was only possible if both partners were married. Sexual contact before marriage and, even worse, becoming a baby without being married pertained as unacceptable so that these women were insulted as whores and excluded from society. Despite this need for marriage most women thought that love was no condition for being married and having sex. It was more likely some sort of respect and obligation towards the partner (without page numbers).

Another point of suppression was the female education at that time. In her paper Die Rolle der Frau um 1900 in Deutschland/Gymnich Kläre Schmitz (2010) points out:

“Das verhältnismäßig große Potential an freier Zeit [gewährte Ihnen] kaum Anregungen und Möglichkeiten zur Selbstverwirklichung. Ihre geistigen Anlagen mussten oft verkümmern. Eine Frau soll ihre Talente in der Familie und im Haus entfalten, war die öffentliche Meinung“. (1)

This reduction to family and household made school education like it existed for boys quite unusual for young women. It is also the reason why Ruth DeWitt Bukater does not think that it is important for Rose to continue her studies at university as we will see in chapter 2.2.

The first wave of feminism mentioned in the introduction which also took place in the 19th and early 20th century then tried to change and enhance women’s rights. Bisignani (2013) summarizes in her article History of Feminism: The First Wave the milestones of this movement: Women fought in the first place for a right to vote, but also for other basic civil rights and equality to men (without page numbers). As we will see in the following chapters, Rose DeWitt Bukater and Molly Brown in James Cameron’s Titanic also fight for comparable personal rights.

2.2 A prototypical woman: Ruth DeWitt Bukater

With the fictional character Ruth DeWitt Bukater Cameron creates a parade example for the typical female image in the 20th century. She absolutely fits into the just mentioned role of women and, additionally, is very class-conscious which makes her even more unlikeable for the viewer as well as for her own daughter. Although or maybe just because she is a widow, Ruth sees her main task in rearing Rose. She only wants the best for Rose and, therefore, tries to educate her to the best of her knowledge and belief.

It soon becomes obvious to the viewer that Ruth and her daughter do not share the same persuasion. “But the purpose of university is to find a suitable husband. Rose has already done that” (Titanic. James Cameron. USA 1997. TC 00:50:02). This statement by Ruth at the beginning of the film reveals her extremely conventional world view. She sees no need for education or self realization of women outside the house and, therefore, refuses to let Rose go to university. In addition, the word “suitable” is quite ironic here because, as we will see later, Cal Hockley is not suitable for Rose at all. The fact that Ruth chose a husband for her daughter also demonstrates that for her love is no condition for being married and having sex, just like it was common at her time.

The other aspect that shows Ruth’s old-fashioned way of thinking is her class- consciousness. When waiting for a lifeboat she asks whether “the lifeboats [will] be seated according to class” (Titanic. 1997. TC 01:51:32) and says that she “[hopes] they’re not too crowded” (Titanic. 1997. TC 01:51:38). The limited horizon and lack of education that she demonstrates with these statements indicates again her conventional life. Moreover, Ruth despises Jack from the very beginning on because of the fact that he is someone from the lower class.

When Rose then breaks with her mother by staying on the Titanic and not embarking to the lifeboat, Ruth indeed screams after her and wants her to come back, but she does not make the impression to be terribly worried as mothers nowadays would be. She wanted Rose in the first place to save the family’s name by marrying Cal and she did not understand Rose’s will to emancipate. Now, Ruth’s lack of emotions reveals this superficial love she has to Rose.

3. Rose DeWitt Bukater

3.1 Rose’s break with early 20th century society

It becomes soon obvious that Rose DeWitt Bukater does not fit into the just described perception of women. She embodies a new model of femininity that runs against those accepted in her society, as we will see in the following.

When young Rose appears for the first time, the viewer sees a well-dressed and well-bred young lady. Her outward appearance absolutely fits into the expectations of young women in the early 20th century. But this first impression changes when Rose starts talking for the first time. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. [The Titanic] doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauretania” (Titanic. 1997. TC 00:21:13). This open criticism confirms Rose’s good education as well as her self-confidence. Furthermore, it shows that it is not easy to please her and that Rose is not afraid of speaking her mind. But it also contains an indirect criticism towards her mother Ruth DeWitt Bukater and her fiancé Cal Hockley, because by saying so Rose doubts their knowledge and opinion. In its film review Another look at “Titanic”: Oh Rose, thou art sick The Economist (2012) even argues that Rose “never misses an opportunity so insult her mother and her wealthy fiancé” (without page numbers) which is especially right when we look at further discussions between Rose and Ruth. One evidence for this can be found at TC 00:32:19 when Rose is smoking although or rather because she knows that her mother does not like it. She even blows smoke into Ruth’s face to insult her even more. These actions in combination with the emotionless face of hers make Rose’s contempt towards her mother very obvious. She does not hide her personal opinion although it is expected of her.

