People love sex. They like having it, they like talking about it, and they like seeing it. Even those who fight to have sex censored in popular culture are admitting that sex has driven them to distraction. Sex sells consumer products, it livens up a dull conversation, and it makes celebrities out of talentless people. Yet, when a director attempts to put sex on film, he finds himself standing in a packed minefield. How much sex is too much? Is it distracting from the story? Where exactly is the line between R and X?
This is assuming that the sex in question is heterosexual, one man with one woman. It becomes nearly impossible to present a good story, artfully shot, while incorporating a bit of sexual deviancy, as the shock tends to eclipse whatever else the film may have to offer. So, when Steven Shainberg set out to film the story of a young, self-abusive woman who finds happiness with an employer who enjoys dominating her, he faced a difficult task How could he shoot this movie, remaining faithful to the characters and message, and have it be welcomed by audiences instead of criticized for its theme? In order to present masochism honestly in today’s cinema, Steven Shainberg had to translate it into performance art.
Secretary opens with Maggie Gyllenhaul sashaying down the hall in picture-perfect office attire. She collects papers, staples them, and fixes a cup of copy, all with a milk-maid’s bar securely fastened around her neck and wrists. This is the only prop in the movie that is directly associated with sadomasochism. She is wearing it with confidence, as though it was a piece of jewelry, and the fact that she is alone throughout her actions relieves the audience of the idea that it has been inflicted upon her by a stronger individual. Rather than being an instrument of bondage, it becomes simply a curious ornament. Yet, because it is something designed only for bondage, the audience cannot escape the fact that she is quite definitely in a submissive position.
The very absence of S&M toys and props in this movie is important. After all, E. Edward Grey might very well have an entire collection of whips, gags, and nipple clamps in one of his office closets, seeing as he is experienced and has the money to spend on such things. Also, this relationship is set in today’s society, which suggests that these things might be purchased easily without raising suspicion, so it wouldn’t be unlikely to have a personal collection. Yet, if the director had chosen to introduce any sex toys in this movie it would have shifted the focus directly to the idea of masochism by forcing it physically into daylight.
The props chosen by Steven Shainberg for the film are much more subtle. Instead of wielding whips and paddles, E. Edward Grey uses his red felt tip pens as objects of domination. Although they are perfectly traditional office supplies, his obsessive treatment of them as extraordinary, as well as the close filming of the red ink splashing onto the paper, turns them into highly sexual objects. It is a theatrical sexuality, however, and the audience becomes an accomplice in the acceptance of the pens as being sexually significant, whereas a scene involving a “real” sex toy would alienate the audience and force them into the situation.
In this same way, the audience is given a choice as to the sexual significance of the carrot and saddle. This is the only instance, besides the milk-maid’s bar, in which E. Edward Grey presents Lee with props in order to make her feel more submissive. Therefore, the audience could feel that he is dominating her with common objects, humiliating her by physically gagging and burdening her. Yet, the saddle and carrot, combined with their office attire and the hay strewn neatly around the desk, become semi-comedic. Lee appears to be smirking as though she were in on the joke, and the presentation of the carrot is much more matter-of-fact than humiliating. So, the audience glimpses a playfulness to the relationship which almost keeps it from being masochistic.
Another prop which pulls the focus away from the masochistic side of the relationship is the use of orchids. The orchids are constantly in the background. They are delicate and beautiful, demanding devotion and fervid care, which quickly makes them a stand-in for the relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey. The audience is repeatedly shown images of Mr. Grey carefully tending the flowers and, in an almost too-obvious shot, the camera focuses in on a Polaroid of Lee “planted” among them. By giving James Spader’s character the orchids, in contrast to the red pens, the director is showing in a very traditional manner that there is a side to this dominant figure which involves total love and devotion. These props, therefore, prepare the audience to accept that Lee and Mr. Grey can enter a relationship in which she is not held down, but rather profits by completely succumbing to his total devotion.
The orchids first appear in a beautiful shot in which Lee, dripping and wrapped in a terribly fake purple slicker, turns and witnesses with open-mouthed awe the delicate flowers receiving a light mist. This scene, which takes place in the comfortable depths of Mr. Grey’s office, seems to offer Lee a simple beauty that she cannot find anywhere else. Indeed, the director’s choice in setting throughout the film makes it clear that Lee’s life outside of the office is garish and artificial. Her house is always pictured in a bright, unhealthy light, similar to her mother’s forced cheerfulness. Even in the safety of her room, things are glittery and multi-colored. In a way, the director’s choices for Lee’s house are very noisy, cinematically. There doesn’t seem to be a place where Lee can simply blend in, as she so desperately wants to do.
The design for her encounters with Peter is similar. There is a sense of unreality to their encounters, which take place in fluorescent lighting with large plastic cups and ugly dogs. Everything is too busy to be romantic, completely lacking serenity. Even in the scene where they have sex, they are in a room with striped orange wallpaper and he’s wearing yellow socks. The setting is so ugly, it’s impossible to take the relationship seriously. The audience is forced to see Peter as a side character, a clown, a problem. By connecting everything “traditional” in Lee’s romantic life with repelling textures and colors, the director highlights the phoniness of those situation.
