Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Secretary

YEAR: 2002
DIRECTOR: Steven Shainberg
KEY ACTORS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 76%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Rewatchable – it just makes me so happy!
✔️ Definitely want to fuck the cast – it’s James Spader after all!!
✔️ It did inspire fantasies – not so much of BDSM, but of finding love like that…
✔️ And it does pass the Bechdel test. Lee and her mother talk a lot and very little of it is about a man.
❓ But, oh the sex positive question is a difficult one! (Could James Spader be in both 5/5 movies so far?! Is this possibility affecting my decision??) The positive representation of masturbation is so important and, while the messages within the film aren’t without flaws, I really like the main theme that you can be who you want sexually (with consent, obviously) and that’s OK. But does she really consent…? This has to be a half mark (and I don’t care if that’s cheating – my blog, my rules!!)

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Devastatingly, this doesn’t appear to be available for streaming right now (except for a German dubbed version on YouTube) so just buy the DVD already!

[Content warning: discussions of poor consent, mental health and self-harm]

Secretary poster showing a drawing of a woman bending over, wearing tights with a seam up the backI’ve realised that the last few posts here have been more technical than emotional – Eyes Wide Shut examined Kubrick’s possible true purpose; Basic Instinct discussed the Hitchcockian overtones etc – so I wanted to go back to a movie that made me feel, not think. And so it had to be Secretary!

In reverse of When Harry Met Sally, this is a film that initially appears to be all about sex but I would argue that instead, it is one of the greatest love stories ever told. I love this film. I love this film!

Secretary is about Lee, a young woman who has recently been discharged from an inpatient mental health facility. Her exact diagnosis is never discussed but her admission was prompted by a self-harm incident when she cut deeper than was usual for her and couldn’t hide what she’d done. On discharge, she wants to get a job and finds a role as a secretary for a lawyer, Mr E. Edward Grey. As they spend more time together, they develop a D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationship, centred around him disciplining and spanking her for errors at work – errors that are eventually made on purpose – and taking a controlling interest in her life, choosing her meals and encouraging her to dress better. After much soul searching, they realise that this is a lifestyle that makes them both happy and they marry, presumably to live happily ever after!

Lee crawling across the floor with a letter between her teeth

Now before I gush about my love for this film, I need to acknowledge straight away that this isn’t an ideal representation of a BDSM relationship. Although it is perhaps not as dangerous for novices as that portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, Secretary is not blameless when it comes to perpetuating damaging stereotypes about people who enjoy BDSM. As Violet Fawkes described in her movie-themed ‘Food for Thought Friday’ post a few weeks ago, Secretary is problematic because there is a definite ‘conflation between poor mental health and BDSM.’ This is an assumption that the BDSM community works very hard to get away from – the idea that people would only allow themselves to be treated this way because they are damaged, not because they enjoy it.

Violet also correctly states that Mr E. Edward Grey actually isn’t that much better a Dom than the other Mr Grey, describing him as a ‘neurotic, explosive, impulsive and sulky “Dominant”’ who never really gains consent or discusses boundaries with his submissive.’ Mr Grey is very lucky that Lee so clearly enjoys the spanking immediately as he does not ask for consent…ever, until he tries to end their relationship. The consent is all implied because she never says no, and that isn’t good enough. ‘It feels like a BDSM PR nightmare, the sort of skewed message and illustration of deviance that we should be avoiding and trying to mitigate.’ Violet concludes. ‘Is it too much to ask for happy, healthy, responsible BDSM in cinema?’

She definitely has a point! And in a way, Secretary is more dangerous than FSoG as the flaws are more subtle. This Mr Grey doesn’t seem as ridiculous or extravagant as Christian Grey. He’s quietly spoken, he doesn’t make many requests, any encroachment on Lee’s wider life is definitely both consensual and wanted…and yet, he too is ashamed of who he is. He too communicates about BDSM poorly. He too could improve how he obtains consent.

Mr Grey, lying on the floor and looking alarmed

So if it is such a bad advert for BDSM, why do I love it so and why do I still claim it’s even slightly sex positive?

In short, I will always adore this film because of the love story. It’s a perfect love story. Both were broken and ashamed of themselves, and they found they could be happy together. They didn’t have to compromise; they didn’t have to change. They could be themselves – they could be better than themselves together – and I yearned for that.

In the most stereotypical hearts and flowers way, they were made for each other and I loved that it reminded me that even people who feel so broken can find someone who fits with them perfectly. Lee needs the structure and support of Grey’s domination and attention, and he needs the confidence and dependence of her submission. It works. They work. And when she’s with him, Lee walks taller. She dresses better, she doesn’t need to self-harm as she doesn’t feel so out of control, but, importantly, neither are ‘cured’ – they just find support in each other rather than the more destructive methods they used before. As Peter Bradshaw describes in his Guardian review, ‘it proposes a happy ending which does not involve anyone being cured or having their minds changed about whether what they are doing is right. It does not condemn the sub-dom relationship or present it as a metaphor for injustice; actually, it cheekily presents the whole business as counter- cultural domesticity.’ From this point of view, perhaps this film could be a good advert for D/s relationships!

