When Secretary was released in 2002 I was immediately intrigued (because the idea of being someone’s secretary greatly appealed).
I remember liking it immensely upon first viewing, though for the life of me I can’t recall if it was in a cinema or on DVD. I do remember renting the DVD from Netflix and watching it a couple times in a row plus once with the commentary track.
This is one of many indicators of my pageism to which I was oblivious for years.
Initial thoughts were swoony ‘why can’t I have a dominant boss to organise and fetch for who will spank me? Life just isn’t fair! Hmph.’
I re-watched after my revelation about pageism being on the D/s spectrum and having learned a bit about BDSM and D/s.
This review will be a recap of the film including my original thoughts, current thoughts from a sub’s point of view and some notes from the commentary of the DVD.
[Commentary notes are in brackets and is provided by the screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Steven Shainberg, who also helped Wilson to adapt Mary Gaitskill’s short story of the same name.]
—My original and current thoughts will be between emdashes.—
Needless to say, spoilers ahoy, Ahab.
This is also an extremely long post, as it’s a recap with commentary and so on (I do break it up with images and gifs from the film so it’s not the Great Wall o’Text) but so it doesn’t take over the front page I’m putting it behind this fancy break.
We open with Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in a spreader bar and collar going about her secretarial duties to a sexy soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti (previously known for his work on Twin Peaks), slinking her way through an elegant office I would Domme fifty men to work in and up a hallway. She pauses just through a door and shuts it with her foot.
Six months earlier…
Lee pulls up her socks, which are in chunky shoes—the polar opposite of the stilettos of the previous scene. Also the polar opposite is the 60s cartoon music announcing her mother’s (Lesley Ann Warren) arrival (in a truly hideous station wagon) to collect her from the mental hospital where she’s happily been a resident. She was sad to leave because they told her what to do at all times. Lee likes being told what to do because she is a submissive.
It was her sister’s wedding, fortunately, and that gave her the opportunity to dance like an awkward person. Because Lee Holloway is the embodiment of awkward. And not in that, ‘Oh, I tripped!’ way Hollywood generally uses to show a woman is awkward, but in a real, painful-to-watch way.
We’re introduced to Peter (Jeremy Davies) (also awkward—there’s only one non-awkward person in this film and she’s only in it for about five seconds). Peter is someone Lee knew from high school.
Lee’s father (Stephen McHattie) stumbles over and we learn he’s an alcoholic who told her he’d stopped drinking but lied, unlike all other alcoholics who are completely honest and can stop at any time. Unable to deal with this stress, she goes inside to her room, which is disturbingly girly and we’re introduced to Barbie’s Deluxe Cutting Kit [which was designed by a person named Amy Danger], the winner of Best Name Ever. The time in the hospital clearly gave Lee the tools to handle stress because she’s been out roughly four hours—it’s still daylight the same day—and she’s already back at it.
Our girl is sharpening the foot of a ballerina from a music box when she’s distracted by the sounds of happiness outside and holds off.
Pain can only be put off so long, however, and later that evening, she hears her parents fighting—and she takes the recently boiled kettle to her room where she burns the inside of her leg. That scene never gets easier to watch.
Lee is then in a typing class—on typewriters—where an instructor with the personality of Ben Stein gives them instruction on the correct way to type.
Miss Holloway is a typing machine.
Flashback to how Lee wound up in the totally effective hospital, where we learn she’s been cutting herself since she was twelve. Her trigger is her parents fighting or raised voices. Or asshole fathers.
Back in the present day, as she’s coming downstairs to throw her Barbie Cutting Kit and Travel Self Harm Kit in the rubbish we see her mother locking away the sharp implements with a bright pink cable. The props people must have enjoyed the hell out of themselves. Her home life was designed by John Waters and her work life is…someone classy. I don’t know. Not John Waters.
Lee pushes her carefully curated sharps into the bin then reconsiders and retrieves them. And good thing, because just under them is the Help Wanted section. She brings all three inside and circles ads that appeal. The first one is: Be a Leader (no, darling, you’re a submissive, that will never work).
