Secretary was directed by Steven Shainberg and stars James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I watched this movie for three reasons. First, because it has James Spader in it, who is one of my favorite male actors. (Although Spader is very handsome, for most of the film he has a creepy, waxen, reptilian look about him.) Second, because it was supposed to be funny. Third, because humorless, hysterical feminists hated it for being “misogynistic,” thus I’d hoped there would be something true in it. Maybe it would be another Belle du Jour or Mademoiselle or Lost Highway.
After all, what is usually labeled “misogyny” is just “sex realism”–just as race realism is branded race hatred. A healthy realism about women is one way for men to emancipate themselves from the tyranny of women (mothers, teachers, girlfriends) in an increasingly female-dominated society. Women claim that such alleged “misogyny” is oppressive to women. But the real reason they oppose it is that it is liberating for men.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character has just finished a brief stay in a mental hospital. For no apparent reason, she is one of those women who cuts herself, and she accidentally cut too deep, giving her parents the impression that she was committing suicide. (The characters of the parents are, by the way, 100% cardboard; the script, acting, and directing are totally perfunctory.) Once released, she decides to get a job and is hired by lawyer James Spader to be his secretary. We are clued in to something unusual when we see that Spader has a sign outside his office reading “Secretary Wanted,” which he can light up like a hotel vacancy sign. (I will use the names of the actors rather than the characters because the characters were so poorly realized that I never retained their names, and I don’t care enough to spend two minutes doing a Google search to look them up.)
We soon discover the problem with Spader. He is a mean boss. And he is a mean boss because, for no apparent reason, he is a sexual sadist. Gyllenhaal, however, is not driven off, for she discovers that she is a sexual masochist. Soon she starts making intentional “mistakes” so Spader will punish her. It turns out that her cutting behavior was just a rehearsal for this. But, for no apparent reason, Spader starts feeling guilty about his desires and tries to push her away. She refuses to go. Instead, she plants herself in his office and goes on a hunger strike. After a few days, for no apparent reason, Spader relents. Like a prince in a fairy tale, he carries her off to his castle, where they live happily ever after. With whips and chains.
While she is getting spanked by her boss, Gyllenhaal is pursuing a relationship with a sweet, gentle, wimpy, emasculated, bearded, modern guy who really loves her. But he is just too nice. She wants him to spank her, and he doesn’t get the hint. Finally, they have intercourse. His performance is so feeble and gentle that he might as well be 80 years old. After it is over, he says, “I hope I didn’t hurt you.” That was one of the three times I found this film genuinely funny. When Spader dumps her, Gyllenhaal goes back to the wimp and leads him on some more, but then dumps him cruelly when she gets Spader back. Poor chump. He believed everything that our feminized culture told him about how to be a man, and it was a complete lie.
The wimpy feminized modern man just brings out the sadist in the most passive and masochistic of women.
At first I found this movie interesting and occasionally amusing. But when I realized what it is really about, I started to hate it. You see, beneath its pretentious, arty style and feeble attempts at offbeat, dark humor, this is just a moralistic, preachy After School Special. What’s the message?
Tolerance, of course. Most people find sado-masochism disturbing. But in this movie, we are shown that it can be a beautiful, loving sort of relationship that satisfies some people’s deepest psychological needs. So who are we to let our outdated prejudices to stand in the way of something so lovely? Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Director Shainberg is, frankly, pathetic. Unable to recognize a good script, develop three-dimensional characters, or coax convincing performances from talented actors, he simply falls back on the same tired clichés of transgression and emancipation, hoping that conventional people will overlook his incompetence because his heart is in the right place.
The feminist reaction to Secretary is ironic, since both they and Shainberg really have the same agenda: the destruction of normal, healthy sexual relationships by exalting pathological relationships. But Shainberg could not calculate the infinite perversity of feminists. You see, normal people find sado-masochism disturbing because it seems exaggerated and extreme and therefore unhealthy. That is why Shainberg is pimping for it.
Feminists, however, oppose sado-masochism because it is just an exaggeration of normal heterosexual intercourse, in which men are active and women passive, men dominant and women submissive, men sadists and women masochists. In short, Shainberg’s celebration of perversion brought down the wrath of feminists because it still smacks too much of healthy heterosexuality.
Poor chump. Let’s hope he fares better with his next movie. Perhaps he should keep “pushing the envelope.” How about a dark, quirky comedy with a serious heartfelt message about a young lad who fights and eventually wins out against archaic social prejudices after he discovers that a dog really is Man’s Best Friend?
The fuss over Secretary illustrates an important truth about the culture destroyers: Looked at in isolation, the culture destroyers sometimes seem to be moving in different directions and working at cross purposes. But the same can be said of a tornado. If you isolate different parts, some will be moving in different directions, some north and some south, some east and some west. But when you step back and look at the whole, you see that it is a single, unified destructive force. And it is headed straight for us.