Progress Not Perfection: The Work of Ariel Schudson

SECRETARY and Adaptation: The Telephone Theory

Our Story Begins…

So, a long, long, time ago in my academic kingdom far far away (read: somewhere pre-2007), I wrote this paper on the film Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002). At the time, my main fascination was in what I was calling “adaptation theory.” I have no idea what it is actually termed. I read all kinds of things about palimpsests, discussed certain films as “cinematic cover songs” and really loved that portion of my academia. Truth be told, I still do. But hell- I love any kind of intertextual work. I believe that it broadens the mind. Tragically, more judgement come from this than anything else as well.i-dont-always-read-the-book-but-when-i-do-its-better-than-the-movieMy belief in this area is an apples and oranges one: both vitamin-filled, different textures, completely different tastes, both fruit, both can be equally enjoyable, no? In any case, I wrote this paper on Secretary and it wasn’t the most popular take. Many people thought it was a “liberating indie film.” Others griped “But it was so sexy, didn’t you see that?” Then again, I’m not sure all of these people read the entirety of my paper or just bits and pieces and my proposal. Oh, media studies grad school.

I remain steadfastly proud of this paper and the work I did on it, even if I might write it a bit differently today. But I am also quite a bit older and I have *ahem* lived a bit more. I do think that the film is pretty sexy and I think that I am dead wrong in some areas. But I’m not wrong enough to rewrite the whole thing. I’m wrong in the way that a passionate academic in her early 20’s who has been involved in the S&M scene (which I was) could be. I was young and re-reading it over the last few days (making a few edits, it was a fucking mess y’all) my academic fervor was there but it could have been more focused.

I know that Secretary is a better film than this 50 Shades crap. That the time I spent with the short story, screenplay and film taught me the process a work goes through to become a film and it taught me how feminism is one of the first things to be discarded in the process from book to screen. And in a film about fabulous beautiful sexy S&M relationships like the one between Spader and Gyllanhaal, that was the ONE thing that should’ve been kept in. I hope you enjoy this piece, creaks and cracks and grad school spiderwebs and all.



Most of us have some kind of memory of sitting around playing the game Telephone. Fidgeting in that pre-adolescent manner, giggling and whispering the given set of terms to our peers, somewhere along the lines hoping that the sentence you told your neighbor would result in something totally different by the time it got to the last person in the circle who would be forced to say the phrase out loud. A message that started out on one end as a completely functional and substantive piece of language, ended up on the other side as a bunch of strange words that bore little to no relation to each other. Perhaps, like many, you might have even tried to manipulate the words yourself, to try to make it “funnier,” or maybe you even whispered it extra softly, so that the person, straining to hear, might not pick all of it up, which, again, would make it “funnier.” As far as games go, Telephone was entertaining and harmless. It taught us about the trials and tribulations of communication.

In my study of the film Secretary, I found that director Steven Shainberg was the last link in a very particular version of Telephone. Author Mary Gaitskill’s original short story was the original “sentence.” This then passed through the hands of screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and landed in the lap of director Shainberg. The irony of this situation was that it was the final link, Shainberg, who did the most manipulating and seemed to have mangled the meaning of the original “sentence.”

I have struggled with the issues in and around this film. To be honest, I found myself very torn. At first, I thought “Finally! Someone addressed issues of alternative sexuality in a way that does not stigmatize/demonize them! Hooray!” But before I could throw my little “Yay Alternative Sexuality” party, I came to realize, through further inquiry, that the oasis I had found was nothing more than a mirage, and the “positive representation” I had seen, was actually quite damaging.

Lost in Translation(s)

Reading Mary Gaitskill’s short story, it is difficult to see how her clinical and slightly frigid story got turned into a film that was described sweetly as “a gently bent old-fashioned romance.” (Dargis 17). On the other hand, reading Erin Cressida Wilson’s screenplay, it is equally hard to imagine how her piece, which constantly engages the reader in challenging depictions of women’s roles and representations, was translated into a movie that smacks of misogynist archetypes and patriarchal values. I maintain that had this film been made by either the original author or the screenwriter herself the end result would have been strikingly different. That film would have explored alternative forms of sexual expression as well as actively supporting strong female agency. Shainberg’s film takes any previous engagements with feminist ideology and emasculates them, trapping them inside a text that does nothing for women but re-inscribe familiar, patriarchal values.

In order to better elucidate the methodical and intentional distortion of the original text of Secretary, it is integral to give a synopsis of each work. By doing this, we can better see how each successive text gave the original new meaning in addition to creating entirely new texts with Gaitskill’s short story as the skeleton structure.

Published in her anthology, Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary,” relates the story of Debby Roe, a young woman living at home with her parents and older sister, Donna. Upon graduation from typing school, Debby goes about trying to find a job. After several fruitless interviews, she tries for a position as a secretary in a lawyer’s office. Her interview is strange, but Debby receives a call from the leaving secretary the next day, and she accepts the job.bad-behavior

Work seems fine, until the day Debby makes a typing error. The lawyer comes out of his office, “eyes lit up in a peculiar, stalking way,”(Gaitskill 137) and admonishes her strongly. This happens several times that week, until finally she is called into his office, where she receives a talk about how she should “feel free” to discuss any and all personal problems with him. The next day, Debby makes another typing mistake. But this time she does not receive the same treatment. She goes into his office, and is told to put her elbows and the letter on the desk, and read it out loud. She complies, at which point, the lawyer begins to spank her. Debby does not resist; she lets him continue.