She practises what she’ll say in a mirror and is highly amused by this speech. Teehee, I’m awkward and cute. [This is done because the original script has the actual interviews but needed to be slimmed down.] Then she sees an ad for… ‘Secretary…’ she whispers it like it’s a holy word.
— The first time I saw this I identified with Lee seeing the ad in the paper and whispering gleefully, ‘Secretary.’ As though it was her dream job, because, as a natural submissive, whether she knew it yet or not, it was. I’ve always fancied myself as someone’s indispensible right hand. No pun intended.—
Then she’s walking up the drive in a downpour, wearing a little red riding hood type cape—they missed a chance for it to be red, as it’s purple, which complements the office, but she’s walking into the Big Bad (Awkward) Wolf’s lair, so it should be red. [Which was in the script, but the cinematographer said purple was the colour of a bruise and a juvenile colour that little girl’s love. So at least I was on the same page as the screenwriter.]
The office is a wreck and the previous secretary is crying and leaving with her personal effects in a box.
Lee marches into the lawyer’s office and presents her typing scores awkwardly. He asks her the most illegal questions possible except, ‘Do you do anal?’ He asks for a cup of coffee and, while she’s gone, he swipes a row of red Sharpie pens into a wastebasket and looks at a photo of the person who will turn out to be the one non-awkward character.
When she returns with his coffee there’s an exchange where Mr E. Edward Grey (James Spader) tells her that because [in a mug that says ‘I’m the boss’] she’s overqualified, she’d be bored to death and she says, ‘I want to be bored,’ like it was something she yearned for.
After more conversation where he tries to talk her out of taking the job he mentions that they only use typewriters. This is the first indication that this film is obsessed with outdated technology.
—Lee has a walkman. The have an intercom system Gorbachev would have been comfortable with. The phones are pea-green Bakelite deals that could be used at blunt objects, given the need. The pencil sharpeners are even manual. As a friend of mine said, ‘This movie is a hipster.’—
Mr Grey then says, ‘It’s very dull work.’
‘I like dull work.’ Oh, Lee, how I understand you. “If you are my Domme I will do all of your dull office work forever.”
[Wilson: Isn’t there something erotic about dullness?
Shainberg: Yes but I think you have to talk for 45 minutes to capture exactly what.’
There’s something wrong with me, because I’d listen to all 45 minutes.]
Mr Grey then goes on to say. ‘There’s something about you. You’re closed tight. A wall.’
She says, ‘I know.’
‘Do you ever loosen up?’
‘I don’t know.’
—I have never more fully identified with a character in a film in my life. The first time I watched this I didn’t know where this film was going, but I knew I was Lee Holloway.—
He hires her right then.
That evening in the bath, after throwing away a snowball with glitter in it (a metaphor for beginning to become a woman?) she practises answering the phone and being amused by being able to use the word ‘we’. And the word ‘secretary’.
After Lee gets the job we see her following Mr Grey around, organising files and being told she’s doing a good job (my pageist heart flutters at the thought). [This montage was trimmed down but I’d love to see the full thing. There should be a pageist cut of this film with more typing and filing.]
She sees him caring for his orchids and is touched. He has the ability to care for something delicate.
She brings him food. He mentions having accidentally thrown out some client files and, as she’s naturally subservient to him—she suggests the idea of going through the rubbish bin. He happily humiliates her in this way, impressed she offered. He dismisses her efforts when she reappears with papers that, frankly, look like they should be quarantined and purified with fire.
This is not an easy process for him, either, as we see him exercising intensely. He clearly doesn’t want to go down this road.
Once she clambers out of the garbage bin she sees her mother, who’s waiting in the car to take her home…in five hours. Awkward mother is awkward.
Mr Grey then overloads Lee with things to do, perhaps in an effort to break her spirit or see if she will disobey. Instead, he discovers a cut on the back of her leg.
Lee is then being harrassed on the phone by a solicitor when Mr Grey’s (non-awkward) ex arrives (Jessica Tuck). She calls Lee, ‘Submissive,’ and shouts for ‘EDWARD!’ in a truly ball-shrinking tone. I don’t even have testicles and mine retracted a few inches. Mr Grey hides in his cupboard until she leaves, but not until after vehemently wiping her shoes on his coat and saying to tell him to sign the settlement.
