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Liberal Feminism as Reflected in the Movie Titanic

Gneissa Aulia Rahma Nirmala

This paper aims to elaborate the forms of liberal feminism reflected in the movie Titanic by presenting and
analyzing several dialogues related to the issue. Liberal feminism is depicted by the acts of resistance against the
social norms and traditional gender roles in American society. This paper is to give different perspective towards
the movie other than romantic-drama genre which is more commonly known. From the analysis, this paper
comes to the conclusion that liberal feminism is portrayed by the main characters deflection from obeying the
social idealism set for women, and it is resulted from the satiety of being held down from expressing her
thoughts and doing what she wants.

Keywords: liberal feminism, act of resistance, traditional gender roles, american society, american cultural

I. Introduction
Titanic, released in 1997, revolves around the life story of a 17-year-old young aristocrat
lady, Rose Dewitt Bukater. The movie develops the story of RMS Titanic which took off from
Southampton on April 10th 1912 and supposedly arrived in New York City. However, she
sunk on April 15th 1912 in North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg the night before.
There were about 1,500 of 2,224 passengers including the crews who failed to survive. Rose
is described as one of the survivor.
The movie is her reenactment of her past as a part of a high-class society. Through her
entire life story, it is common when the audience pay more attention to the romance side of
the story. However, Titanic depicts more than just a love tale of Rose and Jack, a mere street
painter whom she meets on the ship. This movie portrays the life of women in the early 1900s
where they have plenty social rules to obey. Rose represents liberal feminism act and women
suffrage movements which defend the rights of women to have choices and voices. Her
liberal feminism is drawn by her acts of resistance against the norms and traditional gender
roles in American society.
II. Theoritical Framework
According to Tong, liberal feminists have strong idea that women should have the equal
opportunity with men to reach success (2009:2).
Liberal feminists label is also relevant to those who share the belief that a democracy
with capitalistic values which regulates a bill of individual rights will produce adequate
legislation for rectifying any form of inequitable behavior towards women as a group in the
name of gender. In liberal feminist opinion, racism, sexism, and any form of oppression for
reason of gender, sexual orientation, political view, religious persuasion, age, or philosophical

temperament in politics, social, and economy are heinous that morally sensitive society will
not let that happen (Almeder, 1994).
Liberal feminism emerged from the realization that women subordination came from a
group of customary and legal limitation which precluded women from getting their success in
the society. The society believed the prejudice that women are less intellectual and less strong
than men. The belief tended to discriminate women from educational institutions, public
room, and marketplace (Tong, 2009: 2).
Traditional gender roles regarded men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive, while
women were at the contrary. Women were considered weak, irrational, and submissive. The
patriarchal ideology where men were primer than women was there to retain mens positions
in economic, political, and social power. To describe it in another way, it was designed to
keep women away from power by dismissing the educational and occupational means
(Tyson, 2006: 85)
III. Forms of Liberal Feminism in Titanic
Social oppressions towards Rose are shown by how her mother educates her with
thousands of rules which she must obey. As a royalty, Ruth raises her daughter to become
what the society expects a woman to be. A standard for women was set by the ideal of
feminity. It controlled how women are supposed to walk, eat, talk, and even sleep. Women
had a long list of things they should never do. This is pictured in scene 59.
The waiter arrives to take orders. ROSE lights a cigarette.
RUTH: You know I dont like that, Rose.

From this short conversation, it can be seen that Rose certainly knows that it is
inappropriate for women to smoke a cigarette. It is one of the prohibitions in the invisible
rules of being a decent woman which is symbolized by her mothers protest. However, by
lighting a cigarette which is mostly done by men, Rose wants to show her rejection against
the societys ordinance that keeping her from expressing her actual thoughts. This scene
opens Roses acts of resistance through the entire movie.
Rose also directly expresses her mind of feeling trapped in her society. She feels that
nobody in her group shares the same thoughts with her so that no one can get her out of the

ROSE: I dont it wasnt just one thing. It was everything. It was them, it was their whole world.
And I was trapped in it, like an insect in amber. (in a rush) I just had to get away just run
and run and then I was at the back rail and there was no more ship even the Titanic
wasnt big enough. Not enough to get away from them. And before Id really thought about
it, I was over the rail. I was so furious. Ill show them. Theyll be sorry.


ROSE: Why cant I be like you Jack? Just head out for the horizon whenever I feel like it.