One day, after yet another typing error, and another spanking, Debby is told to pull up her skirt, and pull down her panty hose and underwear. With some hesitation, she submits, and soon realizes that he is masturbating behind her, ejaculating upon her back and hips. The lawyer then tells her to “clean herself up,” and re-type the letter. Debby complies, and finishes the day. Even though this incident (like the others) causes her to be sexually aroused, she does not return to the office. After four days, when she had still not gone to work, her father asks her if she wasn’t “worried about taking so much time off.” She tells him that she’d quit, and she didn’t care because, “that lawyer was an asshole.” A short time later, she receives her last paycheck in the mail, complete with letter of apology and promise of good references, as well as two hundred dollars over what he had owed her. After seeing an article in the newspaper saying that her former employer is running for mayor in the upcoming elections, she receives a phone call. It is a reporter, seeking to ask her some questions. “To put it mildly,” the reporter says, “we think he has no business running for public office…He has an awful reputation, Miss Roe- which may not surprise you.” (Gaitskill 147) Her response is to say she can’t talk, and with that, hangs up the phone, and the story ends.773390edb6ba0496ca1f0e2ba4b1a963

Gaitskill’s text is a unique read. Cold and distant, the protagonist is intentionally removed and unpleasant, and the resolution unsatisfying, Molly Haskell called it one of Gaitskill’s “typically affectless tales of perversity recounted in loser drone monotone.” (Haskell i) From these descriptions, it is indeed hard to see how it ended up being made into a film at all. Retrospectively, however, it reads as a far more challenging work. Within its few pages, Gaitskill addresses sexual harassment, pleasure and discovery, in addition to assertions of power within a structure that seeks to eradicate power. All of these things are highly significant facets of the female experience. Debby’s refusal to return to the workplace signifies a refusal to submit to a situation where her subordinate status is being exploited. Debby also recuperates part of this experience through her own sexual pleasure by her reappropriation of the lawyer’s overt sexual abuse and harassment into a personally fulfilling sexual fantasy. As the phone call shows, she knows that she is really the one in control; with one word she could ruin his life. But she chooses not to, and Gaitskill ends the story there, revealing that sometimes, knowing your own power makes you more powerful than any potential mayoral candidate.

Unlike Gaitskill’s literary subtleties, Erin Cressida Wilson’s screenplay immediately engages the reader with a series of radical representations and dialectical transgressions, and in doing so, ruptures familiar conceptions of gender roles and sexual pleasure. Clearly, the screenplay for Secretary is a structural departure from the short story being that it is a screenplay. Beyond the conspicuously different formats, it is the striking additions and subtractions that Wilson made in her adaptation of Gaitskill’s work that separate these two works. The sequences that were enacted in the move from short story to screenplay do not function to erase Mary Gaitskill’s text, but to enunciate the previously understated feminist discourse. Beyond this, they amplify other elements within the narrative to create an even stronger statement. Wilson teases out the problematic issues and revels in them, something that a work such as Gaitskill’s did not have the luxury to do, perhaps as a result of the abbreviated short story format.419HHpKGkSL

The Gaitskill plotline mirrors Erin Cressida Wilson’s closely. There is a girl, she does go find a job at a lawyer’s office, and he does spank her. However, that is where the convergence in texts grinds to a screeching halt. Firstly, Debby Roe’s name has been updated to Lee Holloway. More critically, Lee does not leave the lawyer’s office after the ejaculation incident. In fact, Lee falls in love with the lawyer, and he with her (though that is not revealed with complete certainty until the last act). In between ejaculation and finale, however, we are made aware of Lee’s psychiatric history in mental institutions (she has a cutting disorder), we follow Lee’s more-than-slightly-ridiculous relationship with her “sort of” boyfriend Peter, and we watch her father’s descent into alcoholism and her mother’s attempts at recovery. Other rather fascinating characters that round out this cast are her super-hot sister Theresa and Theresa’s mousy husband, an assortment of her sister’s friends (most notably a radical-feminist lesbian artist!) and Lee’s doctor who she sees while she is working for the lawyer, and seems to specialize in sado-masochism (and not just discussing it, either).

Lee’s relationship with the lawyer (named E. Edward Grey) goes far beyond that of Gaitskill’s Debby. Wilson exploits the screenplay medium, allowing us emotional access to Grey, humanizing him, and we watch his internal struggles throughout the text. When, ashamed of his own desires, he fires Lee, she refuses to be fired. (“You’re fired!” she snaps back at him). She leaves the office, attempts to seek satisfaction in other “kinky” people, but finds nothing. Eventually, the “boyfriend” Peter asks her to marry him, and she relents. But the day Peter’s mother is fitting her with the wedding gown, she realizes that is really not what she wants. She returns to Mr. Grey’s office, and tells him that she loves him. They argue, until he tells her to sit down at the desk and keep both feet on the floor until he comes back. After several days, and many visits from family and friends (each bringing their own separate discourse on the situation), Grey finally returns, and they are reconciled. She moves in with him, and, finally, they get married, having agreed upon a way of life that is mutually beneficial.