—The only way this film could be more perfect would be if this woman was the boss rather than Spader. If that were the way things went I’d never watch another film and I’d have the right forearm of Popeye.—
[I interpreted the character as being his ex, as most people do, as did Shainberg, the director. The writer says she thinks it’s his former secretary who becomes a dominant then a lawyer. I like that better.]
Lee has a disturbing conversation with her father and pulls out her Travel Bag of Self-Harm. Mr Grey pokes his head around the door in time to see her just about to cut and she mechanically puts her things away.
That night Lee is on a date (at a laundrette—where do YOU go on dates?) with Drippy Peter.
Mr Grey drops off his clothes and sees said date and what must be the dorkiest kiss in all of filmdom.
He then goes out to his car and gets his fetish item—a red pen—out of the glove box and puts it on the seat, which is beautifully lit by moonlight.
Office supplies as a fetish item. Be still my pageist heart.
The next day he begins using the red pen liberally—showing Lee every mistake she’s been making. Finally calling her on various problems he’s had with her.
[Wilson: This was the section written by my mother. I said I needed sadistic things to be said and they just came pouring out of her mouth.]
Lee goes to dinner at Peter’s tragically Middle American house, where it is intimated that his parents would like her to marry him in a few months. Lee is less than thrilled with this idea, but says nothing. Ah, submissives.
At work the following day Mr Grey tries to get Lee to answer the phone like an adult. He then asks her if she had a date the previous evening. He asks if they had sex and she giggles. And he says, ‘No?’ to this in a charmingly innocent way.
He wants her to open up to him about her problems. To talk about the sewing kit. He offers her hot chocolate, which he’s already prepared, taking care of her already.
And they have this conversation:
Mr Grey: ‘Why do you cut yourself, Lee?’
Lee: ‘I don’t know.’
Mr Grey: ‘Is it that sometimes the pain inside has to come to the surface and when you see evidence of the pain inside you finally know you’re really here? Then, when you watch the wound heal, it’s comforting…isn’t it?
Lee: I… That’s a way to put it.
He then tells her she is never going to cut herself again.
He tells her she’s a grown woman and that her mother doesn’t need to pick her up every day—and that she’s going to walk home, through the park.
‘Because you require relief. Because you won’t be doing that anymore, will you?’
She says resolutely, ‘No, sir.’
He takes a Polaroid of her, of the new self that she’s just become—of the person he’s just made her. A person who doesn’t cut herself and she leaves work early.
—There is some psychological working-out of things on his part where he figures out that Lee Holloway needs physical pain to deal with emotional pain.—
—He genuinely cares about her, which is why he uses her natural submission to him to make her stop self harming.—
After going out to her mother and telling her to go home she says:
‘I took a short cut through Hawkins Park and it was as if I had never taken a walk by myself before. And when I thought about it I realised I probably never had taken a walk alone, but because he had given me the permission to do this. Because he had insisted I do it. I felt held by him as I walked along. I felt he was with me. At the same time I was feeling something 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.’
[The producers got a permit for the wrong park so they had to distract the police while they got a couple of takes. Whoops. Always check your permits, kids.]
The following day she leaves her Travel Self Harm Kit at home. She makes a typing error and, after Mr Grey rather harshly calls her on it, one of her other irritating habits comes out.
Mr Grey calls Lee into his office and then, with all the passion of a court reporter, instructs her to bend over his desk and read the letter containing the typo. He then proceeds to spank her as she reads through the letter twice. At the end, their fingers touch—her pinky and his thumb. [This was an accident that happened in rehearsal, but it’s almost like aftercare.]
After ignoring her when she originally brings the perfect version of the letter he comes by when she’s using the copier (the one piece of modern technology in the building) and says, ‘Good letter.’ And she responds like he’s called her the most gorgeous woman alive.
—I completely understand this. If I were a service-oriented sub to a Domme and she said, ‘Good letter,’ I’d probably pass out.—
That night, Lee informs her mother that the lock can come off the knife cabinet. She has an entirely new way to get her kicks now. She doesn’t tell her mother that, though.
