When movies deal with kinky sex—as this story of S&M between a lawyer and his secretary does—there are generally three possibilities.
One, it’s treated purely as a joke. People are depicted doing outrageous things that bear little resemblance to any real life kinky lifestyles or activities, but that are easy and fun to laugh at. Sexual unconventionality is associated with ridiculousness.
Two, it’s treated as a manifestation of mental illness, probably of a criminal nature. The weirder the sex you like to have, the greater the chances you are a serial killer.
Three (though it’s something of a movie cliché for regular sex to be portrayed this way as well), it’s treated as a deadly serious, intense affair. The participants never laugh, they never even smile. Everything works as smoothly as Kabuki theater. No one says something their partner misunderstands and asks to be repeated, no one farts at the wrong time, no one’s hand slips, no one has trouble getting a full erection. Just a lot of meaningful glances (generally a look of assertiveness from the male, and a look of appreciation that the male is being assertive from the female) in an atmosphere of utter solemnity.
So people who engage in fetishes and unconventional sex are either to be laughed at, run from, or intrigued with for the intensity of their sex.
Secretary has elements of all three, yet is refreshing in that it also to a significant degree depicts kinky sex as none of the above.
Of the three, I think this film least often plays the fetish scenes for laughs. No doubt many viewers will disagree, and I certainly can imagine this being treated as a kind of cult comedy and generating a lot of laughs. (Indeed, on websites like Rotten Tomatoes, it’s classified as a comedy.)
But honestly I think that’s more a function of what the viewer brings to the film than what’s in the film. If you’re primed to laugh at unconventional sex because it’s so routinely treated as something to ridicule in most circles (including often in movies, as I say), then you’ll see this movie as a comedy.
By no means am I saying I don’t think this movie is ever going for laughs. In both the sexual scenes and (equally or more) in the non-sexual scenes, there are character traits that are exaggerated, oddball situations, pithy lines—basically indie style humor, even kind of a Coen Brothers-type humor. I just don’t think the primary purpose of the fetish scenes is to induce laughter.
As far as the mental illness angle—the “only serial killers and freaks like that are sick enough to crave that crazy stuff” angle—I’d say there’s more of that in the movie, but not so much of the dark, scary kind. This never, to me anyway, feels like it could develop into a slasher movie, or even the kind of satire of violence represented by a movie like American Psycho.
The movie absolutely associates unconventional sex with mental illness (and it’s not unrealistic to do so—more on this below), but it’s more of the self-destructive than criminal violence type.
Indeed, one reason it’s hard for me to label this movie a comedy is the way it opens with disturbing scenes of self-mutilation. The female lead suffers from—and we find out was for a time institutionalized for—the obsessive need to deal with depression and dysfunctional relationships by cutting herself. When she takes sharp objects and cuts herself, or holds a hot kettle to her skin to burn herself, I can’t even watch without turning away. It’s just something that the little I’ve talked to people who’ve done it, or the little I’ve read about it, it’s always creeped me out.
The male lead’s past and his mental problems are not depicted as explicitly as those of the woman, but really the indications are they’re both significantly messed up.
So the movie does go there—probably more than it goes in the direction of humor, in my opinion—but not in the most clichéd way, and not in a way that reduces the characters to their emotional damage. They feel like full people. Plus, the kinky sex, while certainly related to their mental problems, is not presented as unambiguously bad. It’s arguably as much a cure or at least a palliative for what ails them, as it is a symptom, cause, or effect of it.
And yes, thirdly, some of the sex scenes are indeed of the “Man, these people really take their sex seriously!” variety I’ve long rolled my eyes at in movies. But not all. The intensity builds, and it’s something of a revelation to the woman when it does. So for me as a viewer, there was more of a sense than usual that the compatibility, the intensity, the being swept away by passion, was earned, rather than just being how sex automatically is in movies.
So I think the film strikes a nice balance with the fetish stuff. It’s not simplistically ridiculous farce nor simplistically deadly serious erotica. It’s kind of goofy, because all types of sex can be that way at times, and it’s intense and really powerful for them, because sex can be like that too when you find the right partner and the right activities—conventional or unconventional—that really push your buttons.
