It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.
Secretary contains references to self-injury. If you are injuring yourself, please reach out for help. If you have thoughts of harming yourself, please reach out for help. Self-injury can be a sign of larger issues that need to be addressed. Talk to someone you trust — such as a friend, loved one, doctor, spiritual leader, school counselor, nurse or teacher — who can help you take the first steps toward successful treatment. Through them, you can find supportive, caring and nonjudgmental help. You can also visit resources like https://www.crisistextline.org or internet support groups for more information.
Writing about Secretary is hard.
For one, not a lot of movies treat the subject matter with honesty and fairness, and those that do are seldom ones that attain commercial success. Blockbusters like the Fifty Shades franchise on the other hand, are popular, but they either momentarily dip their toes into the allegedly “salacious” material or, in the case of Fifty Shades, are routinely lambasted by members of the real-world community for inaccurate — and thus unsafe — portrayals.
Of course, writing about a movie like Secretary is also hard because Americans have a noisome attitude towards sex. That’s just not something we talk about. In fact, we don’t talk about it so much, we don’t even talk about how much we don’t talk about it. We’ll set rules about politics and religion at the kitchen table, but we won’t even mention that we don’t talk about what might happen on the kitchen floor. It’s meta-verboten. Inceptiboten! Heck, we’re 200 words into this article and I’ve already used “subject matter,” “mentioned community” and “allegedly salacious” instead of being direct.
Let’s be thankful. Books, movies and media in generalare ways to get us talking about hard things. We can talk about war and its ethics by watching everything from Saving Private Ryan to The Lord of the Rings. We can talk about death and grief from Up to Dead Poets Society. The incursion of technology from Minority Report to Witness. Music. Drugs. God. Climate change. Innocence. Friendship. Revenge. Forgiveness. Identity. All of these. More.
And, yes: Sex.
When ideas and entertainment are so intertwined, how do we split where a movie review ends and a soapbox manifesto on sex positivity begins?
We probably don’t.
What Secretary does well and where it falters are inextricably linked to how we view relationships and what is important to us in them. We bring our own thoughts and experiences everywhere, especially the movies. It’s why some of us love horror movies and some of us hate science-fiction. No matter how well-executed the content is, if it doesn’t speak to us in some way, it receives no quarter. The faltering there is sometimes seen in the mere existence, but such a view doesn’t make for a very enticing interpretation.
What’s worth focusing on in Secretary is why it strikes the chord it does with its audience and where it could strike that chord better. Although nearing two decades since its release, Secretary will still likely be near the top in recommendations from real-world practitioners of BDSM. The staying power is driven by the script that treats E. Edward Grey (played by James Spader) and Lee Holloway (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) as equals and Gyllenhaal’s choices to take Spader’s intensity, flip it and match it. Secretary also succeeds because, although one takes from the DVD commentary that director Steven Shainberg fell ass-backwards into a good movie, it is unwavering in its vision to treat Edward and Lee’s relationship as a legitimate one. That vision allowed Shainberg to accept ideas from screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and others — proving once again that leading can mean just stepping out of the way. And while some of those ideas miss their mark, missing a bullseye and missing the dartboard completely are two different things.
As Secretary begins, Lee has just recently been released from a recovery facility after a self-injury incident accidentally goes too far. Self-injury specifically, and mental health in general, have unfortunately been a trope in BDSM media for far too long. In 1967’s Belle du Jour, Séverine is haunted by a childhood assault. In 1974’s The Night Porter, Lucia was formerly interred in a concentration camp. In 2001’s The Piano Teacher, Erika’s sexual proclivities are treated as an outcome of her loneliness and general psychological well-being. And, of course, in the Fifty Shades trilogy (2016-2018), Christian’s behavior is tied to childhood abuse.
The inspiration for Secretary’s plot was pulled from a short story of the same name by Mary Gaitskill, and it does not feature the same choices. Gaitskill is an award-winning short-story writer, and “Secretary” does not suffer from the omission of such character development. As we head deeper into the second decade of the 21st century — a chaotic time but one buttressed by genuine sincerity and human interaction — we simply demand more from our creators. Trauma is not a personality trait, and using it as a shortcut is plainly lazy writing that also diminishes what’s real. In this case, such decisions perpetuate the notion that any behavior deviating from the accepted norm must be rooted in some psychological baggage. That makes much as sense treating every person who rides a rollercoaster as a deviant with a death wish.
