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Sexuality and the Single Secretary

TIMES STAFF WRITER

W omen’s liberation might not be the first thought that comes to mind when considering the independent film “Secretary,” which opened last Friday. In it, the audience sees an emotionally disturbed young woman (Lee Holloway, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), in the office, trying her best to deliver coffee and mail to her boss (Mr. Grey, played by James Spader) though her arms are locked in a yoke across her shoulders. He, in turn, likes to spank and otherwise humiliate her whenever she makes a mistake. The tone is light, and the filmmakers say the movie is meant to be taken at least partly as metaphor. Even so, many psychologists would still recommend therapy for such a couple, and some pre-postmodern feminists are simply appalled. “There’s nothing beautiful or wonderful about needing to be beaten to feel alive or, worse, wanted,” writes Web film critic MaryAnn Johanson (www.flickfilosopher.com). There are, however, those who see a new sexual pragmatism afoot, one in which the personal has ceased to be political. It’s just personal. Here, four women--the screenwriter, the star, her mother and a feminist film critic--talk about “Secretary” and what it says about current attitudes about sex.

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Erin Cressida Wilson, 38

A professor at Duke University, she has had a 15-year career writing plays, many of which deal with sexually complex women. She and director Steven Shainberg based the script for “Secretary” on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, from her collection “Bad Behavior”:

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“I’ve had such a hard time explaining the movie. I’ve had to learn how to talk about it. At first it was impossible. It can’t be compared to anything. It’s not an S&M; film. I know that when she’s spanked, there’s often a laugh in the audience. It’s very funny. It’s also very sexy to me. A big part of the way I write is to combine humor with sex. It’s not salacious. It can be fun.

“ ‘Secretary’ doesn’t politicize the sexuality or the relationship. It doesn’t insist on taking sides. Also, it doesn’t seek to solve problems. The secretary does not seek to get over her masochism as if it were a deviant problem. She actually embraces it. It also turns cliches on their heads. Instead of her running to arrest him and screaming equal rights, she falls in love with him. And he in turn gets afraid. She owns her submissive quality.

“In the ‘80s, it seemed there was a lot of anti-male sentiment. To be a real feminist, it was less OK to be rampantly heterosexual. That was my experience. So now my reaction was to insist you could be a feminist and you could be a three-dimensional woman and still love men. I was brought up as a feminist. Maybe the movie represents a wave of feminism that hasn’t been named.

“It’s a weirdly sweet movie. I think it’s a date movie. I get a lot of young women saying, ‘I don’t even have any interest in S&M;, but this movie spoke to me and I cried. I saw myself.’ You’re either going to love it or not. If you don’t love it, I think you secretly do love it and are afraid to say you love it.”

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Maggie Gyllenhaal, 24

She co-starred with her brother Jake in “Donnie Darko” (2001), appears in the upcoming Spike Jonze film “Adaptation” and will star in John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys”:

“I saw in the script the possibility of it saying something new, interesting and open about the way men and women relate to each other. Also, in the wrong hands, it could be anti-feminist and a reactionary movie. I was both worried about that and very interested in the other thing it could be. I feel like if something is so risky and so new that it’s scary, it’s also very appealing to me.

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“Over the last century, let’s say, a lot of rules have been set up by the culture and the feminist movement about the ways men and women are allowed to relate to each other. For a long time they were really helpful, and I don’t take them for granted at all. But I feel I’m just now beginning to be a woman, and I look at the rules that I actually feel around me, and I feel restricted by them in some ways.

“I’m in a very privileged position. I’m educated, I live in New York, my mother [Naomi Foner] is a writer-producer. My grandmother was a doctor. I know not everybody has a life like that. Because I do, I feel it’s my responsibility to nudge those rules a bit and see what needs to be rethought a little bit, or just questioned.

“I think it’s a shame to be told what you are supposed to desire and not desire. When I was 23, I thought love was supposed to be pure and clean and pleasant in a way. Now I don’t know if I think that. It has to be a whole lot of things. In order to really truly love someone, you also have to acknowledge the dark, complicated, painful things that exist in everybody.”

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Naomi Foner, 56

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s mother is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Running on Empty” (1998), which starred the late River Phoenix. She is married to director Steven Gyllenhaal:

“At first I was terribly concerned. I’m Maggie’s mother. I love her dearly. I was concerned about her putting herself in physical danger, exposing herself in a sexual way. I was comforted by the fact that the film was based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, who is clearly a neo-feminist. People who knew that the screenplay was written by a woman and that there was a woman producer [Amy Hobby] would know that nobody set out to do some prurient, sadomasochistic movie. But things are easily misunderstood.

“It has to be read as an allegory. You don’t really get close to anybody unless you face your own pain and deal with it. There’s a whole other level to this: A lot of relationship stuff is about power. Someone is dominant, someone is submissive, in an allegorical way. You are misused only if you haven’t chosen something. Clearly Lee Holloway has chosen a certain kind of sexuality. At the end, she’s completely empowered.

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“It is remarkable to me that this generation of young people we have raised is much more open about many things than we were in the ‘60s and ‘70s. None of the kids I know bat an eyelash about homosexual relationships, unconventional families or groupings of people. They understand that does not define love or family or sexuality. We went partway up the mountain. They’ve gone the rest of the way.”

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Molly Haskell, 63

She is a writer, film critic and influential feminist. Her next column for the New York Observer will be about the movie “Secretary”:

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“We’re in a phase where we no longer condemn movies for having a negative image. We’re at a point where we can explore the darker side of women’s nature, and men’s as well. ‘Secretary’ does it with humor. There’s something exhilaratingly kinky about it and liberating. She’s never going to be cured. She still has some kind of need for self-abuse. But she has it in a place where she can do it playfully.

“They create the game as they go along. Very often the so-called masochist is the so-called manipulated person. They take turns being manipulated. So there’s a kind of equality. It’s not so much feminism as it is that feminism allows us to go beyond what we heretofore thought of as good and bad images of women. We’ve gotten past that phase.”


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