Follow TV Tropes


Film / Secretary

Go To

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.

Lesley Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie play Lee's parents. Jeremy Davies plays Lee's boring would-be boyfriend Peter.


  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: Gaitskill's story portrays the lawyer as a more exploitative character, and the protagonist aroused but unsettled by his advances. After he escalates the relationship she stops going to work, clearly traumatized, and receives a settlement from her boss to keep quiet; later, a reporter calls her when the lawyer announces he's running for mayor, digging for dirt from his past. The movie ends on a much happier note, the protagonist becoming empowered and happy when finding someone to share her desires with and love. The story, well...
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original story is only 15 pages long, and the protagonist is not named.
  • The Alcoholic: Lee's father, who's drunk at Lee's sister's wedding reception in the opening scene. Lee says "I thought you stopped." Later he goes on a real bender, wandering drunk and dazed around some of the seamier parts of Los Angeles. He eventually ends up in the hospital and has entered a 12-step program by the time he reconciles with Lee at the end of the film.
  • 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.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Lee shoots one at Edward at the end of the film when he tries to protest their relationship.
    Edward: We can't do this twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
    Lee: Why not?
  • Aside Glance: In the last scene, Lee suddenly looks straight into the camera — and the effect is quite powerful.
  • Bathroom Control: At one point, as a part of their dom-sub dynamic, Edward tells Lee to sit in the chair until he returns, knowing full well she won't be able to use the toilet - and she eventually wets herself.
  • Bathtub Scene: Two of them. One of them when Lee first starts to feel good about herself and another at the end when she's finally comfortable with her self-image.
  • Beautiful All Along: When Lee's self-image finally becomes positive, we finally see her completely naked, relaxed, and lit with a warm yellow glow — reflecting how she now feels that she is beautiful.
  • Big Damn Kiss/Official Kiss: Averted, as First Kiss is not shown on the screen, and all the kisses which ARE shown are somehow non-standard (e.g., the characters Almost Kiss, one of them doesn't close their eyes etc.)
  • Bondage Is Bad: Edward seems to have this mindset in the beginning, giving him some internal conflict.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Complete with the Trope Namer in the role! Grey has an overly elaborate garden in his office, engages in kinky sex games with his secretary during work hours, and insists on things being typed rather than using computers, but by all accounts he's an excellent lawyer.
  • Can't Act Perverted Toward a Love Interest: Edward is ridden by guilt after exploring his BDSM needs with Lee. Commitment Issues ensue.
  • Can't Spit It Out: Although Lee gains a lot of self confidence she can't bring herself to actually ask for a spanking. She resorts to trying to provoke a response (bratting in BDSM parlance) which seems to upset Edward as he believes something is wrong with him for wanting to do so.
  • 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.
  • Chocolate of Romance: Offered Lee by Edward, twice. He offers her hot chocolate during their first heart-to-heart talk, when he's trying to get her to open up about her self-harm.
  • 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.
  • Creator Cameo: In a scene where three people are waiting for Mr. Grey in the office, one of them is screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson.
  • Creepy Good: Edward, who is glowering and intimidating in typical James Spader style but turns out to be a kind and patient lover.
  • Deconstruction: Of the brazen approach characters in love have toward their duties and job obligations. Lee's antics as she intentionally makes mistakes and tries to get Edward's attention prove problematic in that they are a distraction from the jobs they are actually supposed to be doing, even before getting into Edward's personal hangups about the nature of their relationship.
  • 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.
    1. * 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. BDSM makes her significantly more self assured. This true to life inversion of the common trope is one of the things that makes the film so popular with the BDSM community.
  • 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).
  • Grammar Correction Gag: Mr. Grey's displeasure with Lee's spelling errors and typos are an entry into kinky sex.
  • 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.
  • How We Got Here: The opening scene finds Lee in what's eventually revealed to be Mr. Grey's office, going about her regular routine—stapling some papers together, retrieving something from the printer, making coffee. The only odd thing about it is that she is wearing restraining device, a long bar with a collar around her neck and cuffs for both of her wrists, which forces both her arms to extend out sideways from her shoulders. After the scene ends a "six months earlier" card takes us to the beginning of the story.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • I "Uh" You, Too: Edward near the end of the movie.
