The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 7, No. 3

On the Film Secretary
Victims and Losers: A Romantic Comedy

by Mary Gaitskill

In 1992 or 1993 Steven Shainberg first approached me about making a movie of "Secretary," my story about a naïve young masochist who yearns for emotional contact in an autistic and ridiculous universe, and who winds up getting her butt spanked instead. Mr. Shainberg was very young and very earnest, and while he got the yearning, he didn't get the ridiculousness. He seemed bent on assuring me that he would not belittle Debby's suffering, though I sought no such assurance. During one elaborate assurance he brought up the movie Pretty Woman, which, he said, had been ruined by Hollywood philistines. The original script was very dark and ended with the angrily screaming prostitute being dragged out of a car by her three-day john and thrown on the sidewalk before he flies off to get married. He expressed outrage at the light and charming spin the movie had put on the innately painful and degrading subject. He was so p.c. that I actually felt roused to defend this retarded film. Yes, it was phony and insipid, but Hollywood is phony and insipid about housewives and mothers, and I wasn't especially indignant regarding this treatment of prostitutes, who I didn't see as innately degraded. He seemed baffled and even offended. Ten years later he made the Pretty Woman version of my story.
          The bare plot of "Secretary" the story could be the plot of a classic wank book: Hopeful Innocent takes a job as a secretary, where she is abused, spanked, and jerked off on by Mean Boss Man. She is weeping and shamed, her face is as scarlet as her red-hot bottom--and her pussy is dripping wet! But life is dirtier than porn, and I didn't get the idea from a wank book. I got it out of the newspaper. It was a small story reprinted in the "No Comment" section of Ms., and it reported that, somewhere in the Midwest, a lawyer running for public office had been revealed to have abused his former secretary by spanking her and videotaping her standing in a corner repeating, "I am stupid." On being revealed, he sought to make things right by apologizing and giving the woman $200. I'm sure Ms. didn't intend it this way, but the blandly reported story, in addition to being ludicrous, had a great erotic charge, primarily because both players were faceless ciphers whom the imagination easily translated as archetypes. On reading it I smiled, then shook my head in dismay, then thought, what a great story--funny, horrible, poignant, and gross, the misery of it as deep as the eroticism; the misery in fact giving the eroticism it's most pungent force. The wank-book aspect was clearly indispensable, but what interested me most was: Who is this girl? The Hopeful Innocent in the porn story, the cipher in the news story? What would she be like in real life?
          In any genuine piece of fiction, the plot is like the surface personality or external body of a human being; it serves to contain the subconscious and viscera of the story. The plot is something you "see" with your rational mind, but the unconscious and the viscera--what you can smell and feel without being able to define--are the deeper subjects of the story. This is particularly true of "Secretary," the heroine of which is a knot of smothered passion expressed only obliquely and negatively in her outer self. I conceived her as someone of unformed strength and intelligence, qualities that have never been reflected back to her by her world and so have become thwarted, angry, and peculiar. The deeper subject of "Secretary," then, is the tension between the force and complexity inside the heroine, and how it gets squeezed through the tiny conduit of a personality that she has learned to make small, so that she may live in a small and mute world. Debby's parents are not abusive, they are defeated--to some extent by the severely limited world around them, but primarily by their own emotional ineptitude. Their daughter's desire to humiliate herself may be accurately described as self-hatred; however, looked at less judgmentally, it's an ardent and truthful desire to represent, with her own being, the distorted world around her and inside her, where force and passion are humiliated and punished by being ignored or twisted. Debby's passivity is so willed and extreme that it is an act of mutually annihilating aggression; there can be no "relationship" with the boss, even if he were to desire one, and questions about whether or not she is victimized by him are irrelevant. His only superiority is in his ability to recognize her--as one of his own kind. For her passion is every bit as cruel as his, and this is what is horrible in the story. In this context, the spanking and wanking are merely a sideshow.
