The Indy Film Club: BDSM romcom Secretary could teach Fifty Shades of Grey a few lessons

The film delivers a purer fantasy, writes Clarisse Loughrey – one that acknowledges sometimes spanking can be the ingredient for a fairy tale romance

Saturday 16 May 2020 16:13
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Maggie Gyllenhaal oozes quiet intelligence, playing Lee’s innocence as entirely self-aware – a way to disarm the world around her
Maggie Gyllenhaal oozes quiet intelligence, playing Lee’s innocence as entirely self-aware – a way to disarm the world around her

Secretary was never radical because of its scenes of spanking, bondage, or pony play – it was the fact it dares to present those things as the ingredients of a fairy tale romance. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the hero of Steven Shainberg’s notorious BDSM comedy, has a whiff of “manic pixie dream girl” to her. A kaleidoscope of cheap, plastic barrettes clings to her hair. Her bedroom is a pink-purple fever dream guarded by piles of stuffed animals. And when she speaks, her sentences drip with sugar syrup. The man of her dreams, a high-class lawyer named E Edward Grey (James Spader), is emotionally stunted but flummoxed by her charms. They’re a perfect match. The way they blossom into each other just so happens to be through a mutual sexual kink, instead of mixtapes and picnics in the park.

The film won the Special Jury Prize for originality at 2002’s Sundance Film Festival, but critics responded to its humour and sincerity with a level of trepidation. Reviews were good, but no one quite knew what they’d just watched. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw declared its love story “bafflingly” plausible. Though the conversation around romance, consent and BDSM would continue for the next two decades, few films – or series – have tackled the subject with Secretary‘s good-natured compassion. When Fifty Shades of Grey hit cinemas in 2015, Secretary was repackaged by the studio as the story of the “original Mr Grey”, but the comparison felt unsavoury. More recently, Sally Rooney has come under criticism for her flawed portrayal of sexual kinks in Normal People.

​We first meet Lee after she’s left the care of “The Institute”, a psychiatric hospital. She misses the sense of control a daily, clinical routine brought her. At home, her father drinks heavily and lashes out at her mother, who in turn smothers Lee under the guise of protection. The old, insidious cycles of self-harm loom over her – in her eyes, it’s the only part of her life she has power over. A bid for independence sees her enrol in typing classes, followed by a trip to the office of Mr Grey for a job interview. He’s a wild-eyed, jittery mess; his hair’s been hastily smoothed into place (moments before Lee walks in), but his tone is entirely indecorous. The questions start to roll in: “Are you pregnant?” “Do you plan to get pregnant?” “Do you live in an apartment?” Next, he doles out humiliating tasks. Lee goes dumpster-diving for a lost folder, only for him to reveal that he’s found another copy. She buys him doughnuts. He throws them in the trash. Grey insists typewriters are used instead of computers, so that he can circle each typo with a thick, red marker. No wonder the office has a permanent, motel-like “Secretary Wanted” sign, whose red-and-white bulbs spring into life whenever another woman storms out of his door.

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