In the above two talks, Rose is aware that she is being imprisoned. She is not a free bird
who can travel as far as she wants. This makes her wants to break the walls around her more.
She intends to disclose the fact that nothing can hold her from doing everything she wishes,
even her own society. She needs to let them know that she has the rights to be what she wants
to be and not being put behind the cage of social norms. The dialogues explain her attitudes
in scene 59 which has been explained before.
Rose realizes that women have the same stage with men. She thinks that women can also
do what men do.
JACK: Alright, were going. Well drink cheap beer and go on the rollercoaster until we throw up and
well ride horses on the beach right in the surf but you have to ride like a cowboy, none
of that side-saddle stuff.
ROSE: You mean one leg on each side? Can you show me?
JACK: Sure, if you like.
ROSE: Teach me to ride like a man.
JACK: And chew tobacco like a man.
ROSE: And spit like a man.

There, Roses desire to do what men do is evidence that she has no ordinary ideology
about womankind. Her act of resistance against the standard of a fine woman emerges in this
conversation as all things she mentioned are typically done by men and should not be done by
women. She wants to demolish that standard by asking Jack to teach her how to spit. This
conversation also emphasizes Roses idea of the equality between men and women. She
conveys her thoughts through her excitement over doing what she has been prohibited to do.
Roses resistance is again shown in scene 85.
JACK brings two glasses of beer. ROSE chugs hers, showing off.

ROSE: What? You think a first-class girl cant drink?

As an aristocrat, it might have been unfitting for women to drink pint beer. Beside it is
proletarian beverage, women may get disgusted stares if she drinks too much and comes out
drunk. That still goes on until today. In addition, Rose revolts from the idealism of women by
taking someones cigarette and smoking as shown in the picture below.

Picture 1. Rose smokes for the several times.

Rose declares her opposition against the standardized life of women by smoking despite
the fact that her mother detests that. Rose starts to have more courage to speak out her
feelings and thoughts through words as well as acts. When she joins the third-class
passengers, she finds herself out of the boundaries and bars caging her this whole time. In
the same scene, she shows that she is far from the prejudice put on women in traditional
gender roles. As Tyson (2006) explains, traditional gender roles regarded men as rational,
strong, protective, and decisive, while women were at the contrary. Women were considered
weak, irrational, and submissive. Rose intends to break the stigma by parading a ballet pose
to show people that she is not less strong than men in scene 87.
ROSE: So, you think youre big tough men? Lets see you do this.
In her stocking feet she assumes a ballet stance, arms raised, and goes up on point, taking her entire
weight on the tips of her toes. The guys gape at her incredible muscles control. She comes back
down, then her face screws up in pain. She grabs one foot, hopping around.

In the early part of the movie, Rose has already broke down the line between men and
women by mentioning a renowned figure which indicates she reads plenty enough of books
to have that much knowledge. This is groundbreaking as it was not easy for women to get the
proper education they deservedor at least, they had limited access to books. The patriarchal

ideology where men were primer than women was there to retain mens positions in
economic, political, and social power. To describe it in another way, it was designed to keep
women away from power by dismissing the educational and occupational means (Tyson,
2006). Mens superiority is often portrayed in the movie. Cals speech in scene 59 is one of
the examples.
MOLLY: Hey, who came up with the name Titanic? You, Bruce?
ISMAY: Yes, actually. I wanted to convey sheer size. And size means stability, luxury and safety
ROSE: Do you know of Dr. Freud? His ideas about the male preoccupation with the size might be of
particular interest to you, Mr. Ismay.
RUTH: Whats gotten into you?
ROSE: Excuse me. (She stalks away).
RUTH: I do apologize.
MOLLY: Shes a pistol, Cal. You sure you can handle her?
CAL: Well, I may have to start minding what she reads from now on, wont I, Mrs. Brown?

From Cals words, it can be inferred that he controls everything his fianc does to show his
superiority over Rose. This scene also shows Roses resistance against the traditional gender
roles as she tries to ridicule Mr. Ismays speech. Like what has been explained before, based
on traditional gender roles, women were inferior to men, which means men were supposed to
be the smart one and women were lack of education. Thus, Roses showing off her
knowledge of Dr. Freud to the crowd can be considered as an act of resistance against
traditional gender roles. Rose discloses that women can be as smartor even smarteras
Rose refuses being under the domination of Cal, who treats her not as his future wife but
more as a property to claim over his power. Despite the restraint she gets from Cal, she
stands firm for a liberate life. In several scenes where Rose continuously meets Jack even
though she is aware of Cals resentment towards that boy from the third class delineates
Roses resistance against Cals authority over her. One scene that particularly represents
Roses antagonism towards Cals dictating behaviors is scene 89.
ROSE: I see you had that undertaker of a manservant follow me.
CAL: You will never behave like that again, Rose, do you understand?
ROSE: Im not one of a foreman in your mills that you can command. Im your fianc.
CAL: Yes! You are! And my wife in practice, if not yet by law. So you will honor me, as a wife is
required to honor her husband. I will not be made out of a fool. Is this in any way unclear?