          However, coexisting with all this is the yearning that Mr. Shainberg perceived from the beginning. Whatever else she may be, Debby is a sensitive girl acutely attuned to the emotional world. Hunger for contact underlies her perversity and to some extent drives it. Early in the story, she recalls an instant of loving touch from her sister, wistfully noting that such an instant has never occurred again. At the height of her experience with her boss, she has romantic dreams in which they walk together in a field of flowers, holding hands and smiling with "a tremendous sense of release and goodwill." One room away from her family, she longs for real connection with them, and the fear that she will never have it plunges her into despair. Her unformed aggression and cruelty are surpassed only by her unformed tenderness. What a shocking relief when, at work, both impulses are poetically expressed through emotionally violent and intense sex that occurs without touching. Simultaneously, Debby and her lover achieve total intimacy and total isolation, and this paradox is the heart of the story's anguish and harsh comedy. The character's ability to hold this paradox is the source of her dignity, even if she holds it unknowingly. Without understanding how, she is aware that she bears equal responsibility for what is happening. Given this awareness, when the reporter calls, urging her to expose her boss, what can she do but hang up?
          This is an almost impossible story to make a movie of. Its drama is internal, rendered in language very nearly like code and meant to be sensed rather than explicitly seen. I admire Steven Shainberg for attempting it, and for succeeding to the extent that he did. It bears almost no relationship to the original story because it couldn't--not in America anyway, where Belle de Jour or Repulsion would now be met with either fear or blank incomprehension. For it to be commercially successful, a relationship between boss and girl needed to occur, and so it does. To be successful, the relationship must end in marriage, and so it does. (Perhaps the most socially threatening thing about the story is that Boss Man is actually not very important.) Unlike Debby in the story, the movie heroine (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and for some reason renamed Lee) has just been released from a mental hospital and is an anorexic self-mutilator. She is puppy-eyed and slump-shouldered, but this melancholy affect is oddly superficial; it is quickly neutralized by Lee's big, glowing smiles, which unmistakably signal a happy and rather ditzy personality. When the boss says to her, "You're closed up, tight," it doesn't make sense because we're looking at a soft, receptive, essentially sunny face. When first spanked, she does show bewilderment and consternation, but her ambivalence is temporary and never reaches a level of conflict which might be uncomfortable to watch. Lee never seems humiliated; this truly painful feeling is present only symbolically, as if the screenwriter used anorexia and cutting to represent emotions she was incapable of rendering. Right after spanking her, the boss hands her the letter she has retyped with the comment "good job," and a look of sweet, simple joy possesses her face. These emotions are obviously not incongruent with S/M. But considering that Lee is presented as an inexperienced and emotionaly frail person, it is remarkable that she understands this so quickly--remarkably facile. In the story, Debby's arousal is so intense it nearly breaks her; in the movie, Lee's arousal is pleasant and improving, as is Lee herself.
          This is not to say that the film shirks ambivalence entirely. It's the boss (played by James Spader) who is confused and anguished here, and it was an interesting choice to make him so. The jerk-off scene is done with a close-up on him, and Spader's face subtly reveals sexual feeling that is deep enough to include sadness and vulnerability as well as furtive, guilty meanness, which he does not himself understand. (Not cruelty; meanness. Cruelty is too strong a word for this film.) These qualities give him complexity and make you feel for him; the scene is one of the film's strong and genuine moments.
          However, his ambiguity comes too dear at the expense of hers. Gyllenhaal is a delightful and unaffected presence, so genuinely pleasing that she almost redeems a character verging on total insipidity. In one scene, in which she awkwardly spanks herself at home, her face and body are alive, radiating animal determination and geekiness that is funny and moving. It makes one doubly sorry that delightful and pleasing were all that the character was finally allowed to be. Shainberg was right to make Lee's cutting accoutrement beautiful and artistic; for many who practice it, self-cutting is beautiful. But he so emphasizes this perceived beauty that it becomes one-dimensional. As the film progresses, Lee begins to seem like a fantasy mother in her unconditional approval and affirmation of her conflicted lover. When Boss has a crisis about what they're doing and fires Lee, any unpleasant feelings of hurt and anger on Lee's part are quickly transcended. She's accepting and approving, declaring that she wants to "get to know him" before she glues herself to his desk and starves herself for three days.