But Rose is not always the tough girl she pretends to be. In the first part of the film it seems like she is taking a step back rather then taking one forward towards emancipation. Her brokenness gets very clear when Rose says:

“It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains. Outwardly I was everything a well brought up girl should be. Inside, I was screaming.” (Titanic. 1997. TC 00:22:21).

She uses the metaphor “slave” here to describe how she feels, namely like a slave who has no chance of self-determination. The second metaphor, “chains”, functions as a description of her marriage to Cal, whom she does not love nor even sympathize with. She is just forced into this marriage like a slave is forced to work. This also shows that for Rose, different from her mother, love is a condition for being married because she does not want to marry Cal at all and tries to find a way out of this marriage. There is one more quote that shows her inner brokenness and introduces her suicide attempt:

“I saw my whole life as if I’d already lived it. An endless parade of parties and cotillions, yachts and polo matches, always the same narrow people, the same mindless chatter. I felt like I was standing at a great precipice with no one to pull me back, no one who cared or even noticed.” (Titanic. 1997. TC 00:34:50)

Again, one sees in this words that Rose has her own opinion. She differs from all the other people in her first-class society and is just not ready yet to completely break free from the society she lives in. But according to Spree (2011), this hopelessness was no individual case in the 19th and 20th century:

“Wie überhaupt das Frauendasein, besonders im Bürgertum, bis ins späte 19. und frühe 20. Jahrhundert durch eine gewisse Ausweglosigkeit charakterisiert erscheint, die nur zuließ, den sehr klar formulierten normativen Vorgaben zu folgen.“ (without page numbers)

Rose’s life, just like the quote says it, is characterized through her predetermined destiny. She sees no escape from the wedding with Cal, so that she, for one moment, sees the only solution in death. But the conversation with Jack soon shows that this was not planned but rather a spontaneous moment of weakness. It even marks the real beginning of her emancipation, as we will see in the following.

From now on the viewer becomes the witness of several different rebellious acts of Rose. It starts at TC 00:52:04 when Rose says to Jack: “Teach me to ride like a man.” - “And snoop tobacco like a man” - “And spit like a man” (Titanic. 1997). These imperatives show her desire for more equality between men and women because she wants to learn things that are - in her society - characteristic for men, as one can see in her choice of words (“like a man”). In the book The Titanic in Myth and Memory - Representations in Visual and Literary Culture the author David Gerstner (2004) even speaks of “the process of masculinising Rose” (180) which makes her change even more obvious: Rose here starts to develop from the well-educated and well-dressed girl to an emancipated woman who keeps up with men - she is masculinised. Another evidence for this equality can be found in the scene at TC 01:02:50 where Rose joins the third class’ party. She drinks beer just like the other men do and, after being persuaded by Jack, even dares to dance. “You think you’re big, tough men? Let’s see you do this” (Titanic. 1997. TC 01:06:21) - this rhetorical question before standing on her tiptoes again shows that Rose feels like being at one level - or even above - with men on the party.

The last and maybe most convincing aspect that makes Rose break with everything she was taught so far is that she has sex with Jack. As mentioned in chapter two, having sex without being married and, in this case, even cheating on your fiancé was one of the most proscribed things a woman could do. And Rose knew this. When Cal then calls her a whore, she just answers “I’d rather be his whore than your wife.”(Titanic. 1997. TC 01:52:40) and spits into his face. This and the fact that Rose called him an “unimaginable bastard” (Titanic. 1997. TC 01:52:07) before, indicates that she now lost the last piece of respect and fear of Cal. She does not let herself be infantilised anymore. And with this, Rose’s transformation is completed and she finally breaks with her old, upper class society.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Strong women in "Titanic". Rose DeWitt Bukater's and Molly Brown's break with the typical 20th century female image
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar I)
Gender Matters
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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strong, titanic, rose, dewitt, bukater, molly, brown
Quote paper
Kathrin Hellmann (Author), 2014, Strong women in "Titanic". Rose DeWitt Bukater's and Molly Brown's break with the typical 20th century female image, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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