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“Secretary,” the motion picture, is a provocative and deformed love story. Viewers may go purple with rage or gray with disgust, while numerous may turn pink with humiliation in order to hide the red of stimulation. This motion picture crosses harmful mental territory: the limit between desire and discomfort, between surrender and subjugation. Gaitskill’s “Secretary” is more about submissiveness and “sexual perversion” (Garrett 1). Critic Regina Weinreich argues that Gaitskill’s debut is shocking and refreshing due to the neediness she portrays in her characters; their “vulnerablility makes them … victims of their own behavior” (Weinreich 1).
Steven Shainberg’s movie, working from a narrative by Mary Gaitskill, is about two particular characters. Some will claim that Shainberg’s movie makes sexual abuse palatable, keeps that women privately crave submission to a dominant male, and makes the case that embarrassment at the hands of a male can lead to psychological flexibility, not to point out all the dreadful things it implies about the position of secretaries.
Yet, “Secretary” is so consistent in its characters that it’s fair to say that only when it comes to these two weirdly pleasing people are any of the circumstances true to life. The film demonstrates how particular characters bridge their seclusion (Shainberg 3). The additions to the film adjustment of Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary” makes the story more remarkable and better validates the characters’ actions.
Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary” is about a frumpy wallflower who’s so “bruised emotionally” that she’s struggling to “connect with [her]self” (Weinreich 1).
She gets a job as a secretary and ends up in a strange sadomasochistic relationship with her employer. It’s a great premise for a story, especially in its absurd moments, as when the lawyer begins to spank his new hire for every typo she commits. Gaitskill is an insightful writer; her stories are “lean and quick and tightly controlled,” yet the end of “Secretary” is flat, and too serious (Garrett 1). Gaitskill’s humor in “Secretary” is dry and teasingly salacious; it’s a more subtle incitement of sadomasochism. Having been spanked and sexually humiliated by her employer, the narrator feels estranged from her own body. And she likes that estrangement; it fires her sexual fantasies.
When you finish reading the story, you think to yourself, “So what? Why should I care for this character?” The secretary begins and remains much the same. She is the kind of person who suffers from such low self-esteem that she invites and accepts abuse. She “frequently wonder[s] if there’s something wrong with [herself]” (Hallgren 2). You can’t blame the lawyer for maltreating her and you find yourself wishing that he’d managed to knock some sense into her. It’s hard to feel for anyone so stubborn and resigned. The protagonist in the story wasn’t known to enjoy pain before the incident, so it’s hard to justify how she responds to her boss’s abuse. The only explanations for her reaction are that she was bewildered, curious, or simply passive and submissive (Kakutani 1).
In the movie, Lee Holloway is a lost young woman with family issues. She’s just been discharged from the asylum and has gone right back to what put her there in the first place, a compulsion to cut herself. Lee finds a job as a legal secretary at the office of attorney Edward Grey. When she first enters the office on a rainy morning, she’s wearing a hooded rain coat, which makes her look innocent and introverted compared to Grey in his business suit. The description of the lawyer in the story gave no real feeling of dominance, except that he had an aggressive hand shake. The movie, on the other hand, gives the audience a very clear image of his strength and control, and all his little quirks, such as the red markers he keeps and his built up energy that he exhausts by working out. In the film, the characters’ motives and personalities are “not only dramatically palatable but emotionally plausible” (McCarthy 1).
Once we get to know Grey, we learn that he’s trying to let out his inner pervert, and the effort is making him into a repressed wretch; his eyes bulge with suppressed rage and fear. Lee is the fly the spider cannot resist. Through their increasingly bizarre relationship, Lee follows her deepest longings to the heights of masochism and finally to a place of self-affirmation. The boss-secretary relationship starts to take on master-slave overtones before the big moment when, as punishment for a couple of innocent typos, Grey demands that Lee bend over his desk so he can administer a few thwacks across her ass. Lee is transformed.
