Kinky Film Series in Review: Secretary, an alternative to Fifty Shades
“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”
Truer words were never spoken. This is just one of the memorable quotes from our kinky film of the week. This week we will take a look at the sado-masochistic office romance portrayed in the 2002 film Secretary, adapted from the short story in Mary Gaitskill’s 1988 book Bad Behavior.
The film, directed by Steven Shainberg, follows Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young woman who comes from a neurotic family and suffers from an illness of self-mutilation, and Mr. E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a lawyer who is in no way related to Christian from the kinky 2015 film the title of which shall not be mentioned in this article.
After being released from treatment at a mental hospital for cutting and burning herself, Lee takes typing classes and looks for work while under the care of her overprotective mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie). She interviews with Mr. Grey and becomes his secretary (no surprises there).
Mr. Grey is dominant and obsessive and Lee is incredibly submissive. When Lee’s work falls short of perfection, Mr. Grey punishes her to correct her mistakes. Lee is intrigued by Mr. Grey and begins to desire him over her recently acquired boyfriend, Peter (Jeremy Davies). She craves his punishments and as a result purposefully makes mistakes so that Mr. Grey will call her into his office to discipline her. Mr. Grey catches wind of Lee’s antics and decides to call the relationship off by firing her. After realizing what it is that she is attracted to, Lee is determined to win Mr. Grey back.
As with any mainstream film about kink or BDSM, there will be problematic characteristics and Secretary was no exception.
The most blatant issue in the film is the sexual harassment behavior coupled with the power dynamic between a boss and subordinate that is somehow neutralized by their loving relationship. This aside, the protagonist, Lee, portrays the female submissive as an unstable woman who has a Freudian desire for a strong male figure because of her own “daddy issues.” As a result, the film continues to perpetuate stereotypes regarding the female submissive; reinforcing the male dominance and female submission roles in job situations where women are maids, nurses and secretaries, which is sub-par (no pun intended).
That being said, I think that the film also depicts the female submissive character as strong-willed and not just a sitting duck.
“Lee starts ‘topping from the bottom’ by deliberately making typing mistakes so that her dominant will ‘punish’ her some more,” Catherine Scott said in an article published by Bitch Magazine.
Lee creates a power exchange with her dominant, making her less of a “submissive” and more of a “switch:” someone who likes being dominant and submissive.
In this way, Lee becomes her own version of a powerful woman by learning about what she likes about being a submissive and getting what she wants when she wants it. Most importantly, she is not a victim.
Scott adds that this relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey “implies a constant flow of power between two partners, rather than a black-and-white ‘conquer/surrender’ model. It also reminds us that there’s a lot more to BDSM than just dominants on top, submissives on the bottom and no switchies.”
Overall, the film avoids being overly porn-y by casting Gyllenhaal as the protagonist and dressing her in conservative, office-appropriate clothing. The nudity and sex scenes are tastefully done and sprinkled with dark humour, which makes them all the more appealing.
At the end of the day, it’s a nice change of pace to see a popular film where ‘deviant’ sex practices are celebrated and not punished.