The story changes are integral to this version of Secretary, but it is crucial to look at Wilson’s character portrayals. Wilson imbues her characters with very specific political markings, and designates each one a certain manifest content within their role. It is important here to note that in the discussion of Wilson’s work, the word “role” can be seen in two different capacities. The first is her constant play with ideas about gender or societal role (which I will refer to as “Role”), and the second is in reference to role within the story arc (which will be referred to as “role”). It is Wilson’s character interventions that make the most difference between her screenplay, and Mary Gaitskill’s short story. Thus we have begun phase two of our game of Telephone.

In Wilson’s screenplay, Lee has a history that becomes a large part of her character. Similar to Gaitskill’s short story that utilized first-person structure, Wilson allows us a similar intimacy with Lee, using the trope of the voice-over. Through this, we are aligned with her. However, Lee is most assuredly not Debby. Debby mentions having once seen a psychiatrist. But we don’t experience any part of what she was trying to work through. Lee’s disorder, however, is omnipresent in Wilson’s narrative. Lee has her issues down to a science and is professional enough that she has a “cutting kit” complete with iodine, cuticle scissors, and band-aids that she brings to work. Her self-harm is not exclusive to cutting, as we watch her experiment with hot teakettles and waxing strips.

This trait that Lee has, facilitates a reading that Debby did not possess. Not only does this attribute introduce an exploration of young women’s relationships with their bodies, but it also broaches a taboo ritualistic practice that takes place among many young women, but is rarely discussed. Equally as significant, this character trait puts Lee in direct communication with feminist discourse, as a majority of the work that has been done on self-harm deals with women’s issues [1] as well. The portrayal of Lee, and her physically manifested connection to feminist concerns foregrounds the methodology that Wilson uses to work through her own discussions of feminism within this story.

[1] Women and Self Harm by G. Smith, D. Cox, and J. Saraddjian,Women Living With Self-Injury by Jane Wegshcheider Hyman, and Women Who Hurt Themselves: a Book of Hope and Understanding by Dusty Miller are just three titles amongst many others that explicitly make connections between self-harm and women’s issues.

Lee is to Debby as Theresa is to Donna. Gaitskill’s literary description of the older sister, Donna, as “[having] had a job at a home for retarded people for the past eight years…when she came home, she went up to her room and lay in bed. Every now and then she would come down and joke around or watch TV, but not much,”(Gaitskill 133) Gaitskill’s Donna is a far cry from Wilson’s Theresa, described as “Lee’s attractive and sexy older sister.” Although still maintaining residence at home, Theresa is located in a different space, living with her new husband in a trailer behind the house. Her presence within the screenplay text is also altered. She is positioned as alternately bitchy-older-sister and controlling-wife while still maintaining the Role of the young, sexually strong and dominant woman whose husband cowers and apologizes before being let back into their trailer. Here we find another avenue through which Wilson demonstrates her play of Role and role, within a highly feminized context. Theresa’s role in the story becomes subsumed within her Role in the feminist discourse as an example of a powerful and dominating woman. Her husband, displayed in constant relation to her, flips the familiar representation of women who are displayed in relation to their man on its head.

Mary Gaitskill’s short story only depicts five characters of significance. Wilson’s screenplay gives us those same five but adds on a few more, which, as the screenplay continues, prove to be less about who they are than what they represent. The most significant additional characters are Peter (Lee’s boyfriend) and Allison, Theresa’s friend who then becomes Lee’s friend.

Peter’s role/Role is that of “alternative” to Lee’s “deviant” sexuality, and represents the avenue for the prescribed, socially acceptable, “good girl,” destined for a life in marriage and servitude. In other words, he is exceptionally boring. Alongside the off-hand comments Peter makes regarding marriage and children, his location within the story is in constant dialogue with that of the lawyer, creating a binary with hegemonic ideals on one end (Peter, vanilla and confining) and “rebellion” on the other (E. Edward Gray, sexually exploratory and ultimately freeing). Wilson carefully dissects the options that women are given in standard societal terms, and uses these men as icons to further her critical evaluation.

Playwright and Screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson

Playwright and Screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson

Allison is a crucial figure within Wilson’s political discourse. Wilson says, of her less-than-ideal feminist experience at Smith College that she “found it a shame that feminism seemed to be dictating what I was allowed to desire.”(Wilson iii) Allison is representative of this kind of feminism, while at the same time opening up alternative avenues of feminist politics for Lee to explore. She asks Lee, “What does it mean to you to be a woman?” Lee’s Role at this point is that of a kind of feminist tabula rasa. She gives Allison a slightly confused response. Allison counters this, by saying:

You see, here it is, the end of the millennium, and supposedly feminism has come so far, but the world is still really run by men and heterosexuality. I mean, we are so far off from EVER having a woman as the President of the United States, it isn’t even funny. But to me, real feminism is FUCK YOU, I can be anything, anything I want. (Wilson 98)

Although she regards Lee’s relationship as “debasing” and “spitting upon everything women have worked for all these decades,” she does espouse valid feminist critique. This remarkable difference in story and screenplay demonstrates the evolution that the “secretary” has made. By constructing Allison’s feminist diatribes around Lee’s own uniquely evolving feminism, Wilson elevates the Role that Lee takes on within this text, of the representative of a new kind of feminism, free from the strict “rules and regulations feminism” that Allison espouses. Allison also brings in positive elements, such as female companionship, and the ability to express oneself in an artistic and feminist context. Allison’s feminist ideologies became part of Lee’s character progression, serving as Wilson’s celebration and critique of the feminist movement.