  • Kinky Spanking: Lee Holloway's boss, Mr. Grey, was originally spanking Lee for typos.
  • Kubrick Stare: Lee, at her desk, shoots one of these at an unseeing Edward right before she deliberately leaves a typo in one of her letters, so he can spank her for it.
  • 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.
  • Master of the Mixed Message: Edward. He tends to bounce back and forth between enthusiastic BDSM and nothing at all; at one point he reverts to treating Lee like a regular old secretary again, after he's already had her up on his desk with a saddle on her back.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: Lee indulges in masturbation before getting up to go to work and again inside a public bathroom stall while fantasizing about her boss Mr. Grey "punishing her" for her grammar mistakes.
  • Mischief for Punishment: Once she realizes how much she likes spanking Lee starts making mistakes deliberately in order to get spanked, something that comes to define a large part of their dynamic. It's never identified as such in the movie but in BDSM this is usually called "bratting".
  • My Own Private "I Do": The two get married by a justice of the peace and then take off for a bondage-filled honeymoon weekend.
  • No Sparks: The reason Lee left Peter. Essentially, she feels no romantic spark with him whatsoever, as opposed to the hot D/s relationship she has going with Edward.
  • Obsessively Organized: Edward has a pretty severe case of it, given his demanding attitude towards Lee. It manifests itself in other ways besides his sex life; in the last scene he's instructing her that the pillows have to be stacked, biggest on the bottom and smallest on the top.
  • 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 uses live traps to catch the mice that infest his office, rather than the more familiar lethal snapping mousetraps. This leads first to a scene where he gently shows Lee how to set the traps properly, and later a scene where he takes one of the traps outside to release a mouse.
    • When Grey learns that Lee cuts herself as a form of self-harm, he talks to her about it, helping her articulate why she does it, and ordering her never to do it again. While the order itself is very firm in tone, the discussion is one of the gentler scenes they have in the entire film.
  • 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).
  • Power Dynamics Kink: This is how the relationship between Lee and Edward starts out: being punished turns her on, so she starts deliberately making errors in her typing. By the end of the movie, it moves into the territory of overt BDSM.
  • 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.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Lee and Grey are, by any reasonable measure, pretty terrible to Peter, whose biggest sin in the entire film is that he's not particularly assertive. A lot of the problems Lee has with him come down to her not being able or willing to communicate with him about her feelings towards him (or lack thereof).
  • Race for Your Love: Lee, near the end.
  • Revealing Hug: Any doubt that Lee is not interested in Peter is removed when the film shows her look of utter indifference while he's screwing her.
  • Runaway Fiancé: Having finally decided that Edward is what she really wants, she runs off from her wedding with Peter, while wearing her wedding dress.
  • 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 at Work: A receptionist begins an S&M relationship with her boss, and many of their sexual acts take place in his office.
  • 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.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: While Lee finds immediate fulfillment in being a submissive, Edward is racked with guilt and shame over his need to be a dominant. He even writes her a letter in which he says "This is disgusting. I don't know why I'm like this." He shreds it, and fires her instead.
  • Sexy Secretary: Part of the basic premise of the movie is that Lee is one.
  • Shoo the Dog: Edward's decision to fire Lee may have been motivated by his intention not to hurt her in the future.
  • Shrinking Violet: Lee at first. Unlike most movies where this would make her a cute Moe type, this is revealed in a crippling mental disorder that leaves her unable to function on a healthy level, where her only outlet is self-mutilation.
  • 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.
  • The Stoic: Edward, although really it's just a mask concealing his emotions.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Edward's true nature.
  • 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.
  • Uncanny Atmosphere: Edward's office is filled with it. When Lee first comes to the office, the front area is an absolute mess with things scattered all over the place as if it had been ransacked, yet Edward's actual office room is spotless, and he's carefully checking his hair before talking to Lee. For some odd reason, he uses darts to push the buttons on his phone instead of touching the phone with his fingertips.
  • 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).