Why America's teenage girls can't get enough of 'Titanic'

The boat may sink, but a new feminist role model has risen on the silver screen

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AS AWARD after award speeds towards James Cameron for his epic blockbuster and Oscar-favourite, Titanic, a handful of critics are professing surprise. Not because of the scale of its success, nor because of the records it notches up week after week for takings and audiences. Nor yet because of the contrast between the dire warnings of failure and the glorious reality.

Almost three months after the film's release, the surprise comes from the complexion of the audiences. In front of cinemas across America, the winding queues comprise not laggardly first-time viewers curious to see if what everyone else says about the film is true, but second, third, fourth and fifth-timers, the vast majority of them teenage girls.

Now the easy explanation is that they have come for the sole purpose of drooling over the gorgeous looks and eerily natural charm of Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Jack, the doomed hero from the lower orders. In other words, feminism - in terms of self-assertion - is dead; long live romance.

Having belatedly joined the titanic queues myself, I would like to venture that the explanation is more complicated, and perhaps more heartening for those of us on the distaff side in the late Nineties. My bet, borne out subsequently by some gentle inquiry, is that all these girls are not frequenting the cinema only, or even mainly, for the sake of the luscious Leonardo. They are there quite as much for the leading lady, the lonely, stubborn Rose, torn between duty to family, class and convention, and her contempt for the whole charade.

Rose (played by Oscar-nominee Kate Winslet), with her mixture of self- doubt and forwardness, sense of responsibility and lust to break free, holds a particular appeal for America's young women, so many of whom find themselves stranded between aggressive self-assertion and wistful longing for romance. Rose is even a little more plump than your average American girl would like to be, but she seems comfortable with her body - another consoling thought for angst-ridden dieters for whom Barbie was the model.

The director, James Cameron, describes Rose as "muscle plus striking femininity". Her women fans are less abstract about it. "She was a daredevil. She went on to have adventures; she didn't waste her life," says Karen Schoemer in Time magazine. "She's so romantic, so real," says a young friend who recently saw the film for the sixth time. For America's teenage girls, Rose is the next century's woman in the making.

Something similar goes for the developing relationship between Jack and Rose. By turns conspiratorial and reckless, respectful and teasing, sexual (but always equal), it offers a fully acceptable road map in girl-boy relations to emotionally confused and sexually hung-up Americans. And Jack is the ideal partner: encouraging adventure and self-reliance, displaying leadership and resourcefulness but also restraint and need. His last words to Rose, as he sinks into a watery Liebestod: Tell her never to let go, to make something of herself.

Would not every Nineties American girl want a mate like that? A mate who combines chivalry and romance with unforced political correctness and pushes her to make the best of herself? No wonder the girls are out in force for Titanic. It's just a pity that the boys are not there too. They might learn about the sort of companionable devotion their girlfriends will now expect.

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