These characters change Mary Gaitskill’s “drone monotone” into a highly provocative and lively text that instigates as many questions as it answers. The elements added to the Gaitskill original transformed the text, protagonist, and political implications. Debby, the victim, forced to recuperate her power becomes Lee, the physically embodied form of progressive female agency, slightly scarred, but willing to fight for what she wants, even if it isn’t conventionally acceptable.

The final link in our game of Telephone is where the meaning of the Secretary sentence becomes altered. The filmic interpretation is much closer to the screenplay than the screenplay is to the short story, but the significance of what happens to the story within the filmic text is major. Feminism is almost entirely eradicated in this version, and if it does exist within the film, it is almost an afterthought. Ultimately it is Shainberg who changes the message from the whispers of Gaitskill’s short story to the spoken sentences of Wilson’s screenplay and creates a bizarre scream of misogyny by adapting this narrative chain as he heard itImage: On The Phone

In the film, there is no Allison. In the film, the discourse on cutting becomes subsumed into the love story. In the screenplay, Lee’s mother is reading a book about self-mutilation, and continually brings in facts and details about the disorder. The film erases all that in favor of a “gently bent old-fashioned romance.” The human interpretation of E. Edward Grey from the screenplay is collapsed into the representation of a sadistic and self-involved man, who does not seem to have any feelings of love for Lee, until the very end. And, what’s worse, even though we are expected to believe that those feelings are love, they seem very much to be conflated with feelings of lust.

By removing any and all references to politically charged material (the character of Allison, the rhetoric surrounding cutting) this film strips Lee not only of her agency, but reduces her to an object for domination, and a victim of sexual harassment who has “learned to love her captor.” This supposedly “daring” and “quirky” comedy becomes tragic when you see that somewhere in the progression from short story to screenplay to film, a story that had previously challenged hegemonic structures of male superiority and allowed for women’s sexual agency became a vehicle for the glorification of male pleasure at the female’s expense. Without the feminist rhetoric of the screenplay, or the recuperation and repossession of independence and sexual pleasure in the short story, Secretary loses the integrity of the original “sentence of meaning.”

Take It Like a (Wo)man

Manohla Dargis notes, “the best and smartest move director Steven Shainberg makes, beyond his superb casting, is refusing to make a huge deal out of Lee’s pathology.”(Dargis F17) This qualitative analysis begs for its own examination. Contrary to Dargis, I believe that Shainberg’s refusal to “make a huge deal” out of Lee’s disorder makes it an even bigger deal. In a survey conducted by Conterio and Favazza, they found that 97% of all respondents who self-injured were women. (Conterio and Favazza) Considering this correlation between femininity and cutting, why would it be “smart” not to make a big deal out of it? By positioning the female body as damaged, Shainberg establishes a dialectic of the female as a figure in need of “fixing.” Shainberg’s over-simplification of a complex psychological disorder positions Lee as a damsel in distress, ultimately lacking in access to positive representation because she is locked up in the tower marked, “damaged goods.” Dargis’ celebration of Shainberg’s “refusal” to make a big deal out of the cutting disorder maintains hegemonic treatment of women’s medical or psychological issues as “trivial” or “unimportant” next to “real” issues such as Shainberg’s wonderful casting job. Lee’s self-mutilation is not a physical manifestation of psychical distress as much as it is an integral part of a generic story of a woman who needs to be saved, above all, from herself.

In the reviews of Secretary, critics almost uniformly referred to the film’s “fairytale structure,” noting James Spader’s role as E. Edward Grey as the “unlikely White Knight,” and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Lee as a “transformation from frumpy duckling to S&M swan.”(Ansen 70) However, there was also much resistance to Shainberg’s piece. In a highly observant piece in Mental Health Practice, Louise Pembroke allows for the offensive nature of the film. She states:

Personally, I have nothing against sadomasochistic practices and dominant/ submissive role-play. If the film Secretary had been a serious exploration of S&M/ domination/ submission between two adults in an equal relationship that could have been fine, but this film peddles obnoxious stereotypes and ideas about women who self harm. (Pembroke 27)

Pembroke’s virulent dislike of the film stems from the idea, represented in the film (but in none of the previous Secretary iterations) that you can be “liberated” from a lifetime of self-harm through an S&M placebo. Shainberg’s comment about this narrative decision that “Hollywood needs a heroine who overcomes her problems,”(Wiscombe 19) becomes problematized by Pembroke’s own experience as a woman who self harms. She looks at Shainberg’s “heroine” as coming “straight from the ‘all she needs is a good fuck or slap’ school of thinking. Thank you, Hollywood.”(Pembroke 28)


Lee digging into her leg with the lavender decorated ballerina doll

Pembroke’s extended discussion of the “sexualization and infantilization of women who self harm” is also crucial. Lee’s cutting items and the positioning of Lee is that of a child. She tries to cut herself with a ballerina doll. Her highly organized cutting “kit” is decorated in shades of pink, sequins and ribbons. The item that her mother uses to lock up “all sharp utensils,” to “protect” Lee, is a children’s pink bicycle lock.