Then there’s a montage of Lee in restraints going about her job (the bit from the beginning), and one of my personal favs—eating a mint out of Mr Grey’s hand then taking notes on what she needs to do around the office. Delivering the post on hands and knees. [That was Gyllenhaal’s favourite bit to film, apparently and she went all the way to his office to deliver the post.] Telling him what’s for dinner at her house and being told what she’s allowed to have. Then having those specks of food with great relish, before the horrified and bemused gazes of her family. Him dressing her as a horse. [Which was a Helmut Newton homage minus the carrot.]
—Before my revelation (BR) I didn’t understand the parts where she was so enraptured by eating exactly what he told her to or when he told her she was a grown up and to walk home.
I get it now. For the reasons she explains about the park. It’s like the Domimant is with you—is giving you permission to enjoy yourself and knows what you’re doing at that moment and approves. Your actions please your Domimant and pleasing your Dominant pleases you.—
Next we have Lee fantasizing about Mr Grey holding her, as she’s trying to get herself off. She’s been reading women’s magazines about how to get her man to open up. She attempts to think about her bland-as-hell fiance, but eventually repeats words her boss has said to her, ‘Four…peas…’ and thinking about being on all fours on his desk triumphantly saying, ‘I’m your secretary.’ And, what do you know, we have a winner! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
At work, Lee’s mis-typed letters, typos circled in red pen, have been framed and line the hallway to his office. She now has a tiny desk in his office where she does her typing [they wish they’d made the desk smaller] and is desperately trying to get his attention—making a typo (which he ignores) and then seductively licking the envelope to post it.
He informs her that he has to work.
Things are getting out of hand.
She leaves for the day, at the door on her way out she shouts back that she can come back later, hoping he’ll call her back for some spanky spank time. He clearly wants to, but sends her on her way.
Later, as Lee’s sister and her friends are discussing being sexually harassed at work, (it’s So. Annoying.) their mother gets a call—their father has checked himself into hospital (presumably for his drinking).
After going to see him, a distraught Lee takes a cab to Mr Grey’s house. He’s on the treadmill sweating like a whore in church. She craves pain, but can’t bring herself to ask him to inflict it and reminds him to go over the Lindt papers. She wanders off and he sits on his bed.
After this episode he puts her at her old desk and ‘He just stopped doing it.’ He throws away his red pens and begins treating her like ‘just a secretary’ and she began to worry that’s all she was. She bends over his desk, makes constant typos, empties all of the correction fluid into the rubbish bins. She even has boudoir photos taken and places one in an ornate frame on his desk with a bunch of roses.
We then see Lee in her bathroom at home, in her cotton granny-pants, doing what the film-makers call in the commentary track ‘masturbatory spanking’ with a hair brush. It’s just not the same, however.
It’s time for the nuclear option.
On the way to work one morning she spies an earthworm crawling in the grass. Bringing it to work, she puts it on a piece of paper, then into an envelope addressed to Mr Grey. He sees her doing something and is intrigued. She’s taking control of the situation, stapling with new fervour, but he splashes water on his face and maintains.
Later she’s making out with her drip of a boyfriend, Peter. She puts his hand on her ass and he moves it to her back. So she smacks it onto her butt and he gently pats her like the soft, gentle kitten he thinks she is.
She then places herself across his lap and says, ‘Don’t be scared,’ with a smile so wide—she’s been waiting for a spanking for awhile now. Bring it home to momma.
Peter, however, is a clueless doof, so he just shows her a condom, with a question mark over his head. She responds as though this is the most boring suggestion ever to be made and the following sex is indeed nothing like what she was after.
Peter: Did I hurt you?
Lee: :disappointed: No.
Luckily, Mr Grey has receives his Nuclear Option earthworm and all the chin ups in the world can’t fix it. No. Only a red pen will alleviate the situation. He marks this most egregious of typos. [Wilson: We couldn’t figure out what to do with the earthworm then we realised: Of course, it’s a typo.]
