Why you should skip Fifty Shades of Grey and watch Secretary


With the new film about to premiere based on a book that helped coin the phrase “Mommy Porn,” let’s examine how a thirteen year old film already did it better.


With the new film Fifty Shades of Grey coming out for Valentine’s Day, many couples will be tempted to spend their hard-earned cash to see it. Instead, lets look at why 2002’s Secretary is the smarter alternative.

To start, lets look at story. A young woman meets an older man in a position of power named Mr. Grey, the two become attracted to each other and embark on a BDSM relationship. Yes we just described both films with that one simple sentence. Two movies dealing with intense sexual relationships, focused primarily on BDSM, and having the male leads named Mr. Grey. The films diverge from here and show two very different takes on this lifestyle. Fifty Shades puts all the power into the man’s hands and focuses on the purely sexual side, making the female lead little more than a toy for his amusement. Secretary concerns itself with showing a fairly traditional love story, boy meets girls, boy and girl flirt, something goes wrong, girl tries to get boy back … but dressing such a traditional idea with an untraditional relationship. At it’s core Secretary is still a love story where Fifty Shades is a lust story.

Now lets look a little closer at the characters. Fifty Shades presents us with Christian Grey, a rich wildly successful businessman, and Anastasia Steele, a naive college student and virgin still finding her place in the world. In Secretary we meet Lee Holloway, a smart but damaged young woman, lacking in social skills and just out of the hospital for self harm, and E. Edward Grey, an odd, socially awkward attorney, who while successful is modestly so. The imbalance in these relationships becomes apparent immediately. Where on one side we have a rich powerful man towering over a shrinking violet, on the other hand we have two socially awkward people looking for someone who can appreciate them for their odd behavior and taboo desires. Where Christian Grey almost forces Anastasia into a new and frightening lifestyle, E. Edward Grey pulls back from Miss Holloway and she becomes the pursuer. Secretary is not only the more balanced story, it’s the one that empowers women.

This brings us to a fundamental problem with Fifty Shades of Grey. From what I’ve read of the BDSM community, a driving force seems to be that both parties enter into it with full knowledge and desire of what is going to happen. Whether through safe words or  agreement ahead of time, everyone involved knows their boundaries and they all sought out what they are getting into. Anastasia may be curious about what she is presented with but she’s really satisfying Grey’s desires, not any pre-existing ones of her own. Again Secretary shows us both parties enjoyed BDSM activities prior to meeting, they are satisfying both of their desires.

Next, lets look at our talent. Fifty Shades brings us Jamie Dornan, whose biggest role to date was the sheriff on Once Upon a Time, and Dakota Johnson who has only had some small film roles and one failed sitcom. They are brought together under the eye of director Sam Taylor-Johnson in her second full length feature. While they all seem to have some talent, they are by and large untested and unproven. Secretary also has a director with a limited body of work, Steven Shainberg, who boasts just a small handful of directing and producing credits over a twenty year career. He had the luck however of having two strong lead actors in Maggie Gyllenhaal (who had already been in ten feature films by 2002), and James Spader, whose performances are always deliciously odd but fascinatingly so. Despite being seventeen years apart in age the two of them work wonderfully together, bringing both an odd, socially inept, weirdness as well as a sweet childlike sensitivity to their characters.

Both films are adaptations of existing works, Secretary is an adaptation of the short story “Bad Behavior” by Mary Gaitskill. Fifty Shades of Grey started its life as Twilight fan fiction titled “Master of the Universe” which E. L. James published under the pseudonym “Snowqueen’s Icedragon.” Yes, that last sentence is a real thing which I just typed and you have just read. For many people the words “Fan Fiction” and Twilight will be all it takes to deter you from seeing the film. Kudos to you for being so smart.

While I’m sure people will flock to theaters to see Fifty Shades of Grey, I can only hope that a few people will take that time and watch (or even rewatch) a much lesser known film which tells a beautiful if unconventional story. Plus while the average movie ticket costs eight dollars, Secretary is available streaming for a very reasonable $2.99, money well spent.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

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