Shainberg seems to replace the progressive dialogue in the screenplay about Lee’s disorder with images of childishness and naïveté, so that we, as an audience, are critically aware of her condescended-to status. To link self harm to childishness, is to devalue a significant aspect of Lee’s character, and undermine her existence as an adult woman. After all, Lee Holloway is supposed to be twenty-five years old, not eight.

Lee's self-harm kit

Lee’s self-harm kit

Pembroke was not the only person who noticed this. While Melanie Turpin may have “enjoyed the Gone With the Wind climax,” it was not enough to “win me over to the film’s ideology…as far as romance and gender roles are concerned, it does precisely what its director…knows will be at the forefront of every scrutinizing feminist’s mind: it subordinates its woman protagonist.”(Turpin) She states that the demands of the film to simply substitute one form of abuse for another are “disturbing,” and the film fails to convince us that this switch is “truly healing.” Turpin says, above all, that the film is a failure in its attempts at showing a love relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey.

We have no reason to believe that he, at least, loves her in the traditional sense. He’s never warm; there’s no suggestion that his generous dispensation of pain is meant to please anyone other than himself. Lee informs us, via voice-over narration, that “I know…that he suffers too.” Really? How?…Just because Grey’s a hard-core sadist with an apparently unorthodox notion of love doesn’t mean he should bear no resemblance of a human being. (Turpin)

Turpin’s vigilant critique only supports the conception of a highly unequal relationship in the cinematic portrayal of Lee and Grey. In her text, the adaptation failings in the transition between screenplay and film are underscored. Steven Shainberg notes, “a lot of things that in the script were elaborated got shortened because I think the actors told you something just with their faces and with their bodies…”(“Secretary DVD Commentary”) This omission stripped Mr. Grey of his previously explicit humanity, thus leading to Turpin’s criticism. Through that loss, there is more opportunity to interpret the situation as an emotionless exacting of power (Grey’s over Lee). Align this with the depiction of her character as “damaged” and “child-like” and we have quite a vulgar display of misogynistic fantasy.

Now certainly in cinematic adaptations many details between literature, screenplay and the final filmic product must be reworked for time and other necessities. This is common sense. But the question in this circumstance remains, what do you lose when you alter substantive features of the main protagonists like emotionality and ability to deal with psychic? Much like the game of Telephone, when you lose a noun or mispronounce an adjective it becomes something else.

Cutting edge Feminism

The cutting disorder that Lee exhibits is a major issue within the narrative. As previously shown, it is a controversial topic that has sponsored violent opposition as well as congratulatory discourse on its treatment.  But how does this portion of the filmic text function within its predecessors? How is it utilized and why? Tracing the appearance of the self-harm issue, we find it nowhere within the text of the short story, continually referred to and acted out within the screenplay and available only within the initial first act of the film. Why the disparity?

In Erin Cressida Wilson’s highly feminist text, the cutting disorder that Lee manifests is catalyzed by traditional means (psychically traumatic situations), but its role within the diegesis conforms to Lee’s Role, as the ambassador of a new and daring style of feminism, contrasted greatly to those she is surrounded by. Her sister, also marked by her feminine and beautiful body, participates in beauty rituals (such as waxing) that mirror the cutting and represent a socially acceptable form of self-mutilation. Lee’s mother is depicted as constantly reading from a book about self-mutilation. She regularly makes various comments about how Lady Diana, Johnny Depp and Fiona Apple were all admitted “cutters” and functions to create real discourse (with a historical basis) and bring self-harm out from the secretive shadows.

Within the film, there is no book, no Theresa with her waxing, and when E. Edward Grey finds out that Lee is a cutter, he reprimands her, saying, “You will never do this again.” The result of this interaction? Lee quits. Not only is this unrealistic, but it exemplifies the amount of power that Mr. Grey has been given, a significant departure from either the short story or the screenplay.

Within the narratives of self-admitted cutters, we find a variety of themes. Although many cutters state that they “do not know why they do it,” many of them do have similar catalysts and emotive reasonings. Predominately the motivations are familial discord or peer rejection (many times in tandem) combined with the cutter’s feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, and depression. Cutting, for a large majority of these young adults (many who trace their cutting all the way back to pre-adolescence), gives them a sense of control that they never had, or a voice that they were never given. “Dreamer,” from Arkansas, states that, “[w]hen I am the one holding the blade, I am in control. No one can tell me what to do or make me do something I don’t want to do…for once I am doing the talking.” Rachel, from Arizona, relates, “for me, it’s about control. With the cutting, I thought I was in control of my self, my pain, my life…” These narratives speak to a sense of personal empowerment. Though not a healthy approach to empowerment, in the lives of victims of sexual and emotional abuse or young adults who experience paralytic depression or traumatic circumstances, it is, at least, some kind of power. Uniformly, they all admit to wanting to “stop” someday, but not knowing how. Many verbalize a desire to seek help, but at the same time, they would rather have no one know, and have it kept as their own, very personal, experience and secret. images