In the same scene, Cals control over Rose is intelligibly shown. He does not take any
resistance from Rose against him and let Rose speaks her mind. He sticks to the patriarchal
ideology which believes that women have only one job; they need to serve their husband and
manage their household while the men are outside being the breadwinner.
Rose has an idea that women should be left with choices. She cannot accept her mothers
reason for giving her only daughter to a man who is close to bars of jail. Ruth seeks an excuse
of rescuing their family from going bust. Rose thinks it is unfair to put all the responsibility
on her shoulders.
RUTH: I dont understand you. It is a fine math with Hockley, and it will ensure our survival.
ROSE: How could you put this on my shoulder?
RUTH: Why are you being so selfish?
ROSE: Im being selfish?
ROSE: Its so unfair.
RUTH: Of course, its unfair! Were women. Our choices are never easy.

Rose realizes that women should have more choices and more chances to decide how they
life should go. She indulges her desire of being free from all the predicaments she has been
through by romantically being involved with Jack even though her mother has forbid her to.
It is her biggest resistance against both the social idealism of women and traditional gender
IV. Cause of the Resistance
Michael Foucault once stated that power is the core of resistance (1978: 95). In other
words, acts of resistance exist are resulted by the usage of power by some particular people
towards others. Those who share the idea that they cannot stand being under others authority
express their deflections through resistances. Roses acts of resistance also come as the result
of the power of traditional gender roles and social idealism of women. Traditional gender
roles are represented by Roses fianc, Cal and her mother, Ruth, represents the social
idealism of women. Roses acts of resistance are her deflection from the social norms holding
her down. In several dialogues, she expresses her surfeit of not being able to expose her
thoughts and do what she actually wants to do. Below are the examples.

OLD ROSE (V.O.): It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me, it was a slave ship, taking
me back to America in chains.
REVERSE, ROSES POV: A tabeau of MOTHER and DAUGHTER having tea. The four-year-old
girl, wearing white gloves, daintily picks a cookie. The mother corrects her on
her posture, and the way she holds the teacup. The little girl is trying so hard to
please, her expression serious. A glimpse of Rose at that age, and we see the
relentless conditioning the pain to becoming and Edwardian geisha.

V. Conclusion
As explained by Tong, liberal feminism emerged from the realization that women
subordination came from a group of customary and legal limitation which precluded women
from getting their success in the society. The society believed the prejudice that women are
less intellectual and less strong than men. The belief tended to discriminate women from
educational institutions, public room, and marketplace (2009: 2). Thus, women did not have
any voices to decide particular things since they were considered irrational and less educated.
Women were supposed to follow the social rules made for them and to never argue about it.
Rose, as the representation of women in the early 1900s where social oppression towards
women still existed despite how women suffrage movements were starting to surface, tries to
break the belief by resisting against her mother and fiancs wills. She displays the picture of
not-less-intelligent woman and decides what best for herself even though it means she
declares a war between her and her own mother. Roses efforts in defending her rights as a
womanin education, politics, and social surroundingtherefore, can be considered as a
form of liberal feminism.
Looking back to Tongs explanation which states that liberal feminism was a result of
womens repugnance of being under the shadow of mens power and superiority, Roses acts
of resistance come from her satiety of being held down. She can no longer let the social
norms and mens superiority control her decisions. She stands for what she believes and
defends her ideology; women should live a liberal life where they can choose any choice,
speak any thought, and educate themselves with as many knowledge as they desire.
Almeder, Robert. Liberal Feminism and Academic Feminism. Public Affairs Quarterly,
Vol. 8, No. 4 (Oct. 1994), pp. 299315. University of Illinois Press.

Cameron, James. Titanic. Film Script. IMSDb. 12 Nov, 2016. Sponsored link:
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Random
House, 1978.
Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Colorado:
Westview Press, 2009.
Tyson, Louis. Critical Theory Today. New York: Routledge, 2006.