Secretary can probably be forgiven to an extent for treading along a beaten path if only because I think Shainberg and Wilson couldn’t get out of the pervasive shortcuts baked into our societal consciousness. For what it’s worth, their portrayal of Lee’s habit of self-injury is treated with kindness and accuracy. It’s not sensationalized, treated as a primary obstacle or even returned to outside of a sentimental shortcut to get Edward and Lee started on their joint path.
Shainberg also mentions a desire for Secretary to be in the same vein as 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette, which depicted a relationship between two men as a relationship instead of an excuse for titillation. “Something which is perceived as odd or crazy or weird or underground or dark actually isn’t,” Shainberg says. “It was actually just part of ordinary life.” He recalls talking to people about the movie. They would tell him, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then, at the end of the movie, she rejects this life and needs to get over this problem.” Secretary takes the position that our sexual preferences are often not problems that we need to move beyond. And even if the plot structure is banal, simply attempting to show that two people can grow in a less-conventional relationship — and, as a result, could aid themselves in ameliorating other problems — is worthwhile.
There is no doubt that Secretary focuses on Lee attempting to find that definition of herself. Gyllenhaal’s interpretation of Lee was of someone trying to find herself “in all ways.” Ultimately, she says, “sexuality is an incredibly powerful path to take to do that.” Lee is a character that Gyllenhaal literally unfolds through the film. At the beginning, the actress visually makes Lee as small as she can, hiding her in physical space, hunching her shoulders and shrinking within her outfits. Spader’s interpretation of Edward as a shy, particular, shame-filled man working to lift himself out of that shame gives him a quiet, rubberband-at-full-tension energy. It all helps Lee and Edward become equals and foils for each other.
Spader and Gyllenhaal’s choices show their strong analytical skills, and their chemistry is undeniable. In interviews, Gyllenhaal talks about being able to hook into some actors, Spader being an easy peer. She often describes her take on Lee as coming to Spader with openness and energy, always trying to match his power.
That concept of matching power is interesting. How do we define shyness and confidence, especially in relation to power? How do you differentiate between shyness, anxiety, aloofness or simply playing the role? At first blush, Edward the lawyer is the epitome of conviction and Lee is literally a sniveling underling. One particular scene showcases what lies beneath the surface and that these characters resist easy definitions, and power manifests itself in several ways.
One day, Edward calls Lee into his office, having seen her the previous night with her boyfriend, Peter (who, in many regards, echoes the negative trait Edward has of assuming and not communicating). Grey has seen Lee in a more natural environment, where she is more naturally herself. He mimics the telephone ringing and they practice her answering with confidence (an exercise in which she succeeds).
That’s the thing about Lee. There is a robust confidence there weighed down by outside circumstances and not allowed to blossom. She is out on the dance floor being goofy at her sister’s wedding. She takes great pride in getting high marks in her typing class. She gets excited about asking for a job and practices interviewing in the mirror. When going through the want ads, she circles one asking for people who want to be a leader. She is so content at being hired and knows she can do this job well. Is Lee actually shy or without confidence? Sure, she’d be described as that by others. But I’d argue she is learning how to exercise power. It does exist! It’s a question of skill in demonstration rather than mere personality. While on the nose, it also becomes obvious why Edward is shown caring tenderly for orchids.
Edward claims to be shy, and I think that’s accurate. When his ex appears, he hides in a closet and tells Lee to say he’s not there. He has an inability to accept who he is as a person and often uses exercise to distract himself, physically running from who he is. But he is able to demonstrate a socially acceptable version of confidence even if, in many ways, he’s powerless. Despite Edward’s flaws, and some of them are doozies, he is, at his base, a tender person incapable of even setting mousetraps that kill.
Lee has tempered survival in various, albeit sometimes sentimental, crucibles, but she is someone who doesn’t crumble under pressure. Edward is.