While Lee Holloway does not exhibit the extremities of these young adults’ stories, she is placed within the confines of a household where alcoholism and abuse occur. The part where Shainberg’s film diverges and forms a new, idyllic reality is when Lee submits to Grey’s demand that she stop cutting herself, and the film shows her ridding herself of her “tools” over a bridge. The narratives of most cutters say that it is “like an addiction,” and that they “don’t know if they can stop.” originalThis departure from experiential evidence shows Shainberg’s dedication to “his version” of the story. Wilson’s screenplay shows Lee quit cutting, and disposing of the kit as well, but the discourse on self-mutilation continues, by the constant presence of Lee’s mother, who is carrying the self-mutilation book around with her, reading it at every given opportunity. Wilson’s portrayal of the vast array of different types of self-harm that Lee practices during the script is a more authentic representation, as well as a commentary on the various “socially acceptable” self-mutilations that women, specifically, practice. The verisimilitude of Wilson’s text versus Shainberg’s speaks to her dedication to issues in and around feminism.

More importantly, Wilson’s attention to the fact that cutting is a highly personal and intimate act, more about the relationship to the self than a relationship to another person, is something that is lost within the film, where Lee surrenders the one thing that may have made her feel “in control” to Grey, thus relinquishing her agency to the image of the patriarchal “fix-it” man.

From Anita Hill to Maggie Gyllenhaal

In Jessica Benjamin’s work, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, she writes,

A major tendency in feminism has constructed the problem of domination as a drama of female vulnerability victimized by male aggression. Even the most sophisticated feminist thinkers frequently shy away from the analysis of submission, for fear that in admitting woman’s participation in the relationship of domination, the onus of responsibility will appear to shift from men to women, and the moral victory from women to men. (Benjamin 5)

Noting this “taboo” for feminists, Mary Gaitskill’s and Erin Cressida Wilson’s texts can be seen as provocative and subversive feminist engagements, as they argue for women’s agency and in favor of fantasies of submission as part of the construction of real feminine desire. Within Gaitskill’s literature, although the political implications lead more towards an overt implication of sexual harassment, Debby’s expressed sexual arousal at situations of domination is not portrayed as being part and parcel of the harassment. It is her own, perhaps catalyzed by the lawyer, but enacted as part of Debby’s real, empowered, feminine desire and fantasy. In other words, it belongs solely to her. Wilson’s Secretary creates an investigative discourse about the multiplicity of dominant and submissive roles that women take on, and discusses the facility with which women claim active agency within each.slaves

Ideas of submission and domination abound not only in discussions about sexual difference and sexuality in general, but in discussions of the workplace. It is no accident that Secretary should take place within the confines of an office; it is where active submission and domination take place on a daily basis. In her excellent article, “Sadomasochism and Sexual Harassment,” Christine L. Williams explores psychological ambivalence, and the effect it has in the rhetoric of women’s reactions to sexual harassment.

Williams defines ambivalence using a psychoanalytic base, referencing the feelings of love and hate that arise in “situations of extreme dependency.” She notes that “when alloyed with eroticism, ambivalence is sometimes expressed in the form of a sadomasochistic relationship, wherein the dominant partner takes pleasure in behaving brutally and callously toward the subordinated one, seemingly with full consent.”(Williams 110) Of course, that “assumed full consent” is a critical part of the patriarchal structures that most workplaces have been founded on since women were “allowed” to seek independent employment.

While Williams notes that erotic domination and workplace structure are connected, she also mentions that few of the women who have actually experienced sexual harassment in the workplace ever “come out” about their experiences, making the entire situation more problematic in the context of feminist application.images-1

Mary Gaitskill’s short story reflects much of what Christine L. Williams discusses. Debby experienced something within the confines of the workplace that would be considered both sadomasochistic and erotic. But she does not “come out” about the fact that her boss took advantage of the employer/employee relationship that they had to anyone. All she says is, “I quit. That lawyer was an asshole.” When a mandatory relationships that produce ambivalence become eroticized by one individual feeling a strong sexual desire and that desire is denied, a sadomasochistic relationship is often the result. The lawyer, in his attraction to Debby, takes advantage of his role as her “superior” within the workplace and exacts his desire upon her (in one scene, quite literally). It is at that point that she removes herself from the situation, breaking the chain of sexual harassment, and aggressively refusing to accept someone else’s desire acted out on her body.

Williams states that both individuals in a “sadomasochistic dynamic” are seeking recognition, but cannot recognize either themselves or their partner because they “cannot accept or even acknowledge their feelings of ambivalence.”(Williams 113) The opposite of a sadomasochistic relationship, she says, is one that consists of mutual recognition. Williams’ description of a mutually recognized relationship is done quite skillfully. She asks the reader to picture a seesaw:

The “at rest” position is one person up; the other down. In contrast, the mutual recognition that occurs when the two partners are “in balance” requires a commitment to constant negotiation and communication. Because sadomasochism is “easier” to achieve than mutual recognition, sexual relationships are always vulnerable to breaking down into subordination and domination. (Williams 114)

The screenplay of Secretary is revolutionary in this respect. Within the final pages of the third act, Wilson reveals (within Lee’s voice-over) that Lee and E. Edward Grey had in fact achieved this mutual recognition. The couple had gone beyond the ambivalence and were, in fact, sitting on that seesaw, perfectly balanced. Lee says, “I moved in and we became a family – in a slow and peaceful way, where we found a happiness and a schedule and a routine, and a definition of living together.”(Wilson 112) Lee’s language in this passage makes it perfectly clear that she has just as much say as he. They have made a new life together. They just happen to like S&M. Lee has maintained personal agency and achieved satisfaction throughout the text of the screenplay, a real rarity for a female character in media these days.