There are two quotes from Lee that I’ll share here that sum this all up better than I can explain it myself:

‘But because he had given me the permission to do this, because he insisted on it, I felt held by him as I walked alone. I felt he was with me. At the same time, I was feeling something was growing in Mr. Grey. An intimate tendril creeping from one of his darker areas, nursed on the feeling that he had discovered something about me.’

‘In one way or another, I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why, exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt, and I’ve found someone to feel with, to play with, to love, in a way that feels right for me. I hope he knows that I can see that he suffers, too. And that I want to love him.’

If I’m honest, Lee’s progression is what I wanted when I started sex blogging. I felt like she looked at the beginning – awkward, uncomfortable, dressed in oversized clothes and never sure of herself or where she fitted in. From a most superficial level, I wanted to be able to wear pencil skirts and silk shirts with pussy bows like she does, but I mainly wondered if I could find that same self-confidence through sex. If I could walk taller with my shoulders straighter if I knew and accepted my desires and needs. Not necessarily through BDSM – I already knew that the specifics of Lee and Mr Grey’s relationship didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as their acceptance of each other. Could I find myself through my own sexual exploration? (Spoiler: I definitely did!)

Lee is standing up, speaking on the telephone, and being encouraged by Mr Grey

There is also an argument that consensual and controlled pain can be beneficial for our mental health, as it seems to be for Lee. Kate Sloan, a fabulous sex blogger, has written about how spanking is often exactly what she needs when her anxiety and depression are out of control: ‘The pain moves my focus from my racing brain into my body, and psychologically it feels like I am being punished for my bad thoughts about myself — like all those doubts and worries and tears are being whacked out of me, one blow at a time.’ Spanking and kink are no substitute for proper therapy and mental health treatment but can be therapeutic for some people, just as running or shopping can be for others – it’s a focused activity that creates pleasure. And it’s not self-harm as it’s not done alone: ‘Good, consensual BDSM is performed with a partner who wants to please you and support you, not destroy you or punish you the way you do to yourself when you self-harm from a depressed headspace.’

This film was also revolutionary for me as it’s one of very few truly positive portrayals of female masturbation. I’d been wanking since I was a teenager but I’d always been slightly ashamed of it. Not enough to stop, but enough to keep it a secret. And yet here’s Lee, wanking in the bath, wanking in the toilets at work, wanking lying on her stomach, which I had never seen before! Showing positive images of female masturbation like this from a female perspective, and not like it is often shown in porn, is so rare and so necessary. How else can we accept that it is normal? I loved seeing how masturbation was just part of how Lee falls for Mr Grey, part of their sexual relationship. And the fact that she was wanking over images that would seem conventionally unerotic to others (‘And…four…peas!’) was frankly life-changing.

Lee is wearing a wedding dress and being held by Mr Grey as he lays her down on a box covered in astroturf

For me, the film is summed up by the song that is played during the final love scene when Mr Grey rescues Lee from her vigil in his office – Chariots Rise by Lizzie West. It’s a song whose lyrics often give me goosebumps anyway and has long been on my regular playlist rotations, but the version in the movie is subtly but importantly different. Rather than saying ‘what a fool am I to fall in love,’ the line was changed to ‘what grace have I to fall in love.’ Because Lee isn’t a fool, and the love that they share isn’t foolish. Ridiculously, even the official movie soundtrack has the original version so I usually have to listen to that but every time I hear the line about being a fool I remember Lee and Mr E. Edward Grey and their perfect love.

Because, ‘who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?’

Next week: Zac and Miri make a porno

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

3 Comments

  1. Love this film, such a great review/retrospective of an overlooked by masterful piece of film making.

    I think you have nailed it when you say it is about love not sex. These two find each other because of the things they enjoy. By chance the two worlds come together and neither can be without the other no matter what.

    I have always considered this to be a world where there isn’t the concept of BDSM. They fall into it without the proper education around consent. So they find their way, making mistakes, not understanding and even hating the needs that well up from within.

    But in the end they come to accept this is part of them, and more importantly the other loves it just as they do.

    A surprisingly complex film. With the added delight that Leslie Ann Warren (Mrs Scarlet from Clue) plays Lee’s mother.

  2. I really love the film, even though I’m not happy about BDSM being conflated with mental illness, either. Like you, I adore the love story of it ?

  3. Absolutely yes to everything you have said here. I LOVE this movie too

    Molly

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