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Film / Secretary

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A 2002 comedy-drama film written and directed by Steven Shainberg, Secretary is either a well-loved examination of an unusual romance, or a stunningly bad portrayal of an unusual romance. Or just downright disturbing.

It is a story about Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an emotionally unstable woman who starts the film having been released from a psychiatric hospital, where she was put after an incident of self-harm went too far. She finds a job as a typist under E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a demanding lawyer. After some time, the two develop a sadomasochistic relationship, and are forced to deal with the personal and professional consequences.

Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, who is known for stories centered on emotionally damaged women and deviant sexuality. Also notable for some unusual choices in direction, particularly with regards to soundtrack; the development of the relationship between the main characters is marked by the length and quality of the silence between them.



  • Almost Holding Hands: After Mr. Grey first spanks his typist Lee for a typo in a letter, he puts his hand close to hers on a desk, and she briefly touches his fingers.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Given by Lee near the end of the film.
  • Aside Glance: In the last scene, Lee suddenly looks straight into the camera — and the effect is quite powerful.
  • Casual Kink: While most of the film averts this, it does pop up twice. In the middle of the movie, Lee is listening to a tape about coming out as a dominant or submissive, assuring the listener that BDSM unlocks the potential for a wider range of experience. More importantly, the movie has a happy ending where Lee finally gets rid of her fiancé (whom she never wanted; he was pushed on her and she wasn't assertive enough to say no), comes out as a masochist and finally demands a real relationship with Edward. Some people are pissed at her, but her father stands by her side and asserts that he's proud of her. Edward overcomes his fear and they live happily ever after.
  • Conveniently Common Kink: Inverted. Lee only discovers her fetish during her stint as the secretary, so Grey directly influences her "choice" of kink.
  • Covered with Scars: Lee, thanks to self-harming since she was in seventh grade. It's oddly handled since the first time we're shown the full extent of this is during the Beautiful All Along scene mentioned above, but since Lee finally feels herself — including the scars — to be beautiful this becomes only a passing (and by that point irrelevant) detail.
  • Creepy Good: Edward, who is glowering and intimidating in typical James Spader style but turns out to be a kind and patient lover.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: One of the rare American non-porn films to show a female character masturbating, including The Immodest Orgasm. (The Grunting Orgasm finds its place in the movie as well.)
  • Disposable Fiancé: Deconstructed, in a way. Lee agrees to marry Peter even though she doesn't really have a romantic connection with him, and doesn't enjoy the sex. The only reason she agrees to marry him is because she can't find a normal relationship after Edward fires her, and when she breaks it off she does it in a pretty insensitive way, not giving him a clear reason and not acting like she doesn't want to marry him until she delivers it as bluntly as possible.
  • Dream Sequence: Lee's fantasy.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Both characters had a hard time earning it.
  • Extreme Doormat: At the beginning of the film, Lee is such a doormat that she can't even hang up on a telemarketer. Becoming a BDSM submissive makes her more assertive, true to life.
  • Fan Disservice: Maggie Gyllenhall's bare thighs, yay! Except she's mutilating herself with a sharpened ballerina doll and scalding herself with a hot kettle... not so yay.
  • Flower Motifs: Mr. Grey's orchids and the flowers in Lee's daydream.
  • Genre-Busting: Has elements of Black Comedy, Rom Com, Le Film Artistique, and Porn with Plot (but It's Not Porn, It's Art).
  • Grew a Spine: Lee, thanks to her non-standard relationship with Mr. Grey.
  • Hope Is Scary: It is strongly suggested that Lee would prefer not to leave the mental institution.
  • Idealized Sex: Averted except for the basic premise. Being one of the very few romantic comedies about BDSM, it is also one of very few romantic comedies that starts with the protagonist getting out of a mental hospital (and she didn't end up there out of some wacky misunderstanding).
  • In Medias Res
  • Internalized Categorism: At first, Edward believes that bondage is bad. It makes him very unfair to himself and his submissive, who he seems to blame for tempting him. Lee eventually manages to snap him out of it.
  • Intertwined Fingers: After the well-known spanking scene. Very brief and subtle.
  • Intimate Psychotherapy: Her relationship with Edward cures Lee's psychological problems; it can be argued that it also helped Edward.
  • Kinky Spanking: Lee Holloway's boss, Mr. Grey, was originally spanking Lee for typos.
  • Love Letter: Subverted: Edward's short letter is never sent, and Lee's message is a very unusual one, as it includes a living worm.
  • Office Romance: Spanking With The Boss.
  • One-Hour Work Week: Played realistically. Between the boss' near-crippling mental issues, Unresolved Sexual Tension and some very involved sex play, not much gets done at E. Edward Grey's office. However, it's never pretended that he's a successful or busy lawyer.
  • Paperworkaholic: Lee applies for a job as E. Edward Grey's secretary. At her job interview, Grey explains that the job consists of typewriting, filing etc., and warns her that "it's very dull work". Lee replies "I like dull work".
  • Pet the Dog: Mr. Grey's releasing the mice from the trap.
  • Potty Failure: Lee experiences one when Edward orders her to sit in his chair without moving her hands or feet until he returns, to prove her loyalty/submission. An order which she actually follows for days on end (Maybe that's also one of the reasons why the first thing Edward does after returning is bathing her).
  • Property of Love: The kind of relationship Lee wants, and gets in the end. The film is a mixture between drama and Romantic Comedy, revolving around the BDSM version of this trope. The main storyline is about the main character wanting to be truly owned by her boss.
  • Revised Ending: The original story ended with the protagonist quitting, feeling disgusted, and then being called by a reporter digging for dirt after "the lawyer" announced he was running for mayor. The movie ends on a much happier note.
    • Probably because in the story BDSM is played as a sexual deviancy and something "forbidden" while in the movie BDSM is shown as just another type of sexuality and as a normal and healthy expression for those with BDSM tendencies. The movie shows the protagonist becoming empowered and happy when finding someone to share her desires with and love. The story, well...
  • Safe Word: Lee uses it after Edward fires her.
  • Secret Test of Character: Edward's behaviour towards Lee near the beginning of the movie can be interpreted as this.
  • Sex Equals Love: BDSM Equals Love: The film doesn't really show Lee and Grey share anything other than their fetishes... unless you count the mutual inability to open up emotionally, a very deep shyness that they handle in different ways. A longing to really understand each other, without really daring to let it go anywhere.
    Lee: I took a shortcut through Hawkins Park, and it was as if I'd never taken a walk by myself before. And when I thought about it, I realized I probably never had taken a walk alone. But because he had given me the permission to do this, because he insisted on it. I felt held by him as I walked alone. I felt he was with me. At the same time, I was feeling something was 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 next day, I didn't even bring my cuticle scissors and my iodine. But I did make another typing mistake.
  • Shoo the Dog: Edward's decision to fire Lee may have been motivated by his intention not to hurt her in the future.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Purposeful, according to Word of God. To cite just one example, an alternative-rock rendition of "I Will Survive" plays when Peter and Lee have sex.
  • Truth in Television: See Extreme Doormat above. Anecdotally, there is nothing ironic about it at all. Many people who have submissive desires find themselves empowered when they are able to experience those desires with a caring partner. Further, Lee acting as the strong emotional center and her strength being what allows the dominant to embrace his role in their relationship is also quite common. It's called power exchange for a reason.
  • Virgin in a White Dress: Strongly subverted, as we know that when Lee puts on her wedding dress, she's far from innocent (nonetheless, after she does it, there is indeed a wedding.
  • You Make Me Sic: Mr. Grey's displeasure with Lee's spelling errors and typos are an entry into kinky sex.


Example of: