Grey Area: SECRETARY And The Limits of Control

Sorry, Christian Grey - E. Edward Grey did it first.

One of the greatest human flaws is our desire to control the uncontrollable -- the heedless determination to bend circumstances to our will, and the relentless frustration and resigned despair when life refuses to conform to our desires. We have many ways of coping with these daily defeats: we can simply accept that we have no control over others or the situations that will arise regardless of our preferences to the contrary; we can reject that which is inevitable and attempt to force a different outcome, resulting in further unhappiness; or we can seek relief through various vices against our better judgment, redirecting our energy and focusing on that which we can control.

In Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lee Holloway seeks comfort in the form of self-mutilation, ritualistically cutting her skin -- it’s a symbolic act which allows her to feel as though she determines her own fate, that she holds the power over what happens to her life. She cuts to feel. She cuts to stop the feeling. She cuts to distract herself from her father’s alcoholism, and her mother’s overbearing and needless nurturing, from the well-meaning boy who likes her and the pressure to settle. She cuts so she can see her inner pain rise to the surface, so she knows that she is here, that she is alive, and that her pain is real. She cuts herself so that her outsides can reflect her insides; the physical pain is both relief from and evidence of her suffering.

E. Edward Grey (career sexual deviant James Spader) hires Lee as his secretary at his private law office, and through his measured pauses and calculated sentences we come to understand that Mr. Grey also desires control. We understand that his ex-wife emasculates him and has perhaps driven him to engage in dominant behavior as a defense mechanism, as a way to ensure that his heart cannot be broken again. Both Lee and Mr. Grey have constructed thick walls to guard themselves emotionally, and while Lee tries to supplant her inability to control her circumstances with self-harm, Mr. Grey attempts to nurture his inner wounds by establishing dominance over women like Lee -- a woman who can hardly admit to herself that she enjoys suffering because it always leads to the relief that comes from cutting, from ultimately submitting to the pain.

Years before Fifty Shades of Grey tackled the subject of dominance and submission, Steven Shainberg gave us the poignant and darkly humorous Secretary. It’s an incredibly sexy and beautiful film, a wonderfully and appropriately quirky story about exploring sexual power dynamics in order to reconcile our issues with control. The sexually-charged interplay between Mr. Grey and Lee as he guides her into submission, punishing her for her clerical errors with stern lectures and spankings, escalates right up to the edge of actual sexual interaction without ever granting that release. Their relationship is the embodiment of the practice of edging, masturbating without ever allowing yourself to orgasm; similarly, Mr. Grey engages Lee in dominant and submissive roleplay (saddling her like a horse, instructing her to crawl, verbally berating her for her errors) without interacting with her sexually. Even still, their dynamic is just as intimate as intercourse.

Fifty Shades of Grey approaches the dominant and submissive relationship by portraying the submissive as utterly powerless and without agency. In actuality, the submissive party is the person with all the power, the person who asks to be dominated, and the person who often initiates, and both parties have equal agency -- either partner can call the whole thing off at any time, for any reason. This becomes problematic when Secretary’s Mr. Grey masturbates and ejaculates on Lee’s back, essentially using her and treating her like a fragile, crumpled wad of tissue. In this moment, Mr. Grey has completely dismissed Lee’s desires, and she becomes less of a willing participant and more like a reluctant tube sock.

Secretary isn’t solely about using sexual domination as a means to rectify our everyday powerlessness, but about the ways we can learn through this roleplay to surrender ourselves and accept our lack of control. Mr. Grey’s obsession with domination is about both his prior emasculation via his ex-wife and his need to mentally sculpt a woman to create an ideal partner. Lee’s obsession with submission is just as complex: she needs to loosen up and learn to let go, but she also enjoys physical pain as a form of relief. From this relationship, Lee gathers the self-esteem and confidence she needs to be a more dominant human being, expressing herself more directly than she ever has, and refusing to bend to the will of others. Lee is able to unite both her dominant and submissive sides, while Mr. Grey simply refuses to submit -- to Lee, to love, and to accepting that he can’t possibly have control over every aspect of his life … or Lee’s, for that matter. She is still a human being with her own wants and needs, with her own desires and feelings.

Love is the ultimate act of submission -- allowing yourself to love and allowing yourself to let someone else love you. In order to love, we must surrender and tear down the walls that we put up to keep people away from the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. But those walls have a tendency to keep the good out as well as the bad. Lee finds it hard to open up to Mr. Grey, arriving on his doorstep in the middle of the night when her father is hospitalized, tripping over her own words: “I wanted you… I needed you…” And that’s when they’ve both reached a line that, for Mr. Grey, cannot be crossed; her half-finished sentences betray her true feelings enough.

In the end, Mr. Grey must surrender himself to Lee and allow her to love him, and submit to his love for her in return. “We can’t do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says, and a teary-eyed Lee defies him: “Why not?”

Lee stages a strike at Mr. Grey’s desk, refusing to eat, drink, or move until he finally relents. In this moment she is both dominant and submissive because one half cannot function without the other to make it whole. People are not simply either/or, sub/dom -- love ultimately functions in that grey area in between.

This was originally published in the February issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Secretary at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!