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The Sexual Revolution's Titanic winners and losers
Class and sex do not intersect: quite the opposite
The soppy 90s epic Titanic famously tells the story of star-crossed-lovers whose budding romance is thwarted by Anglo-Saxon class constraints and an enormous iceberg.
There is Rose, a frustrated young gentry woman destined for a life of pampered Edwardian luxury, and Jack, the happy-go-lucky starving artist who’s blagged a ticket across the Ocean. Well, I say happy-go-lucky, but he’s on the Titanic so not that lucky.
Rose is unfortunately destined for a loveless marriage with Monopoly Man-style robber baron capitalist bastard ‘Caledon Hockley’, played by Billy Zane, a character who represents all that’s wrong with the world before 1914.
In contrast to the stoical black-and-white tearjerker A Night to Remember, James Cameron’s Titanic does not paint the Anglo-American ruling class of the Belle Epoque in a very sympathetic light. They’re snobbish, hubristic and believe themselves ‘masters of the universe’, apparently a linguistic anachronism which didn’t exist before He-Man (although I’m sceptical of that claim). When the film states as a postscript that Billy Zane’s character is ruined by the Wall St Crash and kills himself, it may as well add ‘LOL’, or maybe just a 😂.
The film reflects late 20th century moral judgments about a previous age with sexual values wildly at odds with the present day. Young Rose, being a high-born late Victorian woman, has comfort and relative luxury but also hugely constricted life choices, treated as a sort of child. She is never going to be taken seriously for any intellectual achievements, or have a meaningful career; and, assuming she and Caledon don’t move to Wyoming, Washington or a couple of other western states, she can’t even vote (although plenty of women approved of that).
There was an upside to this sexism, of course, not drowning being one. You might not guess it from the film, but proportionally far more third-class women passengers survived the sinking Titanic than did first class men, so if you were one of the Irish colleens doing a jig downstairs you’d have a better chance than Billy Zane. Although newspapers at the time condemned the indecent number of first-class male passengers who survived, this reflected the exacting moral standards of the age. In fact, many masters of the universe died on the Titanic, and did so with great dignity and courage.
Among the dead were John Jacob Astor IV, Macy’s owner Isidor Straus, and Benjamin Guggenheim, who is said to have changed into his formal evening wear alongside his valet when he realised rescue wasn’t coming. Guggenheim had helped get women and children onto lifeboats before facing death beside the man who had faithfully served him. It’s hard to imagine a more noble ending, and a better testimony to the values of the era.
Sex was the main determinant of whether you survived, but class was a factor; 16% of third-class men made it, compared to 32% of first-class men (although second-class men did worst of all). In contrast 97% of first-class women lived.
This was a society that to some extent infantilised women, but the upside was protection from danger. If you were a young British male and you survived the sinking ship, there was anyway a one in eight chance you’d be killed in the war that began two years later if you volunteered, and the upper class had an even higher death rate. (At least one man survived the sinking only to die in the conflict, while a handful of others fought and lived to tell the tale, including the extraordinary Charles Lightoller, who not only features in Cameron’s epic but is also the inspiration for Mark Rylance’s character in Dunkirk.)
In old Europe, class did not ‘intersect’ with sex; being a woman was a disadvantage, as was being working class, but these did not work together: being a working-class woman was not necessarily worse than being a working-class man.
The thinking behind intersectionality is that disadvantages compound each other, but in reality hierarchies don’t work along one axis. Aristocratic and autocratic societies have often afforded more opportunities to women or minorities than radically democratic ones have. There were women rulers in Byzantium but not in classical Athens; one might find highly-placed black men in the Ottoman court but not in egalitarian and classless colonial America.
Just as society opens up along one axis, it may tighten along another. The most obvious but unspoken example is with the Titanic hierarchy of death: over the last 60 years, as the status of first-class women has risen dramatically, so that of third-class men has likewise fallen.
In the old Titanic hierarchy, upper-class women were offered the most material comfort and safety, but were also in many ways powerless; working-class men had the most dangerous and dirty jobs, but they also had huge prestige. They could threaten the country with revolution or general strike; they provided the physical power than kept the lights running. My grandmother, not much younger than Rose and from a similar social background, was discouraged by her father from taking a job because it would deny one to a working man who had just fought in the war. Working-class men had tough lives, but they also had kudos. They could be heroes. Their social betters were scared of them.
The story of the last fifty years has in many ways been about the contrasting fortunes and trajectories of these two groups, political polarisation centred on the growing gap between Titanic Survivors and Titanic Losers. They are the two groups who have won and lost the most relative power.
In 2022 Rose would certainly go to university and most likely have some form of career, women’s emancipation being most noticeable in employment. In the US, female employment has risen consistently since the 1960s, and by 1977, 54% of women between the ages of 25 and 54 had a job, rising to 75% in 2019. In contrast, the percentage of men in that age group in work declined from 95% in 1967 to just 86% the year before the virus hit. In fact, a higher proportion of American men don’t work today than during the Great Depression.
While non-working women tend to be found at either the top or bottom of the social hierarchy, the idle men are mostly in steerage.
The old Titanic hierarchy was founded on the heavy industry that dominated western economies; indeed Harland and Wolff, which built the ship, was totemic to Ulster Protestant working-class self-respect, and its decline may even have played a part in the Troubles. The rise of service industries has favoured women, since physical strength has no advantage in an office environment but agreeability often does; similarly with the growth of the state sector. Working-class men are the least well-suited to these new forms of employment; well-educated women the most.
The divisions in American politics run along several lines: education, race, urban v rural, and religious v atheist — but the Titanic hierarchy is perhaps as prominent as anything.
Today if you talk to any young white male who feels in some way he’s losing — that he can’t get a well-paid job or girlfriend — he will probably in some way identify as Right-wing, if he is at all political. If he’s American, white and not college-educated, he will most likely vote Republican. This is historically very unusual, but it exists because the realignment in American politics is partly about who has won from the last 50 years, and the biggest losers are working-class men. They have lost in terms of economics, both absolute and relative, and they have lost social status. As their respect and prestige has fallen, so they have moved to the Right, which at first glance doesn’t make sense, until you appreciate that what’s called the Left is really just the post-revolutionary moral establishment.
In contrast, upper-class women have been the big winners of the past 50 years, freed from constraints to enjoy careers and occupying positions of power from which they were once excluded. During that period college-educated women have become by far the most progressive and liberal demographic in America, and women generally are more Left-wing than men. This is a reversal of historic norms — but, again, not that paradoxical if you accept the Left-as-moral-establishment argument.
A modern-day Jack might be a Trump-supporting social untouchable, while Rose would write about social justice and white privilege for an online magazine, having been educated at an elite college where the ratio of Democrat: Republican professors is 250 to 1. As for Caledon Hockley, he would be busy addressing his company’s annual Black History Month Diversity awards where he insincerely talked about structural racism and how his company welcomed people of all genders. He wouldn’t actually care about any of these things, obviously, that’s just what you have do if you’re a powerful, rich and ruthless man in the 21st century, and you want to stay afloat.