Secretary Over Shades: Informed Adventure as an Alternative to Ignorance

By Kathleen Mullavey

People are complicated. No one person is going to be identical to any other in the exact same way. Love, sex, sexuality and relationships are very much a part of the confusion brought on by the human condition. So, when I tell you that E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has managed to take all of that complexity and boil it down to a 514 page fuck-fest, you may begin to understand my fury I feel towards her writing and the effect it has had on readers. As a film school graduate with a screenwriting concentration, I’ve developed a ridiculous level of passion and decent understanding for the craft, which means I’ve seen the Fifty Shades concept done before, and I’ve seen it done better.

In contrast, Secretary was a 2002 film by Steven Shainberg starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.  It’s common knowledge that the skeleton of Shades was taken from Twilight, but I suspect the flesh is from Secretary. Gyllenhaal plays as the female lead, Lee Halloway, a realistic interpretation of an awkward young lady who has barely begun to discover who she is as an adult. Conveniently, Spader’s character’s name is E. Edward Grey. Lee is so much more than Anastasia could manage. She does awkward things, stupid things, things that make you want to shake her. Things we’ve all done.

And then we see her change, take her own life into her hands. Her own sexuality. When Edward calls things off with her, she steamrolls ahead. She reads about BDSM, looks online for others in the community – hell, she even tries spanking herself with a hairbrush. You know, actually making an effort. Learning and discovering what she wants and then having the guts to ask for it, like blatantly going to Grey and saying “I want to do this. I want you to do this with me.” Things we all want to do. To actually say what it is we want or need from our partner rather than playing some ludicrous game, like they’re supposed to “know” what you want. If you need numerical reference: I give it 4 out of 5 floggings. The key elements of this film that I think make it so much more impactful than Shades are the relationship and a go-getter mentality about getting your ass paddled.

Please open your books to page 175: “Holy fuck. I can’t bring myself to consider the food list,” a list of foods she was/was not allowed to eat. “I shudder at the thought of being flogged or whipped.” Those are Anastasia’s thoughts after reading Christian’s “terms and conditions” to their Dominant/Submissive agreement, which, by the way, read like a sound system instruction manual. Reading about someone wanting to shove giant rubber ding-dongs into someone else in such dry, legal terms really takes the magic out of it.

And here is where I’ll make my first point: Ana is not kinky. The most important aspect of this book doesn’t even exist. If this were meant to be empowering, Ana should have strangled that “Inner Goddess” she spoke of fifty-eight times and embraced her Inner Sub, which she never did. We never see Anastasia take initiative like Lee Halloway did, and she doesn’t go looking for answers and information about herself and her interests.

Anastasia’s interests were really just Christian’s interests, which he forced on her by stalking her. On page 56, Grey and Ana barely know each other, but right after, he sends her books that cost a little over $6,000. He and Ana barely know each other, so he tracks her cellphone, and he even calls her while she’s at a bar with friends to say he’s coming for her. Commence Ana shitting herself. He shows up, threatens her friend, has his younger brother distract her drunk friend while he smuggles her out. All because he really wants to top her and won’t take no for an answer. This is essentially the beginnings of a Lifetime movie about a date rape. This shit is peddled to us as erotica. But, it’s okay right? When men do that it just means they really like us, right? “They just want to take us to higher level of sexual awakening,” said no woman with a restraining order ever.

There’s a 2015 article by the Hollywood Reporter that says women’s searches for porn have increased since the film. Amazing. However, a professor cited in the article put out a word of warning: “While [films like Fifty Shades of Grey] open up opportunities and provide women with unprecedented access to new genres or ways of thinking about their sexuality, at the same time, many of the scripts that are reproduced are really patriarchal scripts around women’s sexuality.” Even if it was written by a woman, she is perpetuating a destructive way of thinking. If for whatever reason you disagree, then riddle me this, Batman: if Christian Grey were 55- years-old, balding, and nearly the same height as Anastasia, would this story have had the same effect? No, absolutely not. Not only are women affected by being told an obsessive and domineering (and not in the sexy way) man is ideal, but men are affected by the asinine double standard of being some sort of dickhead gladiator.

I’m barely scratching the surface on all the issues with just that. In order for us to be sexually empowered, people need to be educated about sex. Simple as that. Not only should we be free to act, but to think. For us to be empowered, we need to be brave enough to ask questions, like Lee Halloway did. Look for answers somewhere other than the contemptuous cesspool of idiocy that is mainstream pornography. An article released this month from NPR cited that sex education programs that address relationship dynamics such as gender and power were five times more effective than the basic condom on a banana method. “What problem is that solving other than teen pregnancy?” you might think. It reduces sexual abuse for starters. It’s teaching young men and women how to develop healthy relationships with their sexual selves as well as each other.

What did Fifty Shades bring to the table? Well, a study done by the Consumer Product Safety Commision found that following the release of Shades, emergency room visits resulted by injuries brought on by sex toys has doubled. Thank you E.L. James for spreading the ignorance surrounding BDSM. Please, for god’s sake, put the rabbit down, turn off Pornhub, and go be a Lee today. Please.

Kat is a guest writer for this issue of The Fourth Wave. See more from this issue here.