E. Edward Grey’s office is the complete opposite. The colors are natural and warm, with deep, rich tones. The entire set is decorated with boudoir items, thick rugs and heavy couches. Of all the settings in the film, the office is the only one that appears safe, which makes it very appropriate as the place where Lee discovers her sexuality. In reality, it is so ornate that it doesn’t resemble an office very much at all. The long hallway and heavy doors suggest something much more gothic than a law office. It almost seems dramatically inappropriate.
On the other hand, if Steven Shainberg had chosen to present this story in a typical office setting, the audience would have a much harder time feeling that Lee Holloway was in a safe environment. Scenes involving a boss residing dominantly over a secretary are more often associated with either sexual harassment demonstration videos or stereotypical office porn. The idea of Lee receiving a spanking from her employer while bent over a metal desk, surrounded by plastic ferns and fluorescent lighting, is much more dangerous, psychologically, for both the character and the audience. The only way to safely present a masochistic situation like this is to present it in a setting so over-the-top in its sexuality, yet natural enough to be completely acceptable.
This same translating of hyper-traditional into sexual is present in the choice of costumes. Maggie Gyllenhaul enters the film in a collection of hideous, suburbanite outfits which seem to represent a complete lack of control over her life. As she is changed by her relationship with Mr. Grey, the outfits become so tailored and secretary-perfect that they appear almost impossible. She seems to always be in costume, making her place in the office clearly a dramatic role she has chosen to exhibit herself in. The pinnacle of costuming choices, her wedding gown, appears at the direct moment of her act of power: the total submission to E. Edward Grey.
By having Lee costumed in a wedding gown, during a scene in which she starves, soils, and exhibits herself for his pleasure, the director is able to keep Lee from appearing to be a victim. In fact, the wedding dress, traditionally a signifier of a woman’s entrance into her perfect life, empowers her and highlights the fact that this submissive act is actually the strongest thing she does in the film. It also shades their masochistic relationship with romantic overtones. Although he is responsible for her starved and soiled state, the shot of Mr. Grey cradling Lee, wrapped in her wedding dress, is lovingly intimate.
Not using the clothing traditionally associated with masochism, such as black leather and rubber, the director effectively sidesteps the negative and frighteningly alien image society has of people involved in such activities. The absence of any direct signifiers of BDSM behavior is very important, as is the presentation of the other masochistic relationships encountered in the film. The audience sees briefly the main character’s attempts to find a replacement for E. Edward Grey after her dismissal. The choices, both in casting and setting, made by the director in these quick shots have a monumental effect on the way the audience sees the main relationship. The first of these dates is short and ugly, with the uncomfortable air of possible perversion around him. He is nothing in physical appearance when compared with James Spader’s character. The next date is dirty, in unkempt hair and clothing. There is a perfect shot of him haphazardly spraying mustard on a pair of hotdogs during a voiceover dealing with urination for sexual gratification. Both the messiness of the mustard and the severe contrast between the disorder and the neat, obsessively pristine office of E. Edward Grey, drive a hard dividing line between this sexual encounter and the encounters between Lee and her lawyer.
The final scene between Lee and her want-ad masochists involves Maggie Gyllenhaul in a garish green dress throwing tomatoes at a fully-dressed, normal-looking man while he is tied to a stove. The scene is beyond over-the-top in its ridiculousness and, because it is only flashed on the screen for a moment, there is no chance for the audience to understand the logic in this man’s behavior. It simply must be discarded as purely crazy. By creating this quick montage of scenes where these other masochists so obviously appear perverted, dirty, and insane, the director manages two effects. First, the character of E. Edward Grey suddenly appears safer and much more normal than these other men, which lightens the apprehension the audience might have as to whether or not he’s suffering mentally. Secondly, the explicit exaggeration of these scenes lends credibility to the events in Mr. Grey’s office, which allows the audience to take them seriously, despite their staged presentation.
The choices made by Steven Shainberg in this film balance out the outrageous plotline without forcing the audience to allow masochism to slip into their consciousnesses. Those audience members seeking the masochistic undertones are gratified by the enrichment of everyday objects, clothing and conversation with heavy sexual significance. Those audience members not prepared to accept masochism in all its glory can be satisfied with the idea that this isn’t really masochism (as masochism seems to involve urination and tomatoes) but rather a stretch into the unusual for what is otherwise a successful, attractive, heterosexual couple.
This translation of a script heavy with sexual deviance into a movie “safe enough” to be critically acclaimed is achieved by filming it as a type of thespian experiment. The emphasis on props, setting, and costumes constantly remind the audience that they are watching a production, and these reminders serve to protect the audience from being shocked by the situation itself. Therefore, although the script remains faithful to the feelings of the main characters, as well as the physical acts of domination, it manifests it into something easily digestible for today’s audiences.