The Insert Shot: Secretary
By Tom Houseman
March 29, 2012
The grand romantic gesture in films is often excessively grandiose, and Secretary is no exception, but it is the purpose that this gesture serves in Secretary that makes it more effective than what most other films try to accomplish. In most films the gesture is a way of converting words into actions. Person A says “I love you” but Person B does not believe them until Person A does something so saccharine and romantic that said love cannot be denied. This is not what Lee's gesture is meant to do. When Mr. Grey tells her to not move from his desk she takes the order seriously, and that is the point. She is sending a message to Mr. Grey: this is not a game. This is real. This is serious.
Mr. Grey and Lee are able to resolve their conflict by understanding what they want from this relationship. Mr. Grey sees their affair as disturbing and dysfunctional, something to be hidden and ashamed of. By sitting at his desk for three days without moving or eating, Lee makes it abundantly clear that she is not ashamed of either her feelings for Mr. Grey or the way that she expresses them. When Mr. Grey realizes that the power dynamic involved in their relationship is not incompatible with serious emotional involvement he is able to embrace his feelings for Lee and literally embrace Lee. Lee stops working for him and their affair transitions into a serious, meaningful relationship. Their relationship becomes loving and caring, with the S&M and power dynamic enveloped in it, rather than separate from it.
In a sense, all relationships are unhealthy. The combination of love, lust, codependence, and fear of being alone is a bad combination, and the idea of building a life around another person sounds like a terrible idea. Secretary explores a relationship that seems on the surface to be entirely dysfunctional because it is built on power disparity. But instead of fighting this disparity, Lee and Mr. Grey accept it and embrace it, and are able to be fulfilled both physically and emotionally. On the verge of collapse for virtually the entire film, Lee and Mr. Grey are able to find fulfillment when they no longer treat their desires as addictions to be suppressed but as healthy ways of showing their love for each other and indulging themselves. In a way, this is as close to healthy as any relationship can get.