This reading is denied in the produced film. There are many ways in which the baby is thrown out with the bathwater (so to speak) but the most obvious one is the overtly male-gaze oriented nature of the finale. The objectification of Lee posits a certain ambivalence between the viewer, who inhabits a privileged, superior position, informed by male heterosexual desire, and Lee, who in being watched, is predicated as being in the inferior position. In these final scenes of voyeurism, Shainberg constructs his own ambivalent sadomasochistic text of erotic domination.

And They All Whipped Happily Ever After or … What’s the Safe Word?

The finale of the film is what I wish to concentrate on in this section, not only because the visual nature of the produced film is what I feel condemns Secretary to a location of misogynist fantasy masquerading in the form of a film about “female empowerment” but also because of its underlying message in regards to its oft-noted romantic fairytale formula. It is integral here to begin with a textual description of these final moments.Maggie-in-Secretary-maggie-gyllenhaal-736955_1024_576

Lee Holloway has been waiting at the desk in E. Edward Grey’s office for at least a few days. She has not eaten, slept, or moved for the entire time. She has even refused to go to the toilet, preferring instead to urinate where she was. Finally, after reading the article that has been written about her “love vigil” in the newspaper, E. Edward Grey seems to concede defeat. It appears that he, too, has been bitten by the love bug. He returns to his office with a chocolate milkshake, which he tenderly raises to her lips. Lee looks up at him with love and he swoops her up into his arms, bringing her upstairs to an elegantly decorated secret room, complete with bed made of the softest grass, and large brass bathtub.2002_secretary_005

He strips Lee of her clothing and gently bathes her, camera lingering, water rushing over her hair. She sits in the bath, Grey shampooing her hair, blissful expression on her face. Lee then stands, naked, while Grey dries her body and lays her down on the bed. He lies down beside her (fully clothed, I might add) while she shows him each and every one of the scars/marks that she has made upon herself.


Thank you, internetz. Animated GIF provided by Tumblr.

Grey then extinguishes the candle. The next shot is of Lee, dressed only in white cotton panties, knee socks, and Mary Janes, being covered in sensual kisses by Grey. While I definitely do not mind the worship of Maggie Gyllanhall (believe me, I do not!) what I find curious here is the biased fetishization of the female body. Clearly, we have the male camera seeking out the female body to showcase for (assumingly) a heteronormative audience since what was once a fascinating and seemingly pleasurable and consensual S&M relationship for both parties has now turned into…what? A Hollywood ending? This just reads and feels wrong. Much like Telephone, I want to say “Operator!” incessantly!


In her highly influential piece, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey writes,

There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third. (Mulvey 68)

Mulvey points out that the traditional display of the woman in the cinema has always been one of complete eroticism. Within a patriarchal society that hinges on the binary of active/male and passive/female, erotic objectification comes as no shock, considering that the very act of watching and receiving pleasure from looking is an active pursuit, and constructed as male (and heterosexual). Through the collapse of the initial two looks of cinema into the third in narrative cinema, woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” masquerades as a narrative plot point, not as the disturbing reification of woman as being possessed, or defined by patriarchal society.fhd002STR_James_Spader_004

Mulvey’s discussion of women’s image in the cinema as being determined by a male-gaze is of crucial importance within the final scenes of Secretary. The languid shots of James Spader pouring water of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s head, construct that disruptive erotic female spectacle that “tends to work against the development of a storyline, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” This last section of the film, with its long overtly accentuated focus on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s naked and fetishized body is a disruption, and speaks directly to Mulvey, by functioning intentionally as a series of extended “moments of erotic contemplation.”

Noting Mulvey’s concern with psychoanalytically based notions of scopophilia, the visual text of the final act of Secretary speaks, unapologetically, to the male experience of the primal scene and its resultant feelings of alienation and sense of loss in his “imaginary memory.” The investigative look that is meant to see and “make sure of the private and forbidden” Mulvey says, is “modified by other factors, in particular the constitution of the ego…[and] continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object.” Mr. Grey’s constant monitoring of Lee from outside the window of his office, is just this kind of scopophilia. He waits, and he watches as she suffers for her love, deriving a certain erotic pleasure from his Peeping Tom-ism. Her lack of knowledge of being watched locates her as simply the erotic object of Grey’s gaze, symbolizing his investigation of the “private and forbidden.” By his reclaiming of power through possession of Lee in his gaze, he is reaffirming her “lack” and, therefore, his “presence” by the dialectic of knowledge; she is unaware she is being watched, he retains full knowledge of the watching. As she starves, pees herself and sits in his office chair, he is getting off on observing her.

