Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader's unconventional romance chronicles a coming-of-age tale by way of a BDSM fantasy.


here are endless ways to show someone how much you love them. You can carry a watermelon, get your memory of them erased, or in the case of Secretary (2002), throw a dead cockroach into a freshly-made marital bed. “Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?” a doctor asks at the film’s end. The beauty of Steven Shainberg’s film lies in the belief that love is not a one-size-fits-all garment.

The film begins in media res: we see Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an emotionally stunted young woman, with her arms outstretched and attached to some sort of sexy medieval stocks. She saunters into an office with sheer stockings and pointed-toe heels, rocking a combination of confidence and sex appeal that becomes power manifest despite her restraints. With excellent posture, she performs her secretarial tasks with ease. The film flashes back to six months in the past where we see a starkly different version of Lee wearing sensible footwear, knee-high purple socks, and an ill-fitting sweater/skirt combo. Despite her towering height, her shoulders are hunched and her arms cling to her sides. She casts her blue eyes upward as if she awaits for someone’s approval. Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who adapted the film from a 1988 Mary Gaitskill short story, illustrate that this is a coming-of-age story by way of a BDSM fantasy.

In what is perhaps a nod to The Graduate (1967), Lee floats in her family pool, ostensibly as a quiet place to think. She hits the same crucifixion pose from earlier in the film, but instead of being locked in restraints, she’s buffeted by floats. Lee moves back in with her parents after a stint in a psychiatric facility for self-harm, and at this earlier stage in her recovery, she needs the womb-like safety of her childhood inflatables. (It’s the only way she feels safe without her arms glued to her sides.) Later on, however, not only does she feel safe with her arms restrained, but she also exudes power through her submission. This is the crux of a true dominant/submissive relationship: it’s the sub who’s in the driver’s seat.

Lee looks to fill a void when she interviews for a secretary position at the law offices of Mr. E. Edward Grey (a perfect James Spader). She’s not quite ready to dive into adulthood without training wheels and clearly craves the hospital’s rigid routine. Outfitted in a bright purple rain slicker cloak, she presents her crumpled-up typing scores to Mr. Grey, only lighting up when she sees that he has an orchid “garden” in his office, done up in the ubiquitous early-aughts amalgamated style of “Eastern spirituality.” The flowers, like Lee, are just as beautiful and worthy of affection as any other, only they require a different style of nurturing. By now, she’s replaced her self-harm kit—a girlish tackle box replete with surgical tools, a pink dart, and a ballerina statuette with a sharpened leg—with more acceptable vices, like smoking cigarettes and an issue of Cosmopolitan. When she closes her eyes to pleasure herself, we see her and Mr. Grey holding each other, fully clothed, as orchids bloom and open up behind them. It would be foolish to ignore the sexual nature of this image, but it also indicates that Lee’s “tiny throat” has opened up so she can come into her own. She might have already been an adult, but she’s finally becoming a grown woman, all because she found someone to love her the way she’s supposed to be loved.

Another entry in the “she’s just like me” weirdo-girl canon, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), also based on a literary work from the ’80s, hit American theaters the same year as Secretary almost as its perfect inverse. Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, an emotionally stunted piano teacher who still lives with her mother well into her late thirties. She also engages in self-harm, and perhaps because she’s older, knows she craves sexual submission, though her desires veer more towards humiliation and pain. Erika finds someone with whom she wants to share her secrets and enact her fantasies. When she opens up to him, she initially faces rejection, then disgust, and finally, the monkey’s paw curls with horrific effect. The sacred lines of consent and understanding become twisted and The Piano Teacher illustrates how fine the line is between BDSM and outright assault.

Where Haneke plumbs these depths, Shainberg presents its flip side. Lee’s self-discovery journey has been accompanied by a pantomime of normalcy. She goes through the motions of a typical adult relationship with Peter, a high school acquaintance. He proposes to her in the break room of the department store where he works, all while she’s been carrying on her secret affair. Mr. Grey soon fires her, and Lee resigns herself to a normal life. One night, while getting fitted in her fiancé’s mom’s wedding dress, she goes runaway-bride mode and jogs all the way to Grey’s office. She’s ready to prove to him that they should be together. In The Piano Teacher, this is the point where things go horribly wrong, but in Secretary, it’s when everything falls into place. Mr. Grey puts her to the final test, not for him, but for her to prove to herself that this is what she really wants. Lee can finally rid herself of her rude, would-be in-laws, along with the man she agreed to marry for the wrong reasons. She bids farewell to unsatisfying pump-and-go sex and strips herself of the normal facade she wears to appease her family. She even soils the wedding dress she was told she was a little too fat to fit in. 

Mr. Grey carries her upstairs, strips her, and bathes her lovingly. He lays her down on a bed of grass like she’s a strange little flower; perhaps he’s the only one who understands her because he’s an odd plant himself. When they get married, Lee’s wedding dress is black, their honeymoon is in the mountains, and like a cat dropping a dead bird at the feet of her owners, she leaves bugs for him in the t bed. When Mr. Grey initially fires Lee, he tells her, “We can’t do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Lee asks “Why not?” It turns out that she’s exactly right.

Secretary is available to stream for free (with ads) on Amazon Prime, Tubi, and PLEX. It's also available to rent or purchase at all the usual VOD outlets.

Soraya Sebghati is the lead singer of Los Angeles based band Night Talks and a freelance film writer. When she's not performing or munching popcorn in the repertory theaters of Los Angeles, she can be found connecting everything to David Lynch on her Substack.

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