Subscribe to Bitch—an award-winning, 80 page feminist magazine. Image Map

Thinking Kink: Secretary and the Female Submissive

I first watched Secretary back in summer 2004. As a feminist curious about kink, I was intrigued but also prepared to be irritated, as on the surface the movie appeared to endorse a very heteronormative, patriarchal representation of BDSM.

Lee sitting at a desk with Grey behind herThere are definitely several reasons why Lee, the protagonist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is not a good representation of a female submissive. It is too easy to explain away her submissive tendencies with the fact she has just been released from a mental hospital and is a self-harmer. Her father is an unstable alcoholic, so Lee's attraction to tightly wound lawyer E Edward Grey (James Spader) can be dismissed as a Freudian need for a strong male figure. She has never had a job before and is meek and easily intimidated. A sitting duck for an evil dominant man to abuse, right?

In some ways, the power dynamics of the film do feel very effed up. Before their kinky relationship develops, Grey torments Lee by aggressively criticizing her work and appearance and forcing her to do menial tasks. If this behavior wasn't later neutralized by a loving relationship, it would just be a hostile boss abusing a vulnerable subordinate. Furthermore, the stereotypes of the submissive female often reflect situations where women are in subordinate positions to men as maids, secretaries, or schoolgirls. So what is it about Secretary that saves it from simply reinforcing male dominance and female submission?

I think the answer lies in the complex character of Lee, who exhibits increasing personal strength as the story progresses. When Grey's ex-partner accuses her of being "submissive," Lee promptly chews out a telemarketer to show she is only submissive when she wants to be. After the initial shock of her first spanking, we see her stroke Grey's finger to let him know how much she has enjoyed it. Her typing mistakes become deliberate (see a discussion of these deliberate mistakes in a previous post), and her participation in Grey's games of dominance (e.g., asking him what she is allowed to eat for dinner) is not just willing but actively gleeful. She tries to get her nice-but-dull boyfriend Peter to spank her, but unfortunately he just doesn't get it. Lee's sexuality blossoms through her interactions with Grey, and she controls how she wants to be seen by him, having glamorous pictures taken of herself and presenting them to him.

Far from being a victim, Lee is the partner who wants more, pushing her dom to the limit with the memorable "worm mail" she sends to provoke him into punishing her. It is Grey who feels ashamed of their kinky relationship, at one point writing her a letter saying "I'm sorry. This is disgusting. I don't know why I'm like this." It is Grey who calls off the relationship out of guilt, saying "You have to go or I won't stop," even though Lee clearly doesn't want him to stop. And when Grey fires her in order to sever contact, the wallop Lee gives her boss is harder than any of the slaps he's lavished upon her backside. The trope of unwilling, abused woman and controlling man is certainly inverted in this powerful scene.

Lee wearing cuffs and a collar in the officeSecretary also shows that a submissive is not just anyone's dartboard. Lee tries dating other kinksters, but fails to gel with any of them, and hence won't submit to them: "There was the guy who kept ordering me to pee on his patio, and when I refused, said 'I thought you were a masochist'." Lee rejects normal coupledom by breaking her engagement to Peter, and goes on a mission to win Grey back. She shows immense strength in her prolonged sit-in at Grey's desk, and when Peter attempts to remove her, punches him and knees him in the family jewels—hardly the actions of a docile woman.

Secretary smartly avoids appearing like a bad porn script by putting the non-blonde, non-busty Maggie Gyllenhaal into the role of Lee, and dressing her in long sleeved blouses and demure skirts throughout. There is only one brief sex scene, and the only nudity is in the tender scene where Grey bathes Lee. Director Steven Shainberg builds erotic tension in the film through suggestion, not through the usual blatant sexual symbols favored by Hollywood. It's nice to see a film that doesn't objectify a woman in order to show she is a sexual being—the scene where Lee tries to spank herself wearing a long-sleeved night dress and granny panties reminded me of what I might wear on a British winter night!

While it could've used better power dynamics and more pre-kink negotiation, Secretary was a brave and original step forward in addressing sexual complexity, especially in women.

Previously: No, Female Submission Doesn't Mean Oppression

Enjoy reading this article? Good news! Our quarterly magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is packed with 80+ pages of feminist analysis, reviews, illustrations, and more. Subscribe today!

Subscribe to Bitch

Comments

17 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Love the analysis

I really love your analysis here and thought Secretary was a pretty brilliant movie. You're spot on about the casting, too. It's hard to imagine it having the same effect without Maggie in the lead. I remember watching it and at the end thinking: "Huh. It was a love story. Isn't that something?"

You are so off base here.

You actually have to be very strong mentally to be a submissive, and it's something that you're called to, like a sexual orientation. I don't think she portrays a "typical weak female" submissive at all. If anything, she's a bratty bottom and both characters push each other's limits.

It's pretty obvious whoever wrote this article knows very little, if anything, about kink past their pre-conceived notions. Just because this is a het relationship and the woman is the bottom doesn't mean it falls into any stereotype. I'm a queer female kinky switch BTW, and I think this movie is exceedingly hot and portrays a steamy kinky relationship between two people.

