Spank You Very Much, Sir

by Niels Strandskov

It seems strange that a culture which clings so doggedly to women’s social, economic and emotional submission should find a movie like Secretary so exhilaratingly novel and wicked. But try as you may to epater les bourgeoisie, they have a remarkable capacity to absorb it and come back for more shocks. In fact, as Secretary proves, you need merely dress up some hoary romantic treacle with a little spanking action and hey presto: you have to beat the customers off with a stick.

That is the world we live in though, even if the characters in Secretary inhabit an BDSM (an acronym for Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission and Sado-Masochism) fantasy story set in the Pottery Barn catalog. Maggie Gyllenhaal is the titular secretary, a frumpy, anxious gamine who ritually cuts herself – ostensibly because of her dysfunctional middle-class family. More probably though, because it gives the filmmakers a pat answer to the question: Why would a modern woman willingly submit to the masochist’s role in BDSM relationship? Gyllenhaal’s self-mutilation is convenient, but ultimately unnecessary in explaining why she lets her employer, an eccentric, affluent lawyer played by James Spader, mentally and physically dominate her. Though her neurosis excuses the filmmakers from providing better reasons for some of her more bizarre behavior, the main impetus behind her submissive posture is achingly familiar.

When we meet Gyllenhaal’s character, she’s just been released from an inpatient mental health facility. Whether or not she’s been healed, it’s clear that the cure will be temporary, as it’s back to her dismal home life: a drunken father and clueless mother with more money than taste; no good prospects for work or marriage and an intense sense of estrangement. With typing-test scores in hand, she marches into Spader’s office and is promptly hired. Little does she realize that she has flown right into the spider’s web. Spader’s character is more interested in fertilizing his orchids and moping around his opulent tropical office than in his lawyering. He cunningly assumes a disheveled, non-threatening appearance to break down her defenses, such as they are. Gyllenhaal’s typographical errors are the excuse he needs to begin ensnaring her in his personality. Naughtiness ensues.

After the initial spanking, Spader assumes control of Gyllenhaal and we are treated to a brief montage of other BDSM play images, though the rest of the spankings happen behind closed doors. As Gyllenhaal comes to depend on their activities to keep her sane and happy, the locus of power slowly shifts from the dominant to the submissive. Spader is upset by his proclivities, while Gyllenhaal revels in them. Earlier in the film, a little Ericksonian hypnosis has cured her of her dependence on her scalpels. Newly aware of her sexuality, she glows with liberation (symbolized of course by a slinky new walk and sexy new clothes.)

This turnabout proves too much for the higher-functioning, but still neurotic Spader. He freaks out and fires her, and she tries pursuing relationships with other dominants, but the thrill is absent. At the last moment before an ill-considered marriage to her dowdy high-school friend, she is beset by a fit of assertiveness and runs back to Spader, who puts her through a three day ordeal of forced position-holding. Finally, touched by her devotion, he agrees to marry her.

Spader’s acquiescence to marriage and a continued BDSM relationship doesn’t validate her perversion though. It isn’t him that she submits to you see – in fact, she practically has to handcuff him to get him to agree to marry her and install her in his fashionable, immaculate suburban home. This is not a nasty movie about debauchery and licentiousness at all. Instead we get another helping of the pabulum that posits that the best motivation for going on with your life and not rocking the boat is to fall deeply in love. (Preferably with a man who’s a notch or two above you in the class hierarchy.) Then you can retire in obscurity as another piece of his expensive furniture. The denouement, with Gyllenhaal grinning as she packs Spader off for work and slumps into a patio chair prompts the question: what is his new secretary like?

Secretary, Rated R. Directed by Steven Shainberg. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader and Leslie Ann Warren. Now playing at The Uptown Theatre.