Titanic, the most epic love story to grace the big screen, celebrates 20 years this month.
A masterpiece for its time, I saw the film twice in theaters: first on Christmas Day in 1997 (like the good Jew I am), and again during the first week of February, 1998, when schools were closed for a snow storm and my mom wanted some time to kill before my brother’s bar mitzvah lesson. I then got the VHS tape (remember those?) for my birthday that year, and watched it more times than I can remember.
Titanic managed to stay in theaters from the release date on December 19, 1997 through October 1, 1998, raking in $600,788,188 at the domestic box office. One reason to explain the film’s high box office take? The amount of teenage girls that kept going back to see Leonardo DiCaprio on screen. But for me, it wasn’t Leo that had me mesmerized; it was Kate Winslet.
And it wasn’t that I wanted to be with her. I wanted to be her.
Middle school was tough for me in so many ways, and not just because of being a typical shy, awkward teenager. I was struggling with my sexual orientation and gender identity, feeling like I wasn’t in the body I was supposed to be in. Without regular access to the internet (remember the ‘90s?) I had to go to my aunt and uncle’s house or to my dad’s office, if not the library, to do any kind of research into what I was experienced. It was never the ideal place to be searching for terms such as “sex change” or “boy wants to be girl.”
Starting in elementary school, I had dreams in which I was a female. I’d be wearing a cami or tank top. Sometimes I had an older sister. And always I would dream about going through the day, just as a female. The dreams got more frequent as I went through puberty.
Meanwhile, I was crushing on boys and just didn’t want to deal with it. I had no interest in dating at all. I kept to myself and resorted to my own defense mechanisms — especially when my mom kept accusing me of being gay. How could I explain that even though I was attracted to boys, I wasn’t gay?
In the weeks leading up to the release of Titanic, I would have dreams all the time of being Kate Winslet. Not on a boat with Leo posing for a painting — I would just be sitting in class or going to my locker, but instead of “me” it was “me in Kate’s body.”
I couldn’t even put these feelings into words at the time. I was afraid of saying something out loud in my sleep while sharing a bedroom with my brother. And whenever I woke up, I knew something was off, but I couldn’t explain what it was and I didn’t tell anyone.
A lot has changed since then.
With the 20th anniversary here, I recently decided to rewatch Titanic for the first time since watching it on VHS. Now that I’ve come out as transgender, I don’t feel as if I have to live through someone else. There weren’t any dreams featuring me as Kate Winslet. I’m pre-op and I still want my body to look more feminine compared to cis females, but I’ve made so much progress.
When I first watched the film in 1997, I was a shy girl who was still trying to figure things out. Twenty years later, I’m a strong independent woman, working as a film critic, and now just looking for my Leo.