I’ve had a Titanic thing since 1997, and I still always append that remark with, “but it wasn’t because of the movie — it was before I even heard about the movie.” Some part of me, some eager dog with a whiplike tail, always wants to paw onto you and bark the news in your face: “Not one of those fourteen-year-old girls, thanks! Me, an intellectual —”
This is not the main point of the essay, but I rewatched the film twenty years later and fucking loved it. Campy, yes, and — my younger self screams while banging the handle of a wooden spoon — historically inaccurate; the writing is cartoonish, the representation of women not Cameron’s personal best, the thing on a whole an Animorphs middleface between Terminator 2 and Avatar, but it nonetheless cooks, presuming it’s 1997 and you’re still getting used to the idea of sushi, or can pretend this is the case. The visuals are bliss. Kate Winslet is better than I remember and twice as beautiful. The whole film takes place in a videogame sunset, red, gold, and eyeshadow-blue. It executes a delicate balance between the Titanic wonk’s two great desires, which are to live in it and watch it die.
I think most Titanic people want to be there, though they want it for different reasons. To observe the personalities, wear the clothes, eat the heavy sumptuous food, wander around all those lounges with their overwrought themes and their decor that doesn’t quite cover the fact that you’re inside a machine. Some fans want to look through to the machine. They want to gently pull aside the fern fronds, like a Victorian explorer, to see a wall behind them, like Data on the holodeck. Others just want to stare. Some are fascinated by the mechanisms of survival, and want to execute a perfect speedrun to the boats. Then there are the ones who are just interested people, who want to get to know a thing completely. The Titanic welcomes them all in like the grand piece of corporate hospitality it was.
I used to move in Titanic circles on the early Internet, right about ‘97, ‘98. Literally and furiously fourteen, I would sign my real name to my posts but hide my age, because I wanted to be treated “with respect.” I remember being angry that another fourteen-year-old on the listserv was open about her age, and much admired for her precocity, while all my precocity got me was a reputation as a confusingly immature person who wrote like an adult, but eventually got kicked off the list for making one too many comparisons between TV characters and major Titanic figures. Don’t ask me which ones it was — it’s not that I don’t remember, it’s that the memory makes me want to die.
Not everything a trans man experiences before transition is about coded masculinity, but my Titanic thing was definitely about coded masculinity. This was my own form of “wanting to be there.” I was obsessed with suffering men, and the Titanic story offers them to you by the dozen — crack open an egg carton and you’ll see all twelve, their brilliantined hair a little ruffled in the iceberg breeze. A Titanic man can nearly freeze to death under a capsized boat and be brought back to life with careful nurturing, like Harold Bride. He can weep like Phillip Franklin in New York, when he finally accepted the news after denying it for eighteen hours, inadvertently (?) gaslighting everybody. He can go full BSOD, like Bruce Ismay, shivering and high as fuck in the cabin of the Carpathia’s doctor.
The Titanic fulfilled my need to see men tested — not in the sense of “a crisis shows you who you really are,” because I don’t believe that it does, but in the sense of a suitcase thumping around in the commercial dryer at the Wirecutter offices: let’s see if you can break it. You know, as research.
All of this did not come from cruelty in me. Instead, the breakage allowed me to enter these men fully, to imagine my body in theirs, in a way that confused me, committed as I was to what I was fairly sure was my lesbianism. This imagining-in wasn’t sexy, exactly, but it was satisfying, and it did help me sleep.
Recently, my brother and I streamed Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, a 1996 point-and-click adventure game. Titanic: AOOT was a hit in its day, with its imaginative time-traveling spy story and realistic reconstructions of the ship’s interiors. Today, it is largely forgotten. If it’s remembered at all, it’s mostly for its upsetting character animations, a unique blending of CG and video which makes everybody look like a very complex silicone puppet. Honestly, I thought they’d aged pretty well.
Titanic: AOOT is plainly courting the people who want to be there — the reconstructions are indeed meticulous, and to win, you have to hike around the ship picking up assorted nonsense while admiring it all. It’s almost impossible to play the game correctly without having played it before — as in, it’s very easy to realize that you’ve made it unwinnable an hour ago, which I’m told is a typical 90s adventure game cruelty. So you are going to spend a few playthroughs exploring the Titanic, and also repeating the frankly incredible, claustrophobic sinking sequence, with its screams of terror and ruined wood, before you get the golden ending (which involves making Adolf Hitler a successful artist so he won’t become a fascist — it was very, very much 1996).
Titanic: AAOT also makes the Titanic look like hell. Flat lighting, tasteless luxury on the top decks, rows of depressing corridor below — the ship resembles a face that’s had a bad night, all shadows and cheesy pallor. None of it hides the machine for an instant, and since you spend so much time roaming the engine room and the inside of the dummy smokestack, you learn all the edges of the facade, all the places where anyone can slip around it. It’s enough to make you hate capitalism, this game, although its disdain for other systems of thought is very obvious in its view of how a time traveler might influence history.
My main point is that the game is realistic. The Titanic was ugly. It’s pure business design. Sometimes, by luck, that ends up being good (the grand staircase was lovely, for example, and so was the ship’s silhouette), but mostly it’s a stack of luxurious signifiers without reference to anything. A French cafe to imply cosmopolitanism, a Turkish bath for a cozy Edwardian Orientalism already a few years out of date, a staggering amount of carved oak. As I said, it’s all there to give the ship some curves, to make the plain rooms less obvious, but it mostly just looks cold.
As a Titanic kid, I thought the ship was the height of beauty, though I came to prefer the midcentury spareness of ships like the United States (1952, still miraculously around albeit looking like a zombie). It’s not that my tastes are that elevated now, but that the ship no longer means what it used to mean to me. My mind has pulled away the glamour, the marble and the ferns, just as the scrappers would have done had the Titanic survived to be broken up in the twenties or thirties. I’ve stripped the linen, stacked the tables, pulled out the great engines, and turned off the lights.