This April marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
I'm quite sure this is why the 1997 movie is being re-released right now in 3D, and why I've seen Titanic-related books and such as well.
What I'm talking about today has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the film. I don't particularly love it or hate it. It is what it is. It had special effects that were ground-breaking. It struck an emotional nerve with millions and broke box-office records. No matter your feelings about it, that film is a piece of history.
I recall a huge fervor in my (then) neighborhood when the movie came out. In particular, I heard a lot of murmurs about how it had bad, bad content and shouldn't have gotten a PG-13 rating. People were divided into those who oh, so loved the movie and saw it fourteen times in the theater, and others who, I must admit, seemed a bit self-righteous about not seeing the "evil" film.
The bad, evil content included a predictable one: upper female frontal nudity. Yes, some said, it's technically in an artistic scene, but it's a straight-on shot of a woman's chest. (Insert horrified gasps.)
Other content that made it inappropriate for "good" people to view included lots of violence, graphic deaths and more.
I reserved judgment. Maybe it was totally inappropriate nudity. Maybe not. Sometimes films have violence I don't want to be exposed to, graphic deaths I don't want in my head. Maybe these people were over-reacting. Maybe not.
I'd decide for myself some day. But for the moment, the issue was moot, because I had a toddler and an infant, neither of whom I felt comfortable leaving with a sitter. Date night almost always meant take-out and a video in the basement, often with the kids at our feet. If I saw any new release that year, it would have been a Disney matinee.
Two issues surrounding the neighborhood discussion still linger in my mind:
1) The Evil Fiance
A neighbor said she saw the film and wasn't so much offended by the art scene (although she didn't approve of that, either), but she was offended instead by the fiance's behavior. I asked what he did.
Neighbor: He's mean, controlling, and violent.
Me: Oh, so he's the hero? His behavior is acceptable in the movie?
(That was the obvious explanation. If we're supposed to cheer for a jerk, I don't want to see it.)
Neighbor: Oh, no. He's the villain.
I believed then, and I do now, that a story, whether in a film or a book, can teach better than almost any tool. Just because something is portrayed in a story doesn't mean the creator is saying it's acceptable; in many cases, the portrayal is the reverse: a condemnation of that very behavior.
In this movie, we see Cal being a jerk. He treats the woman he's supposed to cherish in a bad way and does a lot of other bad things. We know he's a bad guy.
Ergo, cruelty to women is bad.
If fiction showed only good things and good people and happy events, there would be no stories, no exploration of ideas or problem solving, no understanding compassion or people who aren't us.
I was quite sure I wouldn't have a problem with the villain's actions. He's the villain. He's supposed to be bad.
What about the other big thing?
This issue was put into perspective when my mother told me about a conversation she'd had with some women. They'd raved over movies like Dr. Zhivago and Bridges of Madison County, about how romantic they were.
My mother stayed quiet, being the only one there who didn't like either movie and couldn't see how glorifying adultery (the topic of both movies) was "romantic."
They moved on to discuss the buzz around, of course, Titanic.
Did they like it? Was it romantic?
They hated it. It was totally inappropriate and evil. Why? Because of the art scene with the woman's chest. But the scene in the sex scene in the car? Romantic, just like the other movies. These were middle-aged, Mormon women.
I don't know if she said anything in the moment, but she told me her thoughts about it, and I couldn't have agreed more:
Since when is the human body evil, but extra-marital sex is good?
Better mention that nudity thing to Michelangelo. Whoa, that evil Sistine Chapel . . .
This isn't to say that I necessarily think the art scene needed to be there or whatever, but I do think the scene became a scapegoat. Some people saw it and promptly stopped thinking for themselves. They weren't thinking about real values, about what's right or wrong. They were reacting, almost Puritanically (the body is evil!), about what made them uncomfortable.
One of the biggest ironies to me is that these women (the ones I talked to and the ones Mom talked to) were all Mormon. Yet our doctrine celebrates the body as something you must have to attain eternal glory. It's not something bad and dirty.
We believe in reserving sex for marriage.
Yet these women flip-flopped the two concepts completely.
Somehow old-fashioned beliefs creep in anyway and make people squeamish. I get that. I also get that I have less squeamishness thanks to the fact that I lived in Finland for three years, where the body is viewed very pragmatically. Also, Mom's a Finn, so before and after our Finland years, in our family, the body just wasn't a big deal. (We weren't walking around naked or anything, but if you asked about something, you'd get a direct answer, no blushing.)
My kids are older now. I have daughters. Teaching them these things is a challenge. I see how easy it is to try to teach something like honoring and respecting your body enough to dress modestly, and have the value eventually twisted into something that makes them ashamed of their bodies instead. It's something I don't have answers to, but I'm working on.
A final note:
If you plan to see Titanic in theaters with this new release, whether for the first time or again, I recommend not doing so when you're nervous.
We made that mistake by watching it on video two years after its release, when we had two toddlers and an infant, on New Year's Eve of 1999 . . . while bracing ourselves for Y2K.