          If only the film had ended there, at the desk, its relentlessly positive fantasy could've been leavened with ambiguity, an open place that allowed the viewer his or her own response. But no, the boss lifts Lee out of the chair and carries her upstairs where a curative bath awaits her. In the next sequence they are wed. We are made to realize that S/M here is not only painless, it's therapeutic: it's made both characters more confident, better looking, happier, freer, and self-actualized. Best of all, it's lead them straight to marriage!
          The published screenplay, a sort of theoretical S/M romper room, was more interesting than this, and braver; it does, for example, allow Lee to cry the first time she is spanked. But there is none of that in the film, which is finally like the flag for the S/M section of the gay pride parade reading "We Used to Be Sick, Now We're Safe." One critic praised the film for "opening up avenues of feeling and experience," for illuminating "the dark corners of the psyche." And it does illuminate these dark corners, just as dozens of American movies illuminate them every year--by shining a perfectly happy ending on them, so bright in this case that you can't see anything dark at all. This insistence on the positive may seem compassionate, but it rarely is, for it cannot tolerate anything that is not happy and winning. I first saw Secretary at the director's house with several of his friends. During the opening scenes, while Gyllenhaal elegantly maneuvered in an elaborate bondage costume, a woman loudly burst out: "She's not some helpless little victim! She's IN CONTROL and she's doing JUST FINE!" She spoke as if through clenched teeth, and considering that no one had suggested that Lee was a victim, her vehemence was startling. This vehemence, which may be the real driving motor of the film, revolves around what has become a contentious cultural belief: that Americans want to be victims, and that such "victimhood" must be denounced or denied.
          But I believe that this apparent desire to be a victim cloaks an opposing dread--I believe that Americans are in fact profoundly, neurotically terrified of being victims, ever, in any way. This fear is conceivably one reason we just waged a grotesque and gratuitous "war" in Iraq--because Americans couldn't tolerate feeling like victims, even briefly. I think it is the reason every boob with a hangnail has been clogging the courts and haunting talk shows across the land telling his/her "story" and trying to get redress for the last twenty years. Whatever the suffering is, it's not to be endured, for God's sake, not felt and never, ever accepted. It's to be triumphed over. And because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured (indeed, some things cannot be triumphed over at all), the "story" must be told again and again in an endless pursuit of a happy ending. To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life, and art based on the empowering message and the positive image is part of this juvenile condition.
          What Secretary the movie and "Secretary" the story have in common is the theme of awakening. In the movie, the heroine awakens to her masochistic sexuality and lives happily ever after. In the story, the heroine awakens to her masochistic sexuality and learns a hard truth: that she is a small, fallible container for a primary force beyond her understanding. In the end, her self, that fetish object of anorexics and cutters, has become unknown to her. And it's not "such a bad feeling at all." She is alone on an ocean, with no idea where she's headed, without any nice boss to hold her hand. Whether or not this is a terrible ending is unclear even to me. She may discover uncharted territory or she may be eaten by sharks. But whether or not she learns to negotiate the sea she finds herself cast upon, it will remain unknown to her--as it will remain to all of us.
          In spite of all this--heck, I enjoyed the film. In a perfect world, sweet, understanding masochists would meet and immediately marry sweet, understanding sadists and go on to have hot, conflict-free fun in perpetuity. How can I be sarcastic about the film's earnestness when fifteen years ago I gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which I earnestly told millions that "masochism is normal"? If falsely positive movies can be made about everybody else, why not make them about sadomasochists, who are surely an underserved population in this regard? Am I perhaps too high and mighty to scorn the need for empowerment, always, in every case? Who hasn't, at least once, come out of a movie glad to be uplifted, even if the uplift is specious? Apparently young girls (who are supposed to be juvenile) felt empowered by Pretty Woman, and I say bless their impressionable hearts. Indeed, somewhere, in a parallel universe, I can imagine my character Debby watching Secretary and feeling empowered, and, well, the idea makes me all warm inside.
          And another thing: Steven Shainberg was right about Pretty Woman. Some years after our initial conversation, I came across the original script, Three Thousand written by J. F. Lawton. It's a beautiful piece of work, a dark and powerful story about a victim and a loser. And it was ruined by philistines.


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