|I Need a Secretary|
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  21 Sep 2008
Finally, a film that depicts a real relationship, a moral model for a world at odds with its propaganda. Finally, a film that cuts through that bullshit and shows how real people react. Finally, a relationship in film that's healthy, that people can look up to.
The film in question is Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg and starring James Spader (as attourney E. Edward Grey) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (his secretary Lee Holloway), newly-opened in art houses near you.
The film opens with a shot of the secretary, wearing a bar across her shoulders, connected to a collar and to handcuffs. Dressed properly, she walks around the office, ably stapling with her chin and carrying with her teeth. We then flashback to her release from a mental institution after cutting herself a bit too deeply. We soon learn that she has been routinely cutting herself.
We watch her burn herself with a metal pot of boiling water. It is an erotic moment: some in the theatres squinted, covering their faces. Others breathed deeply as they would watching effective pornography.
Encouraged to find work, our self-mutilator gets a job as a secretary for a rather strange lawyer. As she arrives, we see the office in shambles, another woman leaving. Our girl gets the job after some personal questions which, though practical, are no longer allowed in the office: questions such as whether she is married or pregnant, or plans to become pregnant. Her typing errors anger her exacting boss, who begins to spank her. And thus begins a sadomasochistic relationship between the two, though the two have no "relationship" per se.
The hesitation, the pregnant pauses, during the scenes including spanking and the like are remarkable. The director lets the moment sit, letting his audience writhe in their seats, having to deal with their responses. The film has a small number of really wonderful eccentricities, if not absurdities: a sign, ringed by lights, outside the office announces an available secretarial position; it is turned off as she acquires the job, and when she is later fired, her pain and frustration is undercut by the absurdity of the sign's lights turning back on. We also see, from the beginning, the lawyer's red pens, depicted iconically, with which he marks his secretary's mistakes; we later realize that he has framed these mistakes on the wall. After she sends him a worm in an envelope in an attempt to prompt him to spank her again, he takes the worm, puts it on a new piece of typing paper, and carefully, then repeatedly, circles it with a red pen. The cinematography has additional pleasant moments, as when our secretary drops her box of self-mutilation tools off the bridge, instructed to do so by her boss, and we watch them fall before she, delightfully carelessly, walks off.
We come to realize, in the film, that this is not the first secretary our lawyer has spanked. We also see a woman who we take to be his wife enter, looking unsuccessfully for him in order to get him to sign divorce-related papers. We realize that he is neurotic; he seems compelled to spank her and stops doing so for some time. We later see him writing a letter to the secretary, apologizing for his behavior, which he clearly feels guilty about.
Ironically, we know that the secretary enjoys this "inappropriate" behavior. We see her masturbating, thinking of him, on multiple occasions. She tries to get her boyfriend to spank her, but -- in a scene that should have resonance with many women who enjoy sadomasochism or simply being dominated -- he doesn't know what to do with her ass in the air. He's not a bad man, just helpless, lacking the requisite knowledge about sexuality. He's eager to accept her invitation to screw her, so long as the lights are out and she keeps her clothes on -- presumably to hide her scars. Like most men, he jumps at the chance to fuck, even under circumstances that render the experience all but moot.
Our lawyer is a typical man who enjoys sadism or domination. He lives in a society that tells him such behavior is deeply wrong, that it expresses misogyny -- and the fact that women might actually enjoy such behavior does not occur to him. He has been, like so much of the audience, brainwashed by feminism. The possibility of a woman masturbating herself to orgasm, imagining behind held down and taken by a man with power and authority over her, is foreign to his thinking. To the extent that it is even possible to fathom, it is seen as horrendous, as "oppressive" and simply terrible -- even if it produces female orgasm. Thus, the lawyer, the man of our secretary's dreams, or at least her masturbatory fantasies, can only hate himself and his behavior. Ultimately, he does "the right thing" as our society defines it and fires her, removing her from his "sick" compulsion, the severance accompanied by a final check. And we suspect that he has treated his former secretaries with similar largess -- after spanking them.