Did you read the post?

To me, Catherine seemed to really like this movie and found that it defied stereotypes about kink and BDSM. Where are you getting the idea that she's "so off base"?

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Hi, You seem to have misread

Hi,
You seem to have misread this column. The writer is saying exactly the opposite of what you think - precisely that Lee *is* a very mentally strong (whatever that means) person; she says this explicitly a number of times and argues that she becomes stronger and stronger.

Furthermore I find it insulting that you make the totally unfounded assumption that the writer knows nothing - you have nothing to base this on. Finally the notion that you must identify with/be the same as your subject matter is to profoundly misunderstand what it means to be a writer/thinker at all.

Maybe if reread the piece you'll find that you are probably on the same page.

M

Spot on

Oh I definitely agree with this assessment. I am a feminist, not a submissive, and I totally GOT Lee and the whole Secretary dynamic. I adore James Spader in his role as attorney Grey, and it always struck me that HE was the weak one, trying to stifle his own sexuality while this creature awakens before him. By the end Lee owns herself, understands what she wants, and doesn't need to be sheltered by society's idea of womanhood. (and, on a side note, the worm circled in red pen was genius)

Great piece

I throughly enjoyed the movie and love your take on it.

Truthfully, when I clicked on

Truthfully, when I clicked on the link for this article, I was completely prepared to read a piece that ripped apart my most favorite love story and movie. What a pleasant surprise! I can't tell you how spot-on I felt this article was.

As a queer, feminist, submissive woman it's very refreshing and quite meaningful to see an analysis of this film that doesn't jump to conclusions, not see the point, and pigeonhole it right off the bat.

So, thank you. Really and truly.

Eye-opening

I watched this movie early on in college. At that point in my life I probably considered myself pretty open-minded, but didn't really understand much about BDSM. I probably had some vaguely negative stereotype because I couldn't reconcile it with my feminist upbringing.

I would credit this movie with opening my eyes, though. I think because the movie really follows Lee, and Maggie Gyllenhall is an amazing actress, I never had any trouble understanding that she wanted, desired, enjoyed, and actively pursued the submissive role she was in. I thought it made BDSM, something I found confusing and a little frightening, really accessible and very, very sexy. My overall sense of the movie is, "Oh.... now I get why that's hot." It took something that was theoretical... ("Some people like to be punished? I guess?") and made it more ("Being punished in a consensual relationship can be hot!")

I still don't know enough about BDSM to know how accurate the portrayal was, but I think of this movie as something that helped me to be more open-minded and understanding.

I Love This Film

It has its problems, though. My biggest complaint is the conflation of self-hurting with masochism -- or at least the idea that one leads to the other. While I certainly know self-hurters who are also kinky, it's not a straight connection by any means.

As for the overall great review, I have a very small quibble: pre-kink negotiation is of course nonexistent between people who don't know who they are or what they're doing. I love that about this film -- the kink is totally organic. Negotiations represent a sophisticated level of kink-awareness that I really am glad they didn't try to show.

When I first saw this film back in 2002, I was so incredibly happy. It told an offbeat love story where everyone got what they wanted. And unlike that 50 Shades of Shit, the Grey in this film doesn't get written off as sick. He simply needs a partner who gets him and with whom he's sexually compatible. It's so very kink-positive and life affirming! They end up kinkily ever after and, wow, what a great message that is!

I agree with your point about

I agree with your point about the self-harm - I felt that the makers of the film risked muddying the waters with that part of Lee's character. It then becomes easy for non-kink-aware people to say 'Oh, of course she wants a masochistic relationship, she already hurts herself so the two must be connected!'. But I did like how Lee felt empowered to stop self-harming via her relationship with Grey, and whether playing sub to him was about working out pain in a different way, or absolutely nothing to do with her self-harm, the relationship does not come across as 'twisted' or 'abusive'.

I take your point about the pre-kink negotiation - I suppose my concern again is, that, by not explicity showing consent, the film makers risk sending out very mixed messages about kink. When Lee receives her first spanking she is shocked and tearful to begin with - later we can see that she has enjoyed it when she strokes Grey's finger, but the idea that it would ever be OK for a boss to just call a secretary into his office and start hitting her backside is obviously not one any ethical kinkster wants to see promoted. I would hope that non-kink-aware folks can see that there are extenuating circumstances (e.g. the growing chemistry between the Lee and Grey), but as we've seen in the recent shitstorms about women liking submission, there is always a small group eager to interpret representations of consensual non-consent as a green light for saying that women like abuse.

"When Lee receives her first

"When Lee receives her first spanking she is shocked and tearful to begin with - later we can see that she has enjoyed it when she strokes Grey's finger, but the idea that it would ever be OK for a boss to just call a secretary into his office and start hitting her backside is obviously not one any ethical kinkster wants to see promoted. "

I have to disagree with you about this, Grey and Lee's relationships builds through stages. There is no scene were she explicity says or he asks. That makes it a better film, such a scene would have been too clunky.

