I first became aware of Mary Gaitskill in the mid-late 90s (I believe my professor, T.C. Boyle, made it assigned reading), and I fell in love with her fiction immediately; in particular, I loved the story “Secretary” from Bad Behavior. It’s a grim a-morality play which shows us, almost as if overhead, from a place of horror, the degradation of a little lost girl whose creepy lawyer boss sees in her someone he can manipulate, degrade, and engage in a form of “consensual” dominance/submission that her depression and self-loathing perhaps give her no other choice but to endure.
The following week, when I made a typing mistake, he didn’t spank me. Instead, he told me to bend over his desk, look at the typing mistake and repeat “I am stupid” for several minutes.
It’s a far cry from the movie Secretary, the adaptation of the story that came out in 2002 starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which is a helluva lot sunnier. In it, Gyllenhaal plays the little lost girl, and Spader as her boss somehow uses S&M to make her blossom as a person.
As a perv, I do like that Secretary was a great PR piece for my people. It helped to normalize kink for the squares, even going so far as to endorse it as a potentially healthy avenue for sexual release, one that most of us in at least subtle ways already participate in through our daily lives (I see Mad Men as also being very kink-positive about dominance games, too, though I think many critics miss that point).
And I am soundly in the James Whale’s Frankenstein camp, (no pun intended), and hold similar opinions about movie adaptations of books as I do about cover versions of great songs–you’ll never be able to capture the same magic in a new format, so please, do change things from the book! Give us an excuse to love those characters all over again in new contexts and with even new tones and lessons than the original piece may have intended. This is why I don’t mind Stanley Kubrick not including Anthony Burgess’ last chapter in his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange: Burgess ended his novel with a lesson on the power of maturity and old age to cure the savagery of youth, but while that’s an inspiring idea, doesn’t the ever-maddening Alex of Kubrick’s version ring equally plausible?
But though I love movies that rework fiction, something seemed a little false, a little too naive, about Secretary. It seemed to be missing some important point. And I don’t think I realized what that nugget of truth was until reading Charlie Latan’s essay about 50 Shades of Grey in Flaunt.
No one seems to be talking about Secretary when reviewing the recent film version of 50 Shades of Grey (just kidding, the smart people are), though clearly Secretary was an influence not only on the film, but likely also to the book that it’s based on. There are so many similarities that Buzzfeed made a list, and Hollywood Reporter tried to top that with a trailer mashup. I haven’t seen the film, but according to Latan, 50 Shades of Grey stops just short of actually giving its characters the believable back stories, emotions, or chemistry of Secretary, but at its base is the same idea: a young, impressionable girl meets a richer, more established boss, and soon an inappropriate S&M relationship blooms in which the controller/”sadist” is the rich successful dude, and the submissive/”masochist” is the poor little lost girl.
And therein lies the rub.
If you have ever been in a good ol’ jolly S&M experience, or full-on master/slave relationship, the fun part is that it’s all play, and that its core, no one is emotionally abusive or truly forcing themselves on another. Whether you engage in S&M with a life partner, a third-party, or even pay for it at a dungeon, at the end of the day everyone is meeting on more or less equal footing.
You can spank your wife all you want in the bedroom, but only because she wants it too (or enthusiastically wants you to do something to her she “doesn’t want” which is still enthusiastic consent); and afterwards, you still have to take out the trash and be a good husband.
And yeah, sometimes there seems to be a gender component, e.g. I as a male seem to get “roped” into being the one who does most of the tying up and spanking in my relationships. But even that is not me truly dominating–I might actually prefer to be the one on the receiving end of this stuff, but I play the role my partner wants me to, at least half of the time. Maybe we’re acting out gender roles in the bedroom almost as a way to exorcise them fully from real life, or maybe I’m just better at tying knots because I was an Eagle Scout. But whatever the case, it’s always me and another person who I care about and who cares about me and who is truly free to leave whenever she/he wants.
(AN ASIDE: Yes, this isn’t always so cheerful. I was even once in a relationship where my partner wanted me to punch her, choke her, say horrible shit to her, and “rape” her as part of sexual intimacy. These are not my preferences, and at times, her predilection was the farthest thing from a turn on I have ever experienced (I actually cried over it once). And yet, for psychological reasons driven by cruelties committed upon her in her past, this dark sex play seemed to really help her to work this shit out in the bedroom. She needed it, and it was not her fault that she needed it. And so on occasion, I would oblige. But this was not my being abusive–this was me trying to help my girlfriend cope, and to get off sexually. The rape was never really rape, because she enthusiastically consented to it, and the “abuse” never went past what she could take, or what I could take. And it started and ended in that space of play, and did not bleed into our “real” lives, or my treatment of her when it came time to figure out what Thai food restaurant to go to or whose friend’s party we’d attend. We were equals. I had no true power over her except our affection, and even that was shared.)
Secretary might have been about a shared affection, but its main characters were not equals: one was a successful boss, one an emotionally battered secretary. Though the bazillionaire dom in 50 Shades of Grey may be almost a Tony Stark cartoon compared to Spader’s lawyer, there is a reason that sexual harassment laws exist. And it’s no different in a law firm than with a high-powered CEO: the relationship between employer and employee is never equal.
Writ large, the relationship between our upper class and those who are financially struggling, those in the dwindling, ever more desperate middle class, is not equal. This is why I struggle with my views on prostitution: on the one hand, I think a person should be able to do whatever they want with their sexuality, including selling it, or offering money to someone who will help them get more experience with it. Yet I worry that women who are not “forced” into prostitution as literal slaves are often doing so because there is a dire economic need that is not their fault. It is their last resort, not their enthusiastic choice.
And as sugary as a fairy tale princess story might seem, are they much different? All damsels are helpless to stop the forces that shape their lives, be they witches, evil step-sisters, or… the heroic princes themselves, whose love is mandatory if the princess is to survive. Sound like Pretty Woman much? This is not the consent of equals. And any story that cranks up a boss/employee power relationship into one of love and consent is masking, rather than revealing, the dark nature of economic sadism that our society’s 0.1% power players commit upon us on an ever-increasing basis, a sadism that is making the middle class vanish. Charlie Latan gets it just right:
Anastasia Steele is the perfect stand in for such a vanishing class … As anyone working a salaried jobs knows, options are scarce. Bend over, and forego your identity to the cruel calculations and staggering organizations of an interested corporation. They’ll whip you, and buy you a nice lunch, fly you across the country for a meeting. Sounds strangely familiar to Ana’s tutelage with Grey. In the process, one develops a social identity that is left behind if one leaves the arrangement (sexual or professional). Essentially, if you take a hike, you are like the fictional Ana, you cease to move the narrative forward.
While I applaud Secretary for being a fun film that attempts to speak well of kink, by placing its relationship in the context of employer and employee, it misses this more important point, one that Gaitskill’s original “Secretary” doesn’t. If in Orwell’s 1984, the future is “a boot stamping on a human face—for ever,” our present is one in which our bosses make us lick their boots, and then trick us into thinking a few dirty coins make this a good thing. We shouldn’t be using James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhall to make this relationship of power inequality look, even in a minor way, like that’s something that can be reworked into a positive. No wonder Gaitskill called the film adaptation of her work “the Pretty Woman version, heavy on the charm (and a little too nice).”
-D. M Collins
P.S. You may have noticed that I didn’t bother mentioning the names of the directors of 50 Shades of Grey or Secretary, nor the author of 50 Shades of Grey. I probably should have, but A) personalizing this might dilute my thesis into ad hominem attacks, and B) it was hard enough spelling “Gyllenhall” half a dozen times, and I want to quit naming people while I’m ahead.