Before 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' there was 'Secretary'

In contrast to the poorly-written erotica of 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' the odd and beautifully nuanced BDSM relationship at the heart of 'Secretary' feels like a breath of fresh air.

April 10, 2013

If you haven't seen Secretary, the 2002 indie film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader as BDSM soulmates, then prepare for an experience that is infinitely more complex and heartbreaking than any of the Twilight fanfiction tripe peddled out to the masses via Fifty Shades of Grey
 
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past two years (a rock I would very much like to hide under most days), Fifty Shades of Grey has been hammered into your cultural psyche. Whether you've seen women poring over the erotic novels on public transit, observed a never-ending social media barrage of casting news for the film adaptation or decided to give in to the hype and read a few chapters for yourself (or the entire trilogy, without shame) the phenomemon of Fifty Shades is inescapable.
 
However, surpassing Harry Potter as the best-selling paperback series of all time did not come without controversy. Despite praise from readers (many of them sexually-stifled housewives), literary critics were aghast by British author E.L. James' "clunky prose," cringey dialogue and frustratingly under-developed characters. 
 
I read the first book, and it was every bit as awful as I had feared. The clear Twilight parallels between the dominant Christian Grey (brooding Edward Cullen) and submissive Anastasia Steele (bone-headed Bella Swan) pushed it into asinine territory.
 
To the readers who feel that Fifty Shades gives them a "safe" outlet for their sexual kinks, I say "good for you!" but also "dig deeper." The concept of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) is nothing new, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
 
Secretary was my first introduction into this world—stark, unnerving, beautiful—and to this day, a masterpiece in comparison to Fifty Shades.
 
I won't give away too much of the plot, except to say that Gyllenhaal's secretary character transcends the stereotypical submissive, and Spader's powerful lawyer uses dominance as a mask for his own insecurities. He keeps her at arms length, yet longs for her touch. She has a history of hurting herself (cutting, mental institutions, etc.) but finds freedom and empowerment in submission at his hands. He tests her with sexual games, pushing her to the limits of a love he feels like he'll never deserve; and in accepting the exquisite intimacy of his pain, she finally lets go of her own. 
 
Their relationship is bizarre, quirky and passionate in equal measure, not to mention 100 times more thought-provoking than the clich├ęd affair of Fifty Shades. This is a weird little film, but in all the best ways. By eschewing glossy erotica for very real, sometimes painfully awkward desires (the longing for human connection, through shared fetishes or otherwise) Secretary aches with the kind of beauty and truth rarely exposed in our mass media culture today. 
 
Fifty Shades may have taken BDSM mainstream, but Secretary plunged in first, with a complicated, intense and profoundly moving romance that makes Christian/Anastasia (and by extension, Edward/Bella) look like empty-hearted cylons by comparison. 
 
Also, is it merely a coincidence that E.L. James chose the surname "Grey" for her sultry male lead in Fifty Shades, when Spader's character in Secretary is named E. Edward Grey? I think not. Clearly, she was taking notes.
 
 
 
What are your thoughts on how BDSM is portrayed in mainstream film, television and literature? Leave a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook or send me a tweet @leahkpickett