The irony is not only that the secretary likes such attention, that it makes her come, but that his dominance has positively affected her life in other ways. Before his control, she regularly cut herself; after he tells her not to do so, that she will never do so again, she drops her cutting tools off a bridge and, even when stressed, does not fall back on past behavior. Like the vast majority of people, she finds it easier to follow another orders than her own. It is easier for most people to be a good or self-actualized person if they are told to do so -- by a church, by feminism, by their parents or peers -- than if they simply believe doing so to be good and right. In stark contrast to what we tell ourselves about "freedom," most people fear freedom far more than defining their lives by others. In fact, we do so all the time: we are pleased when others like us, when they find us sexy, when they read our works or they give us acclaim. The secretary, left to her own devices, cuts herself; told not to do so, in this case by a man she cares for rather than by a priest or other cultural authority figure, she treats herself with the care she deserves. He tells her to take a walk in the park, and she does, noting that she would never have done so by herself. Similarly, she begins calling him before she eats, receiving instructions as to what to do. Though we do not see the origin of this behavior, we can only guess that she initiated it, and she certainly does not object. Rather than gorging herself like most Americans (for whom obesity kills more than smoking), she eats a small but reasonable diet, thus keeping her body in shape. Though critics will no doubt see this as encouraging anorexia, there can be no doubt that her boss's influence is tremendously beneficial upon her life. Formerly institutionalized, she discovers a kind of freedom -- a freedom from the tyranny of freedom, from too many choices and from the responsibility for every little choice, moment by moment, that life forces us to make.
As such, Secretary challenges our conventional notions of relationships. It even offers a philosophical challenge to our notion of freedom. It provokes us. If a woman comes, even at her own humiliation, even at her master's control over her life -- if a woman enjoys life, finds new resonance to life. Instead of being controlled by her mother, who waits patiently for her to get off from work, she walks home, ironically taking responsibility for her own life at his direction. It is an irony constantly occurring in our own society, in which women repeat the mantras of their feminist masters, however thoughtless and unexamined those mantras are, however much they lubricate when spanked or when a knife is erotically held to their throats. Holding one's self as the highest value, is in fact deeply programmed by our society. One can only remember the Monty Python skit in which a group are told that they are individuals, only to lead one of them to proclaim "I'm not." In essence, to not be a man's "secretary" -- to be a self-determining "individual" -- is a socially-programmed value. Secretary exposes this irony at the heart of contemporary individualism -- and particularly feminism.
Ultimately, our secretary agrees to marry her boyfriend. On the night of the wedding, decked in white, she politely returns his ring and runs to her former boss's office. He tells her to hold still, with her feet on the floor and her hands on the desk, until he returns. And then he leaves. For days. She holds the same position. When she urinates, she does so in her white wedding gown, and we see the water pour off the chair and onto the floor. As her boss waits at his home, unable to intervene due to his own socially-imposed guilt, a gauntlet of visitors enter the office and speak to the tired, unmoving secretary. Her boyfriend visits her angrily, called by the boss, who watches from the window the secretary's unfazed determination. Former secretaries also appear, women from his life, who state that they admire her resolve.
One can only agree. Such determination far exceeds that of armchair feminists, white college girls with comfy lives who assert from their positions of privilege that women are oppressed and need to determine their own life -- in other words, to listen to other feminists and never, ever listen to a man. Our secretary puts such mantras into actual effect in a far more revolutionary way than feminists do. She resists his desire to remove her from his life for her own perceived "safety" -- to spare her the humiliation which he, raised in this society, detests enjoying inflicting but that she enjoys and which actually gives meaning to her unhappy life.