As Lee submits to this humiliation, she experiences an “exhilarating release and a shock of recognition” (Ansen 1). The episode allows her to stop the impulse of cutting herself. Louise Pembroke, a self-mutilator herself, argues that “S&M is not a self-harm substitute. Pain as pleasure is not the same as pain from self-injury” as the film suggests (Pembroke 3). Joe Queenan believes that “Lee has [just] found a less destructive and more socially acceptable outlet for her . . . masochistic tendencies” (Queenan 1). As she and Grey continue their dominance/submission games, she begins to dress better, carry herself with confidence and lose the social awkwardness that was her personality. In Gaitskill’s story the spanking incident was “just another quality in the cumulative discovery of character” (Johnson 1). Debby came to little if any revelation in the story.
The characterization of Lee makes “Secretary” a charming comedy. As she puts up with the conventional courtship practices of her gentle but dull boyfriend, who is not in Gaitskill’s story, she’s as ungainly and self-conscious as a stranger. Peter asks Lee “‘I didn’t hurt you did I?’ after a bout of imagination-free sex. Lee stares into space, her gaze signaling, ‘If only'” (Kemp 2). The spanking incident leads to a flowering of Lee’s sexual self that pushes aside the boyfriend, her twittery mother, her snotty sister and her drunk father. Grey’s imperious manner and his imposing office are the triggers that allow Lee to escape her cocoon and become a kinky sadomasochist butterfly.
The twist here is that Grey is hounded by shame and it’s up to Lee to rescue him from his self-loathing. This helps show the film’s point that sexual liberation lies with surrender to one’s own kinks, and that even perverts deserve to find a soul mate. Lee was “so profoundly moved by someone having discovered her secret source of satisfaction” that she was able to be open about it (McCarthy 2). “Secretary” is, at its core, a little love story which dares to suggest that genuine love can come from sexual dominance. In the written story, the lawyer doesn’t show any remorse, except to send Debby a severance check. And, Debby barely comes to any epiphany over the strange occurrence with her boss.
In the film, however, the secretary begins as a self-conscious cutter and transforms into a free and beautiful woman. This is what distinguishes the film as truly perverse; it envisions S&M not as a stereotypical session with whips and chains, but rather as a force capable of transforming a person. Before the sadomasochistic relationship developed, Lee mutilated herself privately. When their relationship began to unfold, “it [was] as if [Lee admitted] somebody else into [her] private world” of masochism (Shainberg 1). The protagonist of Gaitskill’s story seems to accept the sadistic behavior of her boss as a reinforcement of her own piteousness, whereas the protagonist of the movie attains a kind of self-liberation through it.
When Lee submits to the lawyer’s demand that she sit at his desk until he returns in order to prove her love, she undergoes an endurance test. She waits there with her hands flat on his desk as day turns into night and back again to day, eating and drinking nothing, urinating on her fiance’s mother’s wedding dress, and enduring confrontations with her fiance, family members, a priest and tv crews. The effect of this incredible act of submission, which is found in the film but not the story, is not to reinforce the secretary’s low self-esteem, but to demonstrate that she finds within herself a power to endure.
She approaches the act not as though it were a psychodrama but as though it was a contest of self-restraint. Her ability to suffer surpasses the lawyer’s ability to enjoy the spectacle of suffering, her masochism exceeds his sadism, and with this realization they enter into a strange new territory: a loving relationship in which the usual imbalance of power between sadist and masochist is offset by the strength of her masochism. The two characters seem destined for each other.
Mary Gaitskill’s short story is well written, but touches more on abuse and submissiveness than sadomasochism and love. Gaitskill shows the characters relationship as being determined “by the convergence of mutually compatible fantasies,” rather than “such abstract passions as love, hate or desire,” which are portrayed in the film (Kakutani 1). The movie is much more intriguing and effective at getting a point across. Short stories, unlike films, are limited in the amount of information that can be portrayed, and the depth of which characters can be depicted. The protagonist’s self inflicted pain, her horrible family ties, and her boyfriend are just a few of the additions to Gaitskill’s story that make the plot and characters in the movie stronger.
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