“I like dull work”
I had read that Secretary the film was very different from its source material (a short story in Mary Gaitskill’s book Bad Behavior). Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the difference being tone rather than content. Besides a drastically altered ending, everything that happens in text is included almost verbatim. But director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (both credited with “adaptation by” since the result is drastic) deliver it with an absurdist air instead of dramatic severity. Theirs exists in a parallel dimension of exaggeration, farce, and artifice, attributes lending a comedic bent to cut through the taboo of what’s depicted. Rather than facilitate common prejudice—or position the enjoyment one receives as something to be ashamed of on principle—their main goal is to subvert.
The film therefore normalizes BDSM by showing the lifestyle’s power to free those who embrace its proclivities (dominant and submissive alike) so they may escape their sense of psychological and emotional drowning. It’s in stark contrast to Gaitskill’s subdued depiction empowering its submissive with the means to destroy her dominant as a result of his choices (ostensibly giving her the tools to shame him for what she admits to liking) as well as the poor facsimile (fanfic homage) Fifty Shades of Grey and its self-seriousness transforming pleasure through consent into pleasure through abuse. Shainberg’s dominant Edward Grey (James Spader) is just as insecure and full of shame as his submissive, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He isn’t some playboy who believes every woman should bow to his every whim.
Not only does Grey try to curb his predilection for sexual dominance, he hates himself for being “abnormal.” Only upon seeing her enjoyment (a surprise to both) can he confidently progress. But the more she craves it, the more wrong he feels—a key detail because their relationship wouldn’t appear consensual without it. She’d simply be the unsuspecting lamb seemingly without self-respect (see Anastasia Steele). So Grey’s lack of self-worth portrayed through his shyness and rage (the latter always pointing towards himself) allows what occurs to be in Lee’s control. She might be the submissive, but she’s also calling the shots. He gets off on her obedience and she his demands and punishment. Lee provides the circumstances necessary for him to dominate against his socially restrictive “better judgment.”
Grey can only tell her what to do if she gives him reason. So she does whatever’s necessary to ensure he gives her what she wants. This dynamic allows them both to feel whole. And we see how conventional relationships never could by contrast, Lee’s attempts to settle with neighborhood boy Peter (Jeremy Davies) a constant disappointment despite the sheep surrounding them deciding it’s beautiful. They try to enforce their generic boxes upon Lee and Grey, so much so that they cannot even begin to imagine what’s going on between them. They question whether actions are “sexual” in nature, but fail to comprehend how they could. If she stays still for three days waiting for him to release her, it’s a hunger strike. What else could it be?
After all, this is a world in which Lee is sent to a mental hospital to stop her from cutting herself—a result of her adolescent turmoil and the pleasure it delivers. Her father (Stephen McHattie) is a drunk with abusive tendencies, but that type of self-destruction is common. That’s something you “deal with” because alcoholics exist as tragedies rather than pariahs. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition, one made easier to intelligently decipher because of the fairy tale lilt of surreal absurdity. The Edward Scissorhands tone endears the mix of insecure creatures on display so they aren’t rendered unforgivably pathetic. For instance: we laugh at Mrs. Holloway’s (Lesley Ann Warren) neediness instead of pitying her. She becomes a caricature in Lee’s life rather than victim in her own right.
That’s what everyone but Grey is: caricature. Peter is the “nice guy” who simply cannot give Lee what she needs. Mr. Holloway is the mirror with which to compare her outlet and make it a healthier and more appropriate vice (BDSM doesn’t harm others and is no one’s else’s business unlike drug abuse). Mrs. Holloway is the “loving” family member/friend who turns into a cheerleader, hoping positivity will save Lee from the turmoil of what everyone believes was a suicide attempt. And the shocked looks by others (sister, brother-in-law, Grey’s paralegal) all arrive to show the world’s sanctimony, to try and shame Lee into stopping her hedonism. None of that works, of course. On the contrary, that attitude is what forced her to internalize her actions into self-abuse.
Grey exposes her to a life that can save her—and him—in the process. What happens when he gets close to someone? He pushes them away. In his mind the momentary pleasure they receive will inevitably wane. Grey believes someone like his ex Tricia (Jessica Tuck) thinks it’s only momentary for him too, but it’s not. He needs this 24/7, not just as a role-play for special occasions. To admit this unfortunately risks a possible rejection corroborating what he already knows the world thinks is true. If someone proves to him that she needs it 24/7 too, however, perhaps he isn’t a monster. If Lee proves she isn’t afraid to live that lifestyle openly, the shadows coloring their secret with “inappropriateness” disappears. Their actions finally become love.
So while the events taking place appear wrong to your sensibilities, they aren’t. Love in the traditional sense can only happen for them if these other activities do too. Lee revels in the BDSM, it opening her eyes to something that stops her self-destruction in its tracks. So each time Grey retreats inside himself, she’s there to coax him back out. And every step of the way is devoid of sex because that’s neither endgame nor goal. Sex doesn’t play into the dynamic they are cultivating (although it could augment it if they find themselves willing to take that next step). What we see instead are two like souls deathly afraid of what they desire who gradually discover how they may have found someone to quiet their fear.
And the actors buy into the conceit and heightened aesthetic. I admittedly was initially turned off by the humor’s second-hand embarrassment keeping me at arm’s length. But once we start learning about Lee and Grey, we discover they are embarrassed themselves. Gyllenhaal is quick to giggle when asked something sexual or private. Spader is quicker to second-guess himself and act as though he is off-balance before adopting an authoritative tone. They’re as cutely uncertain as any two individuals blossoming into coupledom. The butterflies flutter, the anxiety increases, and both wonder if doing nothing is maybe better than something that risks scaring the other away. It might not be your typical definition of what sweet and caring love is, but Secretary definitely proves a pure depiction of exactly that.