However if you watch the scene in question, Grey asks Lee to put her hands on the desk and read the letter before he spanks her. You can see clearly that Lee is the one who is really in control, Grey won't do anything unless she continues to read the letter, and by doing so she consents to what he does.

As the article says the interesting thing about this film is the fact it is Grey who is conflicted about his sexuality and not Lee. She is the one who has to keep pushing the relationship to next level.

Thank you all for your lovely comments!

I am a big fan of this film and really enjoyed revisiting it in order to write about it. I'm glad so many of you enjoyed this post. Thank you for your kind words.

hurray for your analysis

Thank you for this. Secretary is a movie I particularly cherish and that I've noticed has been often misinterpreted or has downright freaked out lots of people...

I'm not sure about kinky here, I just feel it is a completely sincere and honest movie that doesn't try to abide by social conventions nor blatantly endeavor to overthrow them: which is absolutely refreshing.
Lee is the impersonation of a woman who progressively takes full cognisence of her strength. In that sense, she somewhat reminds me of Françoise Sagan's women: so strong and so benevolent towards men.

LOVVEEE

LOVVE this movie!!!!! i thought it was so moving i bawl at the end of it every time LOVE IT. that is all

What Say You?

First off, I would like to say that the analysis of one of my favorite movies was fantastic! The first time I watched it ( mind you, I try to keep an open mind about things) I found it incredibly difficult to understand Lee's role. That is, it took me a while to understand the submissive role. As a feminist, seeing a woman in a submissive role deterred me a little from the film. However, I watched it a few times to try and understand the movie more.

The first time I saw it, I also had trouble understanding Grey. That is, I understood that he was a dominant male trying to overcome his desires that he believes to be "disgusting." In view of trying to understand him, it was difficult for me to believe that he truly loved Lee, My reasons for this are as follows: 1. Before he hires Lee, we see the other secretary pack her things and leave while crying. Later, it is revealed to us that the secretary before Lee was in the folder where pictures of past secretaries had been. Did he do, what he did to Lee, to other secretaries? If so, then how are we to believe that he in fact is in love with Lee considering that they know so little of one another save for the kinks they share. 2. Towards the end of the film, we see that Lee tells Grey she loves him and waits days on end for him at his office. He, however, does not know how to react. This is the part where I want to say that he is trying to figure out if he, in fact, is in love with Lee or if this is just a part of his routine with his secretaries. Granted, when Grey hires a new secretary after Lee, we see him perform his exercise routine whenever he is turned on. That scene also makes me wonder what exactly he felt about Lee.

Another question/ problem I still sort of have with the film is the spanking scene. Now, I've seen this movie about 8 or 9 times--since it is one of my favorites and I like showing it to friends who haven't seen it and are curious about feminism and the female submissive. Before showing it to a friend of mine, I thought the spanking scene was incredibly hot. I still sort of do, until my friend said something about it when the movie ended. The spanking scene, while very hot, was also unwarranted. That is, prior to this particular scene we are shown a more intimate scene with Grey and Lee. Grey asks her about the kit and why she likes to hurt herself. He even tries to comfort her by having her pretend to answer a call with a more dominant self-assured voice. With this in mind, I defended my argument against my friend's argument in relation to the spanking scene (where he believed it to fall out of his line of comfort because Lee was not asked if she would be okay with being spanked, rather it assumed on her). Because Grey comforts her at first by trying to discuss with her her reasons for inflicting pain on herself, I thought that the spanking scene was his way to open a new door that was both safer and more intimate--less self-destructing. Granted if she didn't like the spanking, then the film would have taken a much different turn. Perhaps, even more like The Piano Teacher. However, if that indeed may be the case, BDSM being another outlet, then there is another hole. What would this say about people interested in BDSM? It should be noted that not all, in fact according to the Kinsey Institute, very little people who have certain disorders such as causing themselves pain when they are hurt by their connections with others (or for Lee when her father drinks and disappears for a while).

Nevertheless, I would like to hear other opinions out there. Mainly, I would like to hear an opinion concerning the spanking scene in relation to sex-positive feminists.

picxss Ugg Baratas dor4

JnryMDCJ Piumini Moncler
rvveRBZoy http://basketpuma0.webnode.fr/
rzdkgbjeto Ugg Boots
QTAtEabms dizyph Canada Goose
QkoQXPHDilw BwrsVNXL Moncler Takki
hrwnRVDmt KopqYUAW http://uggbootsdeutschland0.webspawner.com/
ubepUGJze

ebcaqq Canada Goose Outlet ocm1

ZiipGUQE Canada Goose Jacket
ufrzQNWho http://uggsoldes1.webnode.fr/
wzkvtopuui Canada Goose Jacket
QYIvGtonh xehrih Canada Goose Outlet
RfzOKNILleo SpybATNN Cheap Uggs Uk
qsfuXVIxe ZnoePKEP http://uggsoutlet0.jouwweb.nl/
whpnIMKdc