So is it a realistic portrayal of kinky sexual lifestyles? Well, by not jumping fully into any of the typical movie clichés in this area, I’d say it succeeds in being significantly more realistic about this subject than most movies. But it’s a considerable additional leap from that to saying it’s a fully realistic depiction of fetishists.
It’s not like I’m a trained social science researcher or have had enormous amounts of exposure to all the various sexual subcultures, but I’m familiar enough with enough different such subcultures and the people who populate them to have formed various impressions. And I think it’s a mixed bag how well this movie matches up with (my impressions of) reality.
First off, I’d say there’s a huge gender gap when it comes to interest in kinky sex. I don’t mean really mild “dominant/submissive” type stuff that’s still largely a part of vanilla sex—like the man being “dominant” by initiating sex and taking the lead during the proceedings in an assertive way and all that. Both genders are probably about equally into that.
But I mean if we’re talking more about clearly non-mainstream, fetish type activities—crossdressing, infantilism, whips, golden showers, bestiality, cuckolding, whatever—the ratio of people with a major interest in “shocking (or unknown) to polite society”-type sex I would guess is at least ten to one male over female, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more like a hundred to one. It seems just to be one of those major differences in how the genders are wired.
My impression is there’s less of a discrepancy in lesbian sex. That is, you’ll probably find a somewhat higher percentage of lesbians doing “kinky” things with each other than straight women doing kinky things with their male partners.
Let me add, though, that even though the number of males turned on by outrageous things dwarfs the number of females who are, that’s not to deny that such males still constitute a small minority of all males. Most males don’t want anything sexually beyond what society has hammered into their head is “normal.” For that matter, the reaction of a lot of those majority “normal” males to anyone practicing “perverted” sex is the same as their reaction to homosexuality: “It’s something sexual that I don’t understand; let’s beat ’em up!”
Another point I’d make is that age is a huge factor as far as the very few women who are into seriously kinky stuff. Not in the direction one might think, that younger women tend to be more open to such things. Quite the opposite. I think if you ask people with extensive experience with swinging or orgies or non-commercial dominatrixes or things like that, they’ll tell you female participants are almost always at least 40, and commonly are 50 or more.
Maybe some of that is just that as people get more experience, they find their tastes expanding and they open themselves up to more possibilities than they previously thought would interest them. Honestly though, I think a bigger element of it is the politically incorrect explanation that it’s a function of declining dating market value. Older women (and to some extent fat women, women who are not conventionally highly desirable in general) subconsciously drift somewhat toward whatever sexual niche gives them a fighting chance. If, as I’ve surmised, people looking for kinky sex tend to be ten to one or even a hundred to one male over female, that’s just such a niche.
Further, my impressions are consistent with the suggestion in this movie that there’s some correlation between kinky sex and significant emotional and/or mental problems. It’s not an absolute certainly, but as a rule of thumb, the farther you get from the sexual mainstream, the more “issues” such folks tend to have. Show me a woman who gets off on being slapped around and gang banged by a half dozen guys, and I’ll show you someone who was raped repeatedly by her stepfather when she was 12. Nine times out of ten, anyway.
Also, even women who are into the crazy stuff enough to do it are still typically very ambivalent about it. The woman in the aforementioned gang bang probably has to be very, very drunk or very, very stoned to do it, bounces back and forth irrationally between appreciating the guys who’ll indulge her fantasy and hating them for exploiting it, bounces back and forth irrationally between accepting her fetish enough to seek to have it satisfied and loathing herself about it, and so on. The internalized societal sexual taboos don’t so much go away as just get inconsistently bested in battle by other drives she hasn’t fully embraced.
Another quick point worth mentioning is that the kinkier the sex, the more of a gap there is between how much people like fantasizing about it and how much they turn out to like it if they do get a chance to do it. Maybe 98% of the people who assume before the first time in their life they get laid that they’ll really like conventional intercourse turn out to in fact do so. Probably something more like 25% of people who have fantasies about how awesome it would be to be tied up and whipped by a dominatrix find that the reality lives up to the fantasy, if they ever get the chance to find out.
In short, sometimes I think there are probably about three people on the entire planet who meet all of the following criteria:
• Under 40.
