“Why is he spanking her?”
“Because she likes it.”
“Oh . . . why?”
My best friend introduced the BDSM cult classic Secretary to me when I was fifteen years old. At that point in my life, I was a bit wet behind the ears, to say the least. I was attending church five times per week – of my own volition, mind you. And my friends were the ones who let me know that I’d lost my virginity to a girl. Why? Because I was too naïve to know how gay sex worked.
Secretary is about a typist and her boss who fall in love and do lots of BDSM before they even kiss (I love that they waited so long to bone!) I walked away from my first viewing with, “The boss was creepy and the girl had bad posture.” Almost twenty years later, I got a wild hair to rewatch the film from my decidedly slutty and permanently defiled BDSM enthusiast perspective. Here’s what I found.
What Secretary got right:
1. The main character finds her unique strength as a submissive.
Freshly released from a mental institution, Lee (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is portrayed as awkward, frumpy, hunched over, and fond weird and icky things. Needless to say, I’m head over heels for this character. Her latent qualities of determination and self-assuredness are hinted at from the beginning and drawn out into demonstrative acts of submission as the film progresses. She even works dead worms and cockroaches into her proclivity toward bratting. It’s clear that BDSM is about more than being a masochist; it’s about developing strength of character and coming into one’s own.
2. Secretary did not lean on lavish dungeons or BDSM props to sell the plot.
Instead, it represented something akin to real-life Dom/sub couples, most of whom make due with whatever items they have on hand, acting out scenes in the areas most convenient to their day-to-day living. While pro Dommes and kinky influencers may have an eyeball-widening selection of BDSM gear, most people in the lifestyle enjoy repurposing household items and saving their pennies for a few specialty purchases (like artisanal floggers, handmade bondage rope, and maybe a Violet Wand.) While props and dungeons are wonderful, they are not necessary to achieve a fulfilling D/s relationship.
3. Mr. Grey used his position as a Dominant to stop Lee from self-harming.
While much is to be said about the potential abuse of power in a D/s relationship, Secretary delivered a beautiful example of a submissive being empowered by her Dominant (played by James Spader.) I also like that it “went there” as far as not shying away from the fact that some folks who are drawn to the lifestyle do have a history of using pain in destructive ways. But then again, there is also an aspect that I don’t like the self-harm inclusion . . . you can read more in the “what could have been better” section.
4. Lee listened to a tape on coming out as a BDSM submissive.
It’s good for the media to model that there are resources for further educating oneself on kink. BDSM isn’t just a fantasy that one picks up like a new pair of heels for next weekend’s fetish party. While it can be engaged with casually, Dom/sub frenzy more often than not drives newbies to want more. It’s a lifestyle that can provide incredible healing, growth, community, but if handled improperly, destruction as well. Folks who want to learn more should check out our BDSM blog, read the book Ultimate Guide To Kink and follow Morgan Thorne BDSM on YouTube.
5. Lee said some profound shit.
Her big argument when Mr. Grey threw every objection in the book at her was, “I want to know you.” It wasn’t “I need you to be this thing for me,” or “I need you to play this role in my life,” but something that was indescribably pure . . . “I want to know you.” That is fucking beautiful.
What could have been better about Secretary:
An un-negotiated cold spanking scene is NOT the way to introduce impact play to a partner. Not to mention that they weren’t partners at this point. They had a flirtatious boss/employee relationship, and then he bends her over the desk and slaps her as HARD with no warm-up or consent. Don’t do that. Besides possibly inflicting physical, psychological, and emotional damage on another (who in this case was much younger and less experienced), he could have rightly gotten his ass sued and kissed his career goodbye (though possibly less so as a cis white male attorney in a misogynistic society.)
2. Mr. Grey didn’t take responsibility for his f*cked up anger issues.
He could’ve and he should’ve! If your Sir can’t own up to his anger issues, he is not a suitable candidate for power exchange. Also remember, anger issues are not definitive of D-types. Mr. Grey was one particularly tight wound attorney who was also going through a divorce and had a history of treating people shittily and getting away with it. He should have at least said, “Sorry, I will never verbally abuse you again. Unless you’ve given consent. In which case it wouldn’t be abuse but part of a degradation scene. Do you forgive me?”
3. The representation of Lee’s self-harm and daddy issues.
My feelings about this are complicated. It’s true that yes, people who have histories of self-harm and daddy issues sometimes do enter the BDSM lifestyle (I’m one of them), and I love that Secretary was not kink-shaming around this. Some of the most powerful scenes I’ve witnessed at play parties were intentionally designed to trigger and work through people’s trauma. However, it would be unfortunate for the mainstream public to view this film and use it to pathologize kinksters as “they’re that way because they had a messed up childhood.” For every kinkster who came from a history of abuse, there is also one who was raised in a loving family and just so happens to enjoy a good spanking after their weekly knitting circle or PTA meeting.
4. Their peer-to-peer discussion. As in, the only one.
I appreciate that their peer-to-peer discussion was messy and imperfect, just as it would likely be in real life. But in an ideal world, peer-to-peer discussions would happen regularly and in a context that wasn’t so dodgy. Something like, “Hey I like a lot of things about this relationship that’s forming between us. Can we work together to establish some agreements so that it’s healthy and sustainable for everyone involved?” But then again, an interesting movie that would not make.
5. Neither of them had support outside the relationship.
Again, it would be out of the scope of this movie to dig into the mundanity of kink education and support systems. But when it comes to life outside of movies, one must have kink-friendly support from people who are not involved in the dynamic. Therapists, leather clubs, online support groups, and discussion circles abound and should be consulted throughout one’s BDSM journey.
Disclaimer for my people: this movie is very white and heteronormative. If you’re looking for a film that is BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disability, and fat inclusive . . . this is not that film.
Would I recommend this movie to a friend?
Hell fucking yes I would! I love that the characters are vulnerable, eccentric, and connecting deeply through their BDSM journey. The Dominant’s weaknesses and the submissive’s strengths are brought to the forefront from a lens that is more compassionate than it is pathologizing. And not to be a spoiler but there is a bathtub scene at the end that brought me to tears. And I may have watched that clip on repeat while writing this article.
. . .
“Each cut, each scar, each burn, a different mood or time. I told him what the first one was, I told him where the second one came from; I remembered them all. And for the first time in my life I felt beautiful, finally part of the earth. I touched the soil and he loved me back.” – Lee Halloway, Secretary
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