Parenting by the Books: James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’

Carl Wilson, meet my five-year-old.

Image: Airstar International

It all started when my five-year-old caught a glimpse of a thumbnail image printed on the back page of one of his books. A boat tilting unbelievably skyward, its small rows of windows lit up against the dark night sky. WHAT IS THAT, he demanded. That? Oh, that’s the Titanic.

In the time since that fateful night we have rushed the library, learned about card catalogs, found the Titanic section (yes, SECTION) in the children’s area, checked out the books, asked and answered a million questions. Did the smoke stacks crush people as they fell? How long did the Carpathia take to get there? Are there still Ice Patrol boats? How many crow’s nests did the Titanic have? How did all the dead bodies get buried? Why was it “women and children first?” Did people in steerage get a chance to get on the life boats? And on. And on. And on. And on.

You will forgive either my husband or me (we don’t even know which one of us it was) for livening up the kindergartener’s March of Dismal Facts to Learn with a recounting, in its entirety, of the plot of the movie Titanic. Jack and Rose! He was hooked, from the first minute we described Jack’s rough-hewn clothes, and Rose’s dysfunctional relationship with her stuffy mother. Why didn’t Jack get on the door with her? Here now, was a line of conversation I was interested in pursuing with my child. WHY INDEED?! Add a dash of Billy Zane, and now what he does before bed is chase his three-year-old brother around with a slap bracelet shouting “I’m Billy Zane, and I’m here to handcuff you, Jack!!”

Titanic the movie is so stupid and so, so good. I have loved it from the moment I first saw it, in 1998 — that wondrous fateful year in which I finally emerged from my own self-created prison of art house film. Senior year in college! When you’ve learned enough cultural theory to let yourself submit — but this time INTELLIGENTLY — to the pleasures that you only recently began to understand contribute to your own oppression!

Titanic opened floodgates; it caterwauled and glinted. It was everywhere. It, as music critic Carl Wilson notes in his incomparable book about Céline Dion and aesthetic taste, “overturned all proportion.” Wilson’s wide-ranging book explores the cultural life of Dion writ large, but its primal scene is the 1998 Oscars in which Dion’s chest-thumping “My Heart Will Go On” (the Titanic theme song) steamrolled a tenderly vibrating performance by indie genius Elliot Smith to win Best Original Song. This particular showdown — spectacle versus emotion, corporatization versus authenticity — was a perfectly calibrated late-1990s moment, and any critic worth her salt knew whose side she should be on.

And yet, even Elliot Smith himself would, for years afterward, suggest that something true was left behind when aesthetic taste became an identity, a worldview, a “side” one takes. Céline Dion was incredibly nice, he said to anyone who tried to cut her down. She gave him a hug, at a time when he really needed a hug. She was “too human to be dismissed.”

Wilson’s book is so good because it opens with and pursues this earnestness; he writes about Céline Dion in a straightforward effort to take seriously people’s wildly varying artistic tastes. Taste — in music, in art — is often a ritualized way for people to discipline one another. A way to mark class status, educational attainment, coolness. Wilson’s insight is that we engage in these rituals of differentiation, not because we are actually so different, not because we hate each other so much, but because we, in fact, love each other (and the world) so much, and that love is frightening. Wilson quotes psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why people mock one another: “We only laugh at those with whom we feel we have an affinity that we must repudiate. . . What is always being ridiculed is our wish to be together, our secret affinity for each other.”

One thing about childhood that’s been fascinating to revisit as an adult is how much affinity kids have, and how attuned they often are to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Axiom 1 (“People are different from one another.”) Kids are kind of like whales cruising the world with their mouths agape; they take it all in. They sort of happily make moot an entire history of argument about taste, because taste, for them, is still just what feels good going down. Consider, for example, explaining to a five-year-old why he is not supposed to respect, or be genuinely moved by, or learn about life from a schmaltzy movie like Titanic. In such a scenario, it doesn’t much seem like it’s the child who is lacking.

Even still, the habits of taste identities die hard, and I half want to bring this back around to Titanic the film, to make one of those internet “arguments” about how this thing that is mostly aesthetically bad is actually pretty good. That, obviously, there’s some kernel of greatness, of universality there, which my child’s nearly innate reaction to the plot confirms. But why add to our collective misery right now with arguments about taste? What we have here is no abstract story about taste or aesthetic achievement, it’s a family story. A story about stories, and about how our family likes anything, even crap, if it comes with a story. Because a lot of it is very enjoyable but also because it gives us a shared language, too human to be dismissed.

As we were lying in bed the other night after lights out, my son was really worrying over the fact that Rose leaves her mother at the end of the movie. I could feel him working out the big truth there: that I won’t always be with him, and that it is possible that maybe one day he will choose not to be with me. He asked why Rose didn’t want to go with her mother when they got off the ship, and I talked about what a wonderful and rich life Rose went on to have — she rode horses and flew planes, had children of her own, and was always smiling in her pictures. He went quiet for a bit and I started to doze when he sort of jolted next to me, exclaiming “Oh! I have an idea!” He thought that maybe all Rose needed to do was just tell her mother to stop bossing her around. He wanted to speak that advice into a microphone so that Rose could hear him. He went quiet again, thoughtfully. “But” he continued, “how would I get the wires from my microphone to Rose?”

We weren’t only talking about Rose, of course. We were talking about growing up, and about loving fictional characters and about lines of communication and how hard they are to plug in. But still, as a friend of mine put it on Facebook when I first shared this story about my son wanting to talk to Rose: “Pass the mic!” Most of the time we’re all talking into dead wires, but every once in a while, a spark gets through.

Parenting by the Books” is a series about parenting and classic literary texts.

Sarah Blackwood is editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.