Revisiting Titanic is always an entertaining jaunt through ’90s pop-culture and the heyday of Leo DiCaprio’s babeliness. However, when people start overanalyzing what was essentially a glorified excuse for James Cameron to geek out at the bottom of the ocean, the theories quickly become tedious and far-fetched.
The most recent of these theories poses the belief that Cal Hockley, Rose’s fiancé and one of the few non-iceberg villains in the movie, was not actually a villain. (Gee whiz, what a twist!)
Entertainment Weekly‘s Dana Schwartz (whose writing and opinion I respect), recently posted an article in defense of the fictional Cal Hockley and his fictional actions onboard the RMS Titanic. Schwartz sympathetically asserted that Cal was merely reacting to Rose’s behavior in appropriate anger, considering the flagrant disregard with which his fiancé treats him throughout the movie (attending a party with another man, kissing said other man, having car sex with said other man … you get it).
While I understand the impulse to fully analyze a story from all angles, and empathize with as many characters as possible, I just have to say: No, thanks! I’m good. I truly don’t need to consider a universe in which Cal Hockley is somehow the victim in this sordid situation.
Actor Billy Zane has occasionally referred to his character as “misunderstood” in subsequent interviews, saying, “I wasn’t the iceberg. I didn’t drown 2,000 people.” And it’s true — Cal was not responsible for the sinking of the enormous ship. But, I guess I was unaware that our barometer for goodness is based solely on whether or not someone is on par with the destructiveness of a natural disaster?
Oh, wait. It isn’t? Okay, cool. So we can agree that a character can be an antagonist without killing thousands of people.
Now, let me be clear: Rose is certainly a flawed (and frequently annoying) character, and Jack is almost comically saint-like. The narrative of a guy saving a woman from herself is far from progressive. There are plenty of weird and emotionally manipulative problems in this relationship dynamic. This argument does not come from a “Jack + Rose 4 Ever” place.
That said, just because Cal Hockley is the rejected suitor does not automatically make him the wronged Aidan to Rose’s selfish Carrie Bradshaw, nor does it mean that the two of them should have sailed off into the sunset together on their first-class lifeboat.
In the early 1900s, marriage among wealthy families was still largely about consolidation of power and providing a comfortable livelihood for young brides. Rose’s engagement to Cal was essentially a business merger, and there were no real emotional loyalties involved. (Rose’s mother makes this abundantly clear with her heavy-handed “You know the money’s gone!” speech, but I feel like it bears repeating.)
Cal is also prone to volatile temper tantrums, such as the one he throws when Rose suggests that he speak to her with a modicum of respect. Sure, he may have been infuriated by the idea of Rose dancing the night away below deck, but does such a thing warrant flinging an entire afternoon tea tray across the sundeck? Let’s also not forget the fact that Cal eventually slaps Rose across the face when he learns of her infidelity. Again, while the fury may have been justified, it makes me a little queasy to consider excusing a man who smacks around his fiancé.
It’s not Cal’s anger that makes him a villain. It’s his selfishness and vindictiveness. Instead of letting Rose go and unceremoniously breaking off their engagement, he sends his manservant off to catch her and frame Jack, thereby sending him to the brig. (Cal can’t even fight this battle for himself! He sends a man 20 years his senior to do it for him!)
Cal also eventually elbows his way onto a lifeboat by pretending to take custody of a small, frightened child — a move so cartoonishly devilish that he probably would have been twirling his mustache if Billy Zane could grow one.
Oh, and there’s that pesky little scene where he starts haphazardly firing a pistol at Jack and Rose. You know, in case you forgot.
Schwartz also suggests in her article that Rose’s account of Cal’s behavior is unreliable, and it’s at this moment that I simply have to draw the line: please don’t try to excuse your “hot take” by suggesting that a female character might be lying about the physical and emotional abuse she endured from a man. Even if it’s a lighthearted suggestion, there are plenty of women out there who don’t find the idea funny, and women who are actually experiencing the real-life consequences of this kind of societal doubt.
James Cameron is not a subtle director. If he wanted the audience to sympathize with Cal, he would have given us a reason to do so. As it is, he gave us a handsome, asshole of a man who made every attempt to control his significant other, who sought petty revenge at every turn, and who ultimately took the cowardly way out to save his own life.
So, no, I’m not going to feel bad about considering Cal Hockley to be a villain. I think I’ll save my sympathy instead for the thousands of people who actually drowned.