I’ve known about this supposed erotic thriller with an intriguing title Secretary for quite some time now. And yet somehow I just didn’t want to watch for some reason. It seemed off and like something I wouldn’t like. And now I know why. First of all, you should know that this is more of a romantic comedy than anything else. Do not let the provocative opening fool you, this is more of a standard-issue love story spiced up with some bondage and pet play. In the opening scene, Maggie Gyllenhaal is wearing a bondage arm rack while doing secretary work and then we go back six months. Quite an effective set up, I will give them that. However, when it comes to explicit sexual content there are only a couple of scenes of that in this movie.
Secondly, this is more Cruel Intentions than it’s Wild Things. And it’s most certainly not Crash, Unfaithful, or Showgirls. But, then again, nothing can be Showgirls. So, the most appropriate comparison is Fifty Shades of Gray. Which is funny because our main character here is also called Mr. Gray. I wonder, I wonder. Secretary is an unconventional love story and as someone who’s really not a fan of those, I had to look deeper to satisfy my urges. Hence the whole rant you’re about to read. This is an easygoing quirky comedy without much tension and two very interesting characters. It does devolve into a melodrama towards the end, almost becoming a telenovela. Ugly Betty comes to mind and don’t ask me how I know that. Without Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stellar performance this would be another forgettable comedy, that’s for sure.
Finally, to answer the question of whether you should see it or not, I think you should. If you find it too tedious or contrived, just go under the story. It’s a double character study, both of the on-screen characters and those who have written the script. I have so many questions about Secretary and how it looks now, twenty years later. These are questions regarding morality, sexual harassment, exploitation, and perception of sexuality. At the risk of sounding like some conservative, I have to say that when it comes to sex there is no abnormal behavior. If we have two consenting adults they can do whatever they like and I approve of all sexual practices. The relationship issue is a much more complex one as toxic relationships are incredibly dangerous.
This being said, I would like to ask you, what do you think about the spanking scene? I know that part of the thrill is that lack of permission and I know there’s been a lot of looks and nods beforehand, but still. How did he know? Was it okay? You see how I keep sounding like a prune. This is everything that’s been happening in the sixties, seventies, and the eighties for fucks sake. Secretaries being sexually harassed at their workplace with the excuse of loving it. And you could say this is somehow them reclaiming their sexual freedom but still. #MeToo did happen and it shone a light at instances like this. Warning, MINOR SPOILERS ahead.
And I haven’t even started talking about the whole acting like a small girl and being really quaint and shy at the beginning of the movie. Then that girl blossoms through the torture of a dominant man. Something about this just rubs me the wrong way. It’s lazy, simplistic, and pretentious. I know that this is a lot to digest but just stay with me on this one. Lee just left a mental institution and she’s emotionally fragile. She gets a job with a guy who likes ordering and basically abusing people and two of them click. This goes to the whole “everybody has their soulmate thing” and “the two of them are perfect for each other”. I know that this is becoming a real trial but I’m trying to be impartial here. I’m going to allow it.
And this whole mental institution angle bothers me also. I get why you need it in the story, to remove this person from the “normal society” and basically condemn the whole sadomasochistic thing as deviant. And then normalize it. But this transition from a serious issue like cutting is to a sexual quirk is also troubling. It all feels like a feverish mix of emotions without any coherent storytelling. And there doesn’t have to be any, just to be clear. Movies are all about this exploration and perhaps I’m trying so hard to condemn it and treat it like a moral guideline when it clearly isn’t. It’s all a made-up story and there’s no need to get all worked up about it. But I can’t help it. This is something I’ve criticized other people for doing, for looking at a movie as an educational video.
The basic story of the Secretary is based on a simplistic powerful man and submissive woman template. Throw in some daddy issues, what with Lee’s father being an alcoholic and you got yourself quite a tedious story. I bet they started with it and then worked their way back, trying to make it work. And the ending is just, I don’t know. She became a sex toy for this wealthy lawyer, staying at home while he’s working, basically defining her personality through him. It’s a luxury that a working-class girl could not afford and I find it not cute but degrading. But then again, there’s the whole if it floats your boat thing. But still, I think that first comes the enlightenment and then comes the decision to do that. And she’s missing the enlightenment part.
Now, I know I went out of my way to talk about the plot of this movie and analyze the shit out of it. This is because I found it pretty boring and was more interested in the meaning behind the events that were unfolding. We need to talk about these things and if that means that I have to watch this movie, I will satandammit. I wonder what do you think, let me know down in the comments sextion, I mean section.
Director: Steven Shainberg
Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson, Mary Gaitskill, Steven Shainberg
Cast: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie, Jessica Tuck
Fun Facts: Gwyneth Paltrow was originally cast in the role of Lee Holloway.