He calls her into his office. She informs him that someone is waiting (in the past we’ve heard them from outside the door—it’s clear that anyone else in the building would hear slaps and sighs/moans). He repeats himself and she whispers, ‘Finally.’ Re-SULT.
Lee enters his office and assumes the position—red Sharpied encircled earthworm in the correct place. The bell goes on the door letting them know someone has entered the building. He says to ignore it. We see it’s Peter. Excellent. Fuck off, Peter.
Calmly, Mr Grey stands and walks behind Lee, telling her to pull up her skirt.
Mr Grey: You’re not worried I’d going to fuck you, are you? I’m not interested in that, not in the least. Now pull up your skirt.
Meanwhile, Peter, drips his way up the hallway. Calling her name.
Very softly Mr Grey says, ‘I said, pull your skirt up.’
Looking over her shoulder at Mr Grey she says in the most natural tone: Peter, I’m not going to be able to come to the diner today.
Peter, who is the biggest submissive in this film, says, ‘That’s okay.’ And wanders back out again. And thank Zeus for that, I’m trying to get my spanks on.
Lee pulls up her skirt. Mr Grey then instructs her to pull down her pantyhose and underwear. To her hesitation he reminds her that he’s said he isn’t going to fuck her. The more unsure—the more frightened she becomes, the more calm and reassuring he is.
She complies. He can’t spank her, as the client in the lobby would hear, instead, he mimes hitting her once, then slowly unzips himself and begins masturbating. Grabbing her shoulder as he finishes, similar to when their fingers touched at the end of the first spanking session. Lee clearly enjoys this. It’s the most vulnerable he’s been to her.
She remains in her position until he tells her to move and resumes the Dom/sub dynamic immediately, telling her what to have for lunch. ‘No mayonnaise this time.’
Lee goes to the bathroom to clean up the ejaculate on her back and get herself off, repeating words that have some significance to their relationship. She ends this session by saying his first—really middle—name for the first time. ‘Edward.’ [Wilson: There’s a lot of masturbation in this movie.]
After she goes out for lunch Mr Grey comes out of his doorway rather majestically and begins ripping the framed typoed letters off the wall—tearing the wallpaper, breaking the glass in the frames. He’s given up a part of himself for the first time and that Won’t Do.
Meanwhile, Lee is trying to learn to be a Very Good Sub and is at a fast food restaurant, listening to an audio book that says people who embrace a range of feelings—including pain—are better off than those wimps who run from pain. Pssht. Wimps.
The name of the tape is How to Come Out as a Dominant/submissive and no I don’t know how I missed it before. [The voice on the tape is the director of the film, Steven Shainberg.]
Back at the ranch—the office, Mr Grey burns the polaroids he has of Lee and types a letter that says:
This is disgusting. I’m sorry.
I don’t know why I’m like this.
Oh, darling, it’s because you’re James Spader and it would be Armageddon if you played a well-balanced character.
She returns from lunch [originally she went to Subway, but the Subway people didn’t want to be associated with a sadomasochistic film so they had to go with a generic sandwich place] and he shreds the letter before she can see it.
He calls her on the intercom, telling her to bring her typing scores and come to his office. She notices the broken glass and papers on the floor and asks what happened, which he ignores, to begin a roleplay of their first day. The first question he ever asked her was, ‘Are you pregnant?’
[I assumed this was a roleplay but the director said: He thinks he’s trying to forget everything that’s happened.]
She’s endeared at first. But then he decides not to give her the job and she does the equivalent of using a safeword for the first time in the film by calling a time out. They argue in a scene reminiscent of an earlier one where he tells her various problems he has with her behaviour in an effort to try to get her to leave rather than being honest.
This doesn’t work and he eventually walks away from her and sits down saying it has to stop. Lee says she wants to know him and puts her hand in his hair. He swoons—that’s the only applicable word—but regains composure and gives her a final paycheck and apologises for everything that’s happened. He shouts at her to get out and, as she’s standing outside, crying into her box of personal effects like the first secretary she saw on her way in, the ‘secretary wanted’ sign lights up.