• Not primarily lesbian.
• Conventionally attractive enough that “regular” sex and relationships with males of average or above average dating market value is always readily available if she wants it.
• Desires and participates in unambiguously kinky, fetish-type sexual activity that mainstream society would condemn or laugh at, (as opposed to just marginally more edgy versions of vanilla sex roles).
• Is not being financially compensated to do so.
• Finds the reality of the activities at least as good as what she might have fantasized beforehand.
• Does not have a seriously abusive past and is not more messed up emotionally than the average person.
• Is not seriously ambivalent about the kinky stuff. Does not need drugs and alcohol to trick herself into being willing to engage in such activities, and does not react with regret and self-loathing when she sobers up.
I don’t find it implausible that the male in the movie would be into what he’s into, as even if it’s only a minority of males that are turned on by really kinky stuff, it’s a decent size minority. But what about the woman? Is she believable?
Well, she fits eight of the nine criteria on my list, which means the only thing saving her from total implausibility is that she just got out of an institution for cutting herself.
So, I’m sure there are more than three people in the world like her, but there sure as heck ain’t many.
Especially considering the lack of ambivalence factor. It’s like once she discovers this kinky world of dominance and submission, it’s a wonderful revelation to her, and she realizes this is where she belongs. She loves it, and she knows it’s taking her farther away from the unhealthiness that results in her mutilating herself.
That’s just way too “clean” a conversion to expect anywhere but Movie Land.
A few other quick notes about Secretary and its realism:
I was impressed that the activities themselves seemed to reflect a sensibility that “gets” this stuff. That is, those scenes felt like they could have been written by people who are actually into this lifestyle, rather than outsiders. I expect depictions of S&M or other fetish lifestyles in movies to be about on the level of depictions of drug use in Reefer Madness-type films, but that’s not the case here.
I especially appreciate that they got that kinky stuff like this can be 95% psychological and 5% physical, that in a lot of versions, humiliation is a far bigger component than pain. Anyone could have written the scene where she’s being spanked, anyone could have guessed that that’s the kind of thing “those people” would probably get off on, but much more insightful (though again, some viewers will simply laugh at it) is the scene where she’s ordered to find something the man inadvertently threw out, and then you see her tentatively climbing into the dumpster in her heels and office attire.
The film’s implication that compatibility in an unconventional sex life means compatibility in life in general is not well grounded. These people really know virtually nothing about each other beyond their sexual kinks, so the “living happily ever after” part I think was more just a fun little comedy ending than anything. Relationships are practically infinitely complicated; it’s a miracle any couples work them out tolerably well. Two people having the same kink gets you maybe 1% or 2% of the way to compatibility, but no more.
I didn’t care for the part near the end where she’s voluntarily remaining in a submissive posture in the office for days, and crowds of people and camera crews gather because they assume she’s engaged in some kind of newsworthy protest. I really hope the idea is she’s hallucinating that (as moments before she hallucinated various people from her life materializing in front of her and talking to her), but I’m not sure if that’s the implication. If instead it’s supposed to actually be happening, then it’s a cheesy attempt to inject some humor into the situation that falls flat.
Although I enjoyed seeing the female lead discover all these new things about herself sexually, and I found her mostly to be a likable person, the one exception is I didn’t like the way she’s genuinely unkind to her boyfriend. I understand they want to show the contrast between the new and exciting possibilities she has with her boss, versus what’s available to her in her vanilla life, but it’s just cruel the way it’s done.
Yeah, the boyfriend is not on a high socioeconomic level (he works at K-Mart, hardy har har), and he isn’t all worldly and experienced about the weird sexual stuff she’s discovering she needs, but by all appearances he’s a decent human being who is in love with her and is doing his best. She—and the movie itself—treat him with contempt. I found that distasteful.
On the whole, Secretary held my interest reasonably well, it’s got a few chuckles here and there, and it has somewhat more that I liked than disliked. So, not bad.
But really what’s most notable about it for me is that it does so much better than most films with the offbeat sex stuff. Its approach is surprisingly respectful and informed, without being dry and humorless and politically correct like a pseudo-documentary.
Secretary is a movie that takes kink seriously, but not too seriously.