At twenty, I loved rom-coms more than any other genre. But I never saw myself in any of the leads. Their lives, filled with meet cutes and mix ups, were far removed from my own. I wasn’t going to meet the love of my life on top of a skyscraper- I would be too busy having a nervous breakdown in the parking garage. I was a mess. I had already flunked out of one University, due in large part to my tendency to prioritize numbly lying in bed over attending class, and was constantly on the brink of failing out of the local community college for similar reasons. I was rudderless. All that to say, it was the perfect time for me to watch Secretary.
It may be unconventional, but at its heart, Secretary is still a rom-com. Rom-coms are often considered one of the more escapism-focused genres. They (usually) run in an idealized world, in which everyone that deserves a happy ending will get a happy ending. True love may not run smooth, but the audience can rest assured that it will, eventually, conquer all. It’s a satisfying formula. But it can also feel exclusionary. Rom-coms aren’t really designed to engage with big problems, like mental health. The leading men are witty and winsome, not depressed. Heroines are quirky and determined, not diagnosable.
Enter Secretary. The lead character, Lee Holloway as played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, starts the film having recently completed a stint in a mental institution after a self-harm incident. She is directionless, at times listless, and most likely clinically depressed (though that exact term is never used in the movie itself). With such a set-up, it would be easy to steer into maudlin Oscar-bait territory.
Instead, Lee gets her meet-cute via an ad in the “Help Wanted” section, and accidentally stumbles into a BDSM relationship with the equally troubled E. Edward Grey. From there, the film proceeds to follow the typical rom-com beats. There’s the relationship building, complete with montage of fun times- albeit in this case, the fun times are various BDSM scenarios played out at the office. At first, the two are shown to be improved by their relationship. Of course, the budding relationship is tested (boyfriends! Ex-lovers! Edward’s tendency to flip between his two volume settings of little-mouse-man-whispering and sexually-charged-yelling without warning!). The climax offers the audience the usual dramatic declaration of love, only there’s no rain-drenched run to the airport. Instead, it’s a hunger strike in a urine-drenched wedding dress. You know, the usual.
There are some strange trimmings, but the core is familiar. While Lee’s history with mental illness is an important part of her characterization and her relationship, it isn’t the ultimate question the film seeks to answer. Like all good rom-coms, the movie’s question is a simple one: “Will these two lovable weirdos be able to make it work?”
Watching Secretary, for the first time I got to see a rom-com with a lead that was something like me- in broad strokes at least, if not specifics. It might sound petty, but seeing a character who fell outside the bell curve of mental normalcy and still got to have a love story, still got to have a happy ending, was immensely helpful. I loved the film instantly and rewatched it often over the next couple of years. It was a comforting reminder that it was okay to not be okay for a little while. For a person prone to catastrophizing, that’s an invaluable thing to be reminded of.
This isn’t to say it’s a perfect film. The premise of a woman more or less being tricked into a BDSM relationship without proper discussion of consent is troubling, to say the least. Especially now, watching in the #MeToo era, it is discomforting to see the power dynamics play out. Even its portrayal of mental health isn’t without fault- I don’t think it would be out of line to suggest that what Lee really needed was a better therapist and treatment plan, not a new job and a spanking.
However, this isn’t the real world, this is rom-com world, and I’m willing to let some things slide. Rewatching it now, years later and hopefully less of a mess, I still genuinely like the film. I don’t connect with it quite the way I did then, but it’s a fun twist on the tropes we know and love. It helps that it brings some strong performances from both Gyllenhaal and Spader and is beautifully stylized. But even if it didn’t hold up, I would still have a special place for it in my list of movie favorites. It may not be a perfect film, but, for a very specific time in my life, it was the perfect film for me.
Em is the co-host of Hate Read Podcast with her sister-in-law Anna. Every episode, they challenge one another to read a book that they think they’ll hate… and then they talk about it! They’ve covered everything from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Nicholas Sparks and release episodes every other Monday. You can follow the podcast @hatereadcast, or, you can follow Em specifically @emnoteliza.
Want to hear our take on Secretary? Make sure you listen to our episode!