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Monday, November 08, 2010:
What I'm watching: Secretary

The masochist says to the sadist, "Hurt me." The sadist replies, "No." Everybody's happy. This strange balance plays heavily into the Steven Shainberg-directed SECRETARY, based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young woman with a secret, destructive addiction fueled by her mother's overprotectiveness and her father's alcoholism. Sheltered and wholly dependent on other people, Lee's only form of self-expression is in this private, painful habit. That is, until she meets her new boss, the lawyer E. Edward Gray (James Spader), who hires her as his secretary.

It is exciting for Lee to hold down a job, even if she is a basket case in the office. Mr. Gray watches Lee, studies her, and slowly begins to correct both her typing errors and her personality flaws. At first Mr. Gray's dominance appears scary and overbearing, a true threat to Lee's naive, fragile psyche. But as the film carefully develops these unique characters, revealing their odd strengths and weaknesses, it becomes delightfully clear that Lee and Mr. Gray can genuinely help each other. SECRETARY is a bright, atmospheric movie that shines a light on the "fun" in this dysfunctional relationship, while using brilliant performances by Gyllenhaal and Spader to illustrate the benefits of sadomasochistic love.

I remember being slightly curious when this movie first came out (2002), but soon forgot about it. Now, years later, my curiosity has gotten the best of me.

Lee has just gotten out of the pysch ward. She has this little problem that when things get to be too overwhelming for her, she cuts herself to relieve the pressure. Her first day home happens to be her sister's wedding, and not much has changed as far as her family circumstances go. Her father still drinks too much and her mother still treats her like a fragile doll. Between the two of them, they are hurting Lee.

In a rare instance of independence, Lee decides to apply for a job, and settles on secretary, which appeals to her. She's good at typing, and doesn't mind menial work. She goes to work for E. Edward Gray, a man who still uses typewriters in his office, and has very precise ideas of perfection. He can't stop himself from watching his new secretary, and tends to correct her when she makes mistakes. The more forceful and demanding she is, the more she sets out to please him. Soon both are caught up in the routine, and it's not just professional courtesy anymore. Lee gets a sexual thrill from her boss' dominance, and Mr. Gray completely enjoys his secretary's submissive ways. However there's a level of shame he seems to feel about his behavior, and he tends to sabotage the best thing that ever happened to him. Only Lee is stronger than he thought, and she proves to him that what they have together can exist at all times, and she will gladly live that life with him.

My thoughts on more than just the movie:

This movie was, at the very heart of it, a love story. When it first came out, I probably wouldn't have appreciated that idea back then, and in fact would have been totally turned off to the idea that it could be love. But getting older does change a person's perspective, and I was able to see the beauty in the relationship, even when I found my mind wandering through parts of it. I did wish James Spader's character hadn't been so neurotic. I missed the dirty, immoral jerk from previous movies. That probably would have made me find the movie much more exciting than I did.

I did find Lee's awakening to be kinda hot. She just loved being his secretary, and all the little "perks" that came with it. She really blossomed under Mr. Gray's firm hand, and though she tried to sustain a more "normal" relationship outside of work, it wasn't until she was under the guidance of Mr. Gray that she really felt beautiful and cherished.

I've said here before that the BDSM lifestyle is not for me. I don't fully grasp the desire to engage in the D/s behavior, or I should say, what I see as the more abusive aspects that often come with it (peronal and/or public humiliation, withholding of pleasure). I do understand some people get off on it, but it's never been one of my fantasies. Sometimes I'm almost disappointed in how conventional I really am, but then again, I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not either. Essentially, the BDSM world is some far off place that looks interesting but not enough to explore beyond the outer edges.

Recently, I've started to get to know people online who live it to varying degrees in their homes, and I have come to, if not completely understand it, then to at least embrace and appreciate that there are those out there that are very happy in such specific arrangements. They are perfectly intelligent, well-adjusted people who just live different lives from myself. I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with living out your deepest, darkest fantasies in a satisfying, loving relationship. There is something freeing about having that level of trust and respect between two (or possibly more) people. And if I'm completely honest, there are even some particulars of the lifestyle that appeal to me on a wholly physical level, but overall, anything I find exciting about it is more for the fun and pleasure and definitely not about establishing a completely new lifestyle change. (Case in point: when Mr. Gray has Lee wait for him a certain way for a significant amount of time, my first - and only - reaction was that there's no way I would have done what he asked and instead, I would have decked him. Not so he'd punish me, but so I could kick his ass and tell him to fuck off forever. Not very submissive behavior, now is it? Mr. Gray would be the one with bruises and I don't think he'd like that very much.)

I know some people who find the BDSM lifestyle suits their needs believe that those of us who don't engage in it are freaks. (This rather amuses me). But that's the beauty of the world. We don't all love the same things, get excited by the same fantasies, desire the same relationships. I try to keep an open mind, but I'm not perfect either. All I can ask myself is to do my best not to judge, and to wish everyone finds what makes them truly happy. Much like Lee and Mr. Gray did. Really, what more can we ask for?

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  1. Great post Stacy. I'm like you. I have no qualms about others getting their groove on but the first time someone humiliates me in public as a sign of affection is going to be hard pressed getting my foot out of their arse. The movie sounds great though. I will have to rent it and watch it for myself. I love James Spader. Especially in the old brat pack movies.

  2. I am not into BDSM whatsoever, but to each his own. I definitely don't think others are weird for engaging in it. And while my mind might wander off into a small fantasy from time to time, I know it isn't the lifestyle for me.

    I enjoyed this movie, and really loved Spader and Gyllenhaal on screen together. He was a tad neurotic but I found him quite hot in this one!

  3. Stacy - thank you. Firstly for an amazing review of the movie and secondly for your personal insight.

    I know very little about BDSM, and mosly only from the fiction books I've read...and I know that what is portrayed in said books may be very far from the truth. One thing I have learnt is that the scope of BDSM is very, very broad. Humiliation? Whether in public or private I'd run a mile...farther even :) Not. For. Me. Not even reading about it. The trust side of it (because I'm not someone who trusts at all well)...appeals, which is probably why I am delving into the genre :)

    I love the fact that humanity isn't black & white but multiple shades of grey, and that what works for one person may not work for another.

    I think I might see if my library has this movie...your review has me intrigued. Thank you!

  4. Awesome Post!! Secretary is one of my favorite movies EVER!!! I dont think I would be able to live in a BDSM lifestyle 24/7, but parts of it def appeal to me.

    I always the same thing about the movie... Its a Love Story! and an awesome one at that!

    Larissa Benoliel

  5. Very nice review and extremely thoughtful post. Thank you! I too forgot about this movie and like you, would probably enjoy it now. But James Spader is a major EWW! for me - can't look at him in any sort of good-guy romantic lead after Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero! LOL

  6. I also subscribe to the "to each his own" school of thought. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. It's weird, but it felt more realistic than many Hollywood romances.

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