While Steven Shainberg may insist that Secretary is not a standard love story following traditional generic conventions (Breskin 144) I would argue that this film is nothing if not structured like the archetypal romance. Tania Modleski writes that within the traditional romantic text, “the heroine…can achieve happiness only by undergoing a complex process of self-subversion, during which she sacrifices her aggressive instincts, her “pride,” and- nearly- her life.”(Modleski 37) As far as the guy is concerned, Modleski notes, “[a]lthough the hero…is not suspected of being insane and murderous, he is more or less brutal…Male brutality comes to be seen as a manifestation not of contempt, but of love.”(Modleski 40) We watch as Lee denies herself sustenance and comfort, sacrificing her self and, as Modleski states, “nearly her life,” while waiting for Grey to come to his senses. The brutality that he has been enacting upon her body and mind throughout the film was “only to show her that he loved her.” As Modleski puts it, “the message is the same one parents sometimes give to little girls who are singled out by a bully: ‘he really has a crush on you.’”(Modleski 43)

female-bully-1Modleski suggests that the female reader of romance novels, through her familiarity with the romantic formula, maintains a certain detachment from the heroine, as well as an emotional identification with her, because she “is intellectually distanced from her and does not have to suffer the heroine’s confusion.”(Modleski 41) However, because of that superior knowledge, the reader is able to translate the brutal tactics of the hero more clearly, and “hold something over” their heroine.

Due to Shainberg’s decision to edit the screenplay as he did, James Spader’s character remains divested of the portions of the text that allow him any reading other than a cold desire to dominate and control, peppered with random scopophilic tendencies. The reader agency that Modleski discusses is actively denied in this context, thus removing Secretary from a feminist reading of the traditional romance thematic.

Modleski maps out a version of the classical romantic narrative as follows:

A young, inexperienced, poor to moderately well-to-do woman encounters and becomes involved with a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man, older than herself by ten to fifteen years. The heroine is confused by the hero’s behavior since, though he is obviously interested in her, he is mocking, cynical, contemptuous, often hostile, and even somewhat brutal. By the end, however, all misunderstandings are cleared away, and the hero reveals his love for the heroine, who reciprocates. (Modleski 36)

The above formula, when taken out of the confines of Modleski’s discourse on romance novels, slips fairly smoothly into a synopsis of the filmic text of Secretary. Young and inexperienced Lee Holloway, just out of typing school, goes to work for Mr. Grey, an experienced lawyer who is also quite visibly her senior. Lee interprets Grey’s attentions to her (including those that fall under the humiliating and brutal categories) as a kind of “obvious interest” and is noticeably confused when he fires her, confused by his actions. Lee takes it upon herself to force him to face up to his feelings but he enacts an even more brutal and sadistic punishment upon her. He does finally return in the grand finale, “revealing” his love for her and sweeping her towards happily-ever-after in a fairytale prince-like action.

While the screenplay (as well as the short story) present quite alternative readings by their preoccupation with feminist political concerns, the film ignores those features in favor of the glorification of the damsel-in-distress rescued by the dashing prince/white knight archetype. By combining fairytale ethos with strict classical romance novel structure, Secretary has “conventional love story” written all over it. Just because there’s a little spanking doesn’t mean that the underlying function of the text becomes erased.


In this discussion we find that a film that had advertised itself as a “liberating film for women’s sexuality and desire” did so only in order to keep up the masquerade while it went all-out in fulfilling traditional fantasies of male domination and female submission. While the screenplay and short story display powerful examples of feminist ideology and examine agency in unusual and truly unique ways, this film adaptation works to reinscribe misogynist structures that the short story and the screenplay speak out vehemently against. Through Shainberg’s lens, we are privy to a film that fetishizes and objectifies the female body, making it nothing more than a tabula rasa for dominant patriarchal ideology to inflict its desires and fantasies upon, and recuperate the traumas from the primal scene. This film also serves to reiterate the “helpless female” archetypes of the classical romance narrative and the fairytale, all the while purporting itself as a piece of film that made “alternative sexuality” an available empowering procedure for women. And to me, that ain’t no liberation, that’s just the same ol’ ball-and chain.


Ansen, David. “Hostile Work Environment: Typing, Filing, Bondage: This Secretary Aims to Please.” Newsweek. 7 October 2002: 70

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Dargis, Manohla. “In Buoyant Secretary, Romance for Consenting Adults.” Los Angeles Times 20 September 2002, home ed.: F17.

Gaitskill, Mary. “Secretary.” Bad Behavior. New York: Random House Inc., 1989.

Haskell, Molly. Foreword. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. By Wilson, Erin Cressida. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003. i-ii.

Modleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance. Hamden: The Shoe String Press, Inc., 1982

Pembroke, Louise. “Secretary.” Mental Health Practice 6 (2003): 26-28.

 Secretary. Dir. Steven Shainberg. Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment, 2002. DVD Commentary Track.

Shainberg, Steven quoted in Wiscombe, Janet. “Consenting Adults at Work.” Workforce 81 (2002): 19.

Shainberg, Steven. Interview. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003. 139-153.

Turpin, Melanie. “Secretary.”

Williams, Christime L. “Sexual Harassment and Sadomasochism.” Hypatia 17 (2002): 99-117.

Wilson, Erin Cressida. Introduction. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. by Wilson, Erin Cressida. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003.

Wilson, Erin Cressida. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003

[1] Women and Self Harm by G. Smith, D. Cox, and J. Saraddjian, Women Living With Self-Injury by Jane Wegshcheider Hyman, and Women Who Hurt Themselves: a Book of Hope and Understanding by Dusty Miller are just three titles amongst many others that explicitly make the connections between self-harm and women’s issues.

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