After this, she answers a few adverts looking for masochists, which were excellent examples of why you should vet your Doms. Then she resigns herself to a vanilla life of vanillaness. Boo.
Which Peter the Biggest Submissive Ever was more than happy to assist with by proposing. His mother is cramming her into her old wedding dress and being deadly dull whilst Lee contemplates her very fun and not at all toweringly boring future in the mirror, when she suddenly thinks, ‘Yeah, no.’ And runs out.
And right into Edward’s office, where he’s doing sit ups (over the new secretary?). She informs him that she loves him. He says they can’t do what they do 24/7.
Lee: ‘Why not?’
Yeah, man, why not? Take some workshops. Read some books.
She sits at his desk and he tells her to put her hands on the desk, palms down and feet on the floor and to stay there until he comes back. He then takes up residence outside the window to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t move and she’s all right.
He calls Peter the Submissive Drip who, true to his name, is just sitting in his car, waiting for someone to tell him what to do. That call made, he then rings his office phone to see how Lee will deal with the ten pound Bakelite number on his desk without using her hands or even sliding closer to the phone.
She goes the oral route, but once he sees she’s still being obedient he hangs up and practises to himself, ‘Lee, I’m very fond of you, as well.’ Apparently everything else wasn’t enough, it’s her tonguing a phone receiver from the 50s that proves true devotion. I’m not judging, I’m just saying.
Peter arrives, much to Lee’s disappointment and asks, ‘What are you …I don’t know what’s going on with you.’ After some conversation he asks, ‘Are you doing something sexual right now?’
Lee: Does this look sexual to you?
Peter: I don’t know Lee! Why don’t you move your hands?
Lee: Because I don’t want to.
—The first time I saw this I didn’t understand it—the concept of submissives really being in control. Like many others I presumed the dominant one was the person in control and the submissive simply enjoyed being dominated. Now I get that the submissive isn’t doing anything they don’t choose to do. Nor would the dominant want them to.—
Peter then tries to forcibly move her (the chair is on wheels so this is easy) and she backhands him and it’s beautiful. They tussle but he has easily kneed nads. She then zooms the chair back to the desk and resolutely resumes her assigned position and informs him she doesn’t want him and to get out the same way Mr Grey had told her to not so long ago.
The next morning a variety of people come to visit her and talk at her about submission. Some are supportive—her father and mother, oddly. A Catholic priest, Mr Grey’s hot ex who would ruin me for all others and the paralegal. Others are not—Peter’s parents, a token feminist, Lee’s brother-in-law for some reason.
That night Edward sleeps on the floor at his house to punish himself as well.
The following morning there’s a news crew and a giant crowd outside for some reason (who would call the news—is this newsworthy, really?)
Lee says to one of these newspaper people so he can read it (oh, that’s why):
‘In one way or another I’ve always suffered. I don’t know why exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. 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 he suffers too. And that I want to love him.’
He shows up that evening and wakes her up and has to physically put a straw in her mouth to give her something to drink. Then carries her upstairs and puts her on an astroturf platform that was there the entire time. All righty.
After gently undressing, bathing, drying and generally worshipping her incredible nakedness she asks him a series of personal questions. He answers the least personal and they kiss for the first time.
Then they’re at Edward’s house and he’s showing her how the bed is properly made and Lee says in voice-over:
‘All our activities melted into an everyday sort of life until we looked like any other couple you’d see.’ See, Edward, you can do this 24/7.
They got married and had kinky sex in the mountains. And she turned into a naughty housewife.
In light of my recent (and still expanding) education about D/s culture and protocol, I can see the flaws in this film. And while I still fantasize about a dominant boss to organise and fetch for who can deliver a proper spanking, the relationship clearly has major problems.
There’s no negotiation. No discussion of safewords. Mr E. Edward Grey practises what I call psychic sex. He just magically knows what she wants, how much she wants and how she wants it.
However, rather than being disappointed at having a much-loved film ruined by correct information, I’m always in favour of more information about media I enjoy.
And boy, do I enjoy this one.
Thank you for reading this massive post.
And a giant shout out to Fuck Yeah Secretary, which is where I got all of the images and gifs for this post.