When it was released in 2002, Secretary was widely praised for its subversive, liberal themes, incisive writing, and sharp performances. Directed by Steven Shainberg, the film launched Maggie Gyllenhaal to movie-star status, and revived the career of costar James Spader, who’d been wallowing since his glory days as John Hughes’ high school playboy. While the writing is good, Gyllenhaal is subtle and vulnerable as Lee, Secretary goes too far—or does not go far enough—in its attempt to portray BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) as the focal point of a love story.
At the beginning of Secretary, Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental institution where she was treated for self-injury (SI). Once she’s back home, Lee is quickly back to her old ways, sneaking into her childhood bedroom to reunite with her glittery stickered tool box of razors, pen knives, and letter openers. Her father is an alcoholic, her mother powerless. (Lesley Ann Warren plays Lee’s mother, and the character is bizarrely named Joan Holloway, like the Mad Men secretary). To escape her monumentally depressing family, Lee takes a job as a secretary at the offices of Peter Grey (Spader) attorney at law.
Grey’s office is a ‘70s LSD trip featuring gold-lamé wallpaper, purple shag carpet, and dozens of rare orchids. Lee is preternaturally shy and insecure, and she’s only hired because she can type freakishly fast. Grey is cold and perfunctory, but almost immediately, Lee wants to please him. Their dominant submissive dynamic establishes itself minutes into their first meeting. Grey orders Lee to perform menial tasks during the interview (like replacing the too-heavy-for-her water cooler) and she eagerly does her best.
Soon, though, their relationship becomes something more. It all starts when Grey spanks Lee for the first time, after she’s made a typo in an important letter. Almost immediately, the two recognize one another as the yin and yang of a BDSM relationship. Lee thrives off of Grey’s direction. She stops hurting herself (easily and quickly, and just because she promises Grey) and acquires adult agency: talking back to her parents and even dating another loser-boy, Peter (Jeremy Davies). Secretary depicts a classic coming-of-age arc, a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality, independence, and true self. However, the film simplifies SI and BDSM in ways that are potentially harmful and also very weird.
In post-modern, nothing-shocks-us-anymore America, few would argue that there’s anything wrong with BDSM in the context of two adults in a consenting relationship. Secretary takes great pains to show us that Lee grows emotionally, that being a submissive frees her, and that she and Peter truly love one another. These assertions, particularly the latter, feel false.
Lee and Peter just don’t succeed in making us believe they’re in love. The film simply replaces Lee’s SI with her BDSM relationship with Grey. Equating the two is misleading and unrealistic. Lee’s SI tendencies may have nothing to do with her BDSM affiliation, but the film renders the two interchangeable, and they’re just not. Secretary doesn’t quite draw this corollary, but it simplifies Lee’s problems to the point of making them two-dimensional. Lee stops SI only because Peter tells her to, and only after he allows her the agency can she make decisions for herself. Lee’s behavior comes across as childlike and somewhat stunted, especially before, but also after Peter starts smacking her.
Spader’s performance can feel one note and generally odd. We see little variation in Grey—a few close ups are meant to convey sensitivity and depth, but for 95 percent of the movie, he’s a one-dimensional, screwed up, lonely dude. Gyllenhaal’s Lee is a more nuanced character, but attempts to portray the conventional aspects of their love are strange and unconvincing: Peter washes Lee’s hair at his house, where he apparently has a huge free standing steel bathtub. He worships her naked body in the accepted way (caressing, kissing) and they get married. Lee tells us “for the first time in my life I felt beautiful. Part of the earth.” The fact of Lee saying this does not make it true. The film’s retreat into the trappings of a more traditional love story at the end is jarring and unpersuasive.
The best part of Secretary occurs before the love crescendo of the movie. It’s a short and sweet montage of various blind dates Lee finds by responding to ads for submissives in the newspaper. It’s funny, and handles BDSM with a defter touch than elsewhere in the film. There’s a guy who wants Lee to pee on his patio, the balding computer geek who tries to pinch her nipples on the way to his car, and one masochist who wants to be chained to a fast-food range while she pelts him with tomatoes. This sequence succeeds because it’s amusing and resides firmly in the realm of satire.
In Lee’s newspaper-dating montage we are freed from: 1. James Spader being boring, and 2. Secretary’s own assumption that SI and BDSM are two sides of the same coin. For a movie that wants to depict fringe, alternative material, Secretary is surprisingly didactic when drawing emotional conclusions for us. Marriage ultimately validates Lee and Grey’s sexual relationship (and proves that they “love” each other), as easily as Lee’s SI is halted when Grey commanded her not to do so anymore.
In voice over at the end of the movie, Lee tells the audience again and again that she’s just fine, she’s happy; she has a marriage that allows her to express her submissive self. Still, Lee and Grey’s relationship is too pat, too neatly packaged for us at the end, instead of realistically messy and indeterminate. The film ends with a shot of Lee looking straight into the camera. She’s daring us to call her bluff, taunting us with the veneer of having figured things out.