The aforementioned conversation in Edward’s office continues. Gyllenhaal often chooses to look away from other characters, especially in defensive situations. Paying attention to when she chooses to maintain eye contact is extremely helpful in analyzing Lee as a character. When Edward claims shyness, she holds his face with her eyes and firmly states, “I don’t think you’re shy.” It’s a peek into that confidence bubbling beneath her surface. It calls back to their interview where Edward desperately tries to make the job sound boring. Gyllenhaal hardly blinks as she continually reiterates her interest.
While the “shy” scene eventually culminates into a discussion about Lee’s self-injury and is used as an entrance point into commands and obedience — and while this does reinforce some inaccuracies about psychology and BDSM, primarily that someone or something can miraculously fix trauma — I do basically like the introduction of submission in this scene combined with Lee’s quiet confidence. Submissiveness in BDSM isn’t about weakness or shyness. It demands a knowledge of one’s self, which is precisely the thing Lee’s character is developing. By the end of the film, Lee doesn’t submit to anyone but herself. In fact, she often goads Edward into action, and some would likely describe her as a brat. Comparing who Lee was to who Lee becomes turns Secretary into a fascinating character study. The plot smacks sometimes of characters “rescuing” one another, but it does land some punches on the individual protagonists.
One of the more major hitches, though, during Edward and Lee’s adventures is that Edward imposes himself on Lee without communication. This is fine in established relationships that have communicated boundaries. This is fine in fantasy. And movies are fantasy. But anything that nudges towards realism can give audience members the idea of what’s healthy or not. Viewing a workplace relationship, which brings real-life power dynamics into the fray, still feels a little gross without any solid communication. Movies like 9 ½ Weeks and, again, Fifty Shades, don’t get recommended often from kinksters because, in addition to inaccuracies, they feature physically or emotionally abusive relationships that appear tantalizing but are, at their heart, nonconsensual acts that lack established communication about where the individuals are comfortable.
Grey’s actions often venture off the pathway of “safe, sane and consensual,” including the pinnacle scene of the movie where he spanks Lee over his desk for typos. Please. For the love of god, don’t ever bring someone into your kinks without their consent. Don’t do anything to someone without knowing explicitly that they want that act to be done. And don’t bring other people into your relationship without their knowledge.
In these regards, Peter and Edward are foils for each other. Peter is seemingly hellbent on getting Lee to marry him without establishing a solid foundation for their relationship. Edward is too quiet on his personal baggage and, more importantly, getting explicit consent from Lee. He is too often unduly harsh and likely reminds us of many people who are incapable of communicating about their emotional lives and desires. The two men Lee associates with are alike in more ways than not. Both do try to make a connection, but both demonstrate some feelings of entitlement toward Lee that are not deserved.
But where Lee and Peter never communicate explicitly to one another — Lee, at one point, physically positions herself and Peter’s hand in order to get him to spank her, but never tells him what she wants — she and Edward do continue to improve on their communication. As their relationship faces its final set of obstacles, Lee cries out “Time out!” It’s not to stop a sexual act but to start a genuine conversation. Edward replies, “You have to go or I won’t stop.” Lee says, “Don’t [stop].”
There are missteps in Secretary, and unfortunately they are missteps endemic to most people’s understanding of what BDSM actually looks like for the people who practice it. Toward the end of the film, Edward says, “We can’t do this 24/7.” to which Lee responds in an exercise of her power, “Why not?” It may come as a surprise to some, but even 24/7 dynamics still need to make time for paying the bills and seeing the kids off to school. It’s almost captured by Lee as the film closes: “All our activities melted into an everyday sort of life until we looked like any other couple you’d see.”
As we see, however, while there are some missteps, there’s still a soft genuineness to Secretary and some serious growth to its characters. The film is often billed as a comedy, and it is one. It’s got a dry sense of humor sprinkled with a little absurdity, which accents it as a tremendous vehicle for a character study. Some comedians seem to decry comedy’s evolution as it has moved towards the genuine, but Secretary is a prime example that we can still be funny, sometimes about very serious things, without denigrating the human experience. To treat the human experience as a natural process seems radical at times, but it is truthful. Even though it is inaccurate at times, Secretary has more success with showcasing a segment of what it means to be human than not.
Though flawed, in the desert that is BDSM cinema, it is a welcome oasis.