This post was contributed by UTSA Political Science graduate student, Dagoberto Chavez.
The dinner scene from James Cameron’s Titanic well symbolizes the negotiated nature of prestige in the context of social interaction. Jack (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is introduced by Rose (played by Kate Winslet) to her family, friends, and very well-off acquaintances. Immediately, Cal (the pompous fiancé of Jack’s love interest, Rose) asserts his superiority by telling Jack that he “could almost pass for a gentleman,” thus reminding Jack of his low social status both in life and at dinner. Before sitting to eat, Rose begins to “educate” Jack about just who is in their presence in terms of wealth and power. Rose’s embedded culture of the Upper Class is highlighted. Jack, a carefree wandering peasant, is in the presence of high esteemed Royals and Ambassadors. This is further reinforced through dialogue at the dinner table when Cal introduces Jack by stating that he is joining them from the “third class.” This is not only a reference to Jack’s sleeping quarters on the ship, but an unsubtle characterization of Jack’s social status--highlighted again as Jack confusingly looks down at his silverware set and asks whether or not they are ALL meant for him. The scene concludes with a brief conversation about Jack’s living conditions and travel opportunities as Jack describes how he is able to make ends meet while abroad. it is apparent that some at the table disapprove of his way of life, especially through the symbolic representation of Rose’s mother sipping a glass of champagne after making a snarky comment about whether or not Jack finds his “rootless existence appealing.” Here, we see Jack uphold his honor with modesty and feigned upper-class swagger.
Jack’s ability to defend himself while surrounded by upper-class individuals illustrates Cameron’s attempt to frame Jack as the primary protagonist. Jack’s ease in dealing effectively with a challenging social situation suggests the hero’s cool under fire. More importantly for our purposes, Cameron uses this characterization to show that status is not fixed, but negotiated. Although Jack is objectively poor, he maintains his dignity through social negotiation. As a proud, card-carrying member of the working class, Jack never abandons his roots as he admits to his status as third class. In so doing, he asserts himself as an authentic individual in contrast to the pretentious others at the table. He establishes this as an exclusive accolade for those of the lower class.
Dramaturgy & The Titanic
Dramaturgy, a concept developed by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, holds that social life is a never-ending play. Individuals interpret their role on the basis of impression management mechanisms--Social Setting, Appearance, and Manner of Interaction.
Social settings can determine how one acts and reacts to stimuli. This can be conveyed by the type of objects present and how they are set up. Essentially, this will determine role expectations and limitations. For instance, during the dinner scene with Jack, Rose, and her family, the setting is in first class during a very fancy dinner. This is expressed by the type of music playing, draperies and furnishings, and the food being served. Further, the placement of the silverware and the offering of caviar, a prestigious dish, reinforces this mechanism.
According to Goffman, clothing, physical stature, race, and stereotypes are the primary stimulants for appearance. All the men, including the waiters, are wearing tuxedos, an outfit associated with prestige and power. An additional layer of appearance used here can be seen through the use of stereotypes. As Rose introduces Jack to the many prestigious characters around them, she does so through the use of their titles rather than their names alone. It is clearly established that they are in the presence of very important people, indeed Dukes and Senators. Although they only appear in the background for a moment, the viewer is able to see Jack interpret this information through his body language and facial expressions. Hence, the stimuli of stereotypes successfully conveyed to Jack his role and the expectations associated with said role. Additionally, Jack was blatantly instructed to act as if he owned a “goldmine because they love money;” Here, the use of stereotypes is reinforced by the blatant use of admitting how an expectation needs to be met.
+Manner of Interacting
According to Goffman, individuals interact with one another in ways to convey how they want to portray themselves. One way of establishing this is through the use of body language, which is quite apparent in the scene. For example, as Jack, Rose, and others walk throughout the dining area their stature is clearly poised and proper. As Goffman would say, they seem as though they are on a stage acting out a play. Every move is calculated and precise. To say that their interactions are casual suggests the polar opposite of the mood and setting.
Face Work /Interaction Ritual & The Titanic
Virtually in every interaction, a person acts in ways consistent to that of their Line. According to Goffman, Line is everything people say or do to express their perspective of a situation, the others, and themselves via other individuals. Essentially, Line is the judgement of everything and everyone during a social interaction. Individuals set expectations for themselves through the use of statements. Their peer’s will either approve of these statements through praise or deny them through criticism or silence. Further, this Line is always connected with an individual’s face. This is the positive social value people claim for themselves through the use of the Line. Therefore, if one presents a standard through comments, that standard tends to be associated with that individual’s face. This theory adds an additional layer of complexity seen during the dinner scene on the Titanic.
Cal and the other social elites attempt to establish a line of prestige and superiority. As they develop their line by criticizing Jack’s status, they attempt to set their stereotype as one above his (the underclass). They do this by constantly questioning Jack’s “rootless existence” and his ability to “join” them from the 3rd class. They assert themselves and establish their own line by labeling Jack as a lesser human being. However, in actuality they are allowing Jack the opportunity to establish a line critical to theirs. In response to the criticism, Jack establishes a line superior to that of theirs by turning negatives into virtues. Jack identifies his lack of stable living conditions as an opportunity of freedom. Jack’s ability to disassociate this third class condition as a limitation and associate it with the idea of opportunity is compelling. He successfully converts a condition exclusive to the third class and presents it as something unattainable to the upper class. This ultimately sets his Line above those of presumably greater prestige.