Titanic’s Jack Dawson made me a hopeless romantic, but then I grew up

Titanic was released in theaters 21 years ago today.

To slightly butcher the famous line, it’s been (over) 20 years since Titanic sailed onto movie screens, and I can still remember the very first moment I laid eyes on Jack Dawson. I was 7 years old, lying on my parents’ double bed with the green gingham duvet, watching the video my brother got for Christmas—or more accurately, the videos, since the movie was so long that is had to be split across two VHS tapes. The moment Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson appeared—forehead creased into a perfectly beautiful, concentrated frown—something about the world shifted in my childish heart.

If you think about it, Jack Dawson is the perfect celebrity crush for a 7-year-old. He’s handsome in a Disney prince kind of way: a firm but not rock-hard jawline; searching, soulful eyes framed by his cool, greasy curtain haircut; a smile that makes you feel like he’s letting you in on a private joke, meant for only the two of you to share.

He’s a winner in the personality department, too. For starters, he’s artistic, always carrying around a file of charcoal sketches before any other art school hipster did. He’s a world-traveler with a sense of adventure and no time for the stuffy society rules that 7-year-old girls are just starting to pick up on: sit up straight, don’t run around, wear this, don’t wear that. Jack might not have a Harvard degree or bags of daddy’s cash, but he’s brave and good in a crisis. However, he’s not so proud that he won’t let a woman save him when he needs help—and he can still rock a tux and mingle with the aristocrats when the occasion calls for it.

Jack’s not such a goodie-two-shoes that he can’t break the rules sometimes, although not often enough to call his morality into question (he was going to return that jacket he borrowed, Cal). He’s sexy, but safe. He’s confident, but never, ever pushy.

For me, the trait that truly sets Jack apart from other male characters in romance movies is that he manages to be totally open about being in love without being controlling. When he notices Rose on the first-class deck, his friends tease him for gazing at her, but he doesn’t look away; it is love at first sight, and Jack isn’t ashamed.

Unlike Cal, Jack makes his feelings clear through his actions: He never says, “I love you,” but he listens to Rose in a way that no one else in her life does. Even when he’s trying to profess his feelings for her, he ends up focusing on how she needs to escape. He makes her feel loved while also giving her agency—a far cry from the “get the girl” mentality popular in so many films that treats women more like trophies than humans.

Idealizing Jack Dawson and his relationship with Rose had good and bad consequences for my childish perspective on love.

It taught 7-year-old me that it’s possible to lock eyes with someone across a crowded boat and instantly fall in beautiful, eternal love with them, to the point that you’re willing to die heroically for them. It taught me that the perfect partner is someone who will save you—not just physically, but emotionally. Your partner can intuit your moods and your needs, and will always do whatever it takes to make you feel better. It showed me that love makes you brave, not only in terms of putting your life on the line, but in defying social conventions. It can help you find out who you really are, and give you the confidence to chase your dreams. This movie, and Jack Dawson, made me a hopeless romantic.

Jaded, grownup me now recognizes that there are some deep flaws in this theory of love.

I still believe that love can make you braver, and better. I still believe that it’s possible to fall in love at first sight—but you also have to sustain it. Being in love is not all having steamy sex in the back of cars and posing naked while wearing a giant diamond. In reality, being in love ranges from having big and difficult conversations about money, life goals, and kids, to extremely mundane discussions about taking out the trash, deciding on which Netflix series the other person can’t watch without you, and debating whether you should get pizza or noodles for dinner.

Jack and Rose barely spent four days together. When you’re 7, this short time span is ultimately a testament to the power of their love; their bond was so strong that those few days were enough to give her 84 years of memories. When you’re an adult, it makes you think that they never got to the true tests of a relationship.

Jack himself, of course, is flawless, and that’s his biggest problem.

No real person could ever live up to that guy. Even DiCaprio didn’t want to play Jack because he felt he was too uncomplicated. The real purpose of this character is to set Rose free from her world of narrow social rules, which is why he has to die. He sacrifices himself so she can live freely. This is also why he’s great for 7-year-old girls and children who were assigned female at birth; they so often need someone to explain they can be more than just pretty, and that they have the right to make choices for themselves.

Once I grew up, unlike Rose, I let Jack go.

If you’re holding out for someone as emotionally available, intelligent, and selfless as Jack Dawson, then you won’t ever find them. Looking back, I think my 7-year-old self had great taste in crushes. I’m pleased that I got to believe that love can be pure, beautiful, and as easy as making eye contact. Rose can hold onto Jack, but now that I’m an adult, I’d rather have someone real.

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