As a teenager, I had the theory that it really only took one person to make a relationship work. It was a hypothetical construction, admittedly, but a brilliant one nonetheless. The idea was that, with great resolve, a person could participate in another's life as much as that person allowed. If all he allowed was that she did his laundry, fine. One could be pleased with whatever one's lover allowed, even if the relationship never involved sex. What I found was that, in practice, most people lacked this resolve or the ability to deal with it. What I found, in essence, was that people were weak. All one had to do was to have perfect resolve, or aspire to the same, to be happy to die if it pleased the person one loved, to hold one's hand in flame if it pleased him or her. It was a good theory, however idealistic, lacking only in an accurate understanding of the remarkable weakness and short-sightedness of most people.
What our secretary does is put that idea into effect. After much resisting, our secretary's employer arrives. He carries her upstairs, where he strips her and cleans her off. And, as if the film was not already transgressive enough, we have gorgeous shots of her nude body, including one memorable one of her in bed, scars all over, as she explains to her newfound lover where each scar came from, the circumstances of each self-mutilation. Her body is one of beauty apparently marred by self-inflicted wounds, hardly the aesthetic ideal of our society yet undeniably beautiful. Her lover's tenderness is touching as he cares for her, bathes her, listens to the origin of each scar upon her beautiful form.
The film, moreover, understands the dynamics of sadomasochism. One of the visitors to our secretary during her waiting on the chair in her employer's office is a minister who refers to the long heritage in Christianity of self-mutilation. Inherently, such behavior privileges the soul and its determination to its cause over the body, over the physical, over the trite and circumstantial. Additionally, the film depicts the odd problem of sadomasochistic relationships: that the masochistic partner often deliberately makes errors to encourage the punishment that she so enjoys. We see this a number of times in the film, including at the film's end, in which she puts a cockroach on their newly-made bed.
Though the film does not explicitly make the argument, the same dynamic works in that most hated of relationship types: the "abusive" relationship in which one partner hits another, which we tend to see as quite different from relationships involving, say, erotic spanking (which are, at best, increasingly tolerated). One of the questions of such "abusive" relationships is frequently why the one being "abused" does not leave. Often, this is because she enjoys the relationship, because being hit is interpreted as a way of showing love, because what follows the beating is tender caring -- a "honeymoon" period. It is high time that we saw such "abusive" relationships not as aberrant but as sadomasochistic relationships in which one partner may, at worst, have some objections or hesitancy about the acts which are not so much imposed upon her as have become a legitimate and normative part of the relationship.
One can only think of polls of Japanese women, who confess that about 90% of them have had sexual fantasies about their boss raping them; such fantasies may be more acceptable in Japan, but we should not naïvely imagine that Japanese society produces such fantasies. In fact, it is more likely that such fantasies are simply repressed and sublimated in American society. Here we have a girl and a boss who are both sympathetic characters and who both prosper through her lack of sublimation, through the strength through which she, as an individual, advocates against her individuality.
One can only see Secretary as an important film with wide social implications. Its characters and their proclivities are not at all marginal, however our society designates them so. If one is at all conscious of such behavior, one can only see it as permeating all relationships. No relationship is "equal" despite our rhetoric of the same, as if people were identical. I've known many feminists who quivered with desire against their will when a man dominated them. I've known many women who hated the fact that they had nurturing urges. I've known many women who can count their orgasms on one hand and have only had them when held down and called names while a man viscously used her body for his own pleasure -- and who are haunted by this fact in a society that constantly, in both overt and subtle ways, characterizes such behavior as abhorrent, as terrible, as misogynistic, all but calling such behavior "sinful."
Secretary is a much better depiction of gendered relationships in contemporary Western culture than most romantic comedies. It does more for expanding the spectrum of acceptable consensual relationships than feminism ever has. And it ought to be mandatory viewing in our high schools, the students of which would have much healthier -- and more fulfilling -- relationships as a result.
One can dream, can't one?
At the very least, one can think, despite the guilt of being "sinful" that our society imposes.
I may need a Secretary, but so does our fucking culture.
This essay was first published online on 28 October 2002.
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