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The Question of Ziplessness: Why ‘Secretary’ Is a More Appealing Depiction of BDSM Than ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

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It is, more than anything else, a testament to the scarcity of nontraditional love stories on film that Fifty Shades of Grey is so often compared to Secretary. While the former is a new, record-breaking international blockbuster that metastasized out of history’s most bankable foray into erotic fan-fiction, the latter is an independent film based on a Mary Gaitskill story. Secretary cost just $4 million to make, and its release in 2002 didn’t dominate the cultural conversation so much as inspire a frisson among cinephiles, kink enthusiasts, and anyone else who sensed the promise of a scenario in which James Spader ordered Maggie Gyllenhaal to step into his office.

The debate over whether Secretary is a better film (or book) than Fifty Shades is, well, not really a debate. Whenever the two movies are mentioned in the same breath, the inevitable conclusion is that Secretary is a more accurate (and sexier) depiction of BDSM than — and, in case it isn’t obvious, a superior work of art to — E.L. James and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s creation. There is even a GIF-based BuzzFeed listicle dedicated to making this argument.

As the cartoonist and sex writer Erika Moen notes in a blog post that attracted the attention of Dan Savage, that consensus also holds within the BDSM community. A common sentiment she has observed in insiders’ conversations about Fifty Shades is, “If only these kink-curious newbies could see Secretary instead!” But while Moen is enough of a Secretary fan to spend upwards of 20 hours per year re-watching the movie, she takes issue with the idea that its view of BDSM is a healthier one. “That the abuse and poor BDSM practices of Fifty Shades is so reviled but that the same practices in Secretary are adored and embraced is genuinely baffling to me,” she writes.

Moen enumerates the sins Secretary‘s E. Edward Grey (yes, he shares a last name with Christian) has committed against Lee Holloway: “emotional abuse”; lack of “informed consent”; failure to “discuss the nature of their relationship,” “communicate about what their likes and limits are sexually,” and “establish safe words.” She points out that, “When Lee needs him most as a human being, he coldly turns her away from his house. And after climaxing on her back, he devastatingly fires her. Now guys, I may not be a BDSM expert, but I’m pretttty sure that is not good aftercare.”

Though she agrees with many critics that the relationship depicted in Fifty Shades is also abusive, Moen reminds readers that some aspects of its depiction of BDSM are healthier and more accurate than what we see in Secretary:

Christian presents Anastasia with a written document laying out all the sexual things he is into, a number of which she vetoes. Christian teaches Anastasia about safe words and is sincere that he will always honor it if she chooses to use them. Christian and Anastasia cuddle and are affectionate with each other after their BDSM scenes. That is, they practice aftercare.

Moen’s conclusion is that “[t]he only difference between these two stories is that one is absurdly poorly written and the other is beautifully, masterfully told.” But that’s where she’s not quite correct — or, at least, she isn’t specific in identifying what it is that makes Secretary so “beautifully, masterfully told.”

While they share gorgeous yet awkward young heroines, commanding men in suits named “Mr. Grey,” and the blossoming of dominant/submissive relationships between those two leads, what makes Secretary and Fifty Shades feel so different is their dialogue. Like most works of art about BDSM, from masochism urtext Venus in Furs to the recent British film The Duke of Burgundy, both films are obsessed with language and particularly speech. They even both embrace the jargon of business and office work. Just as Christian and Anastasia sit at opposite ends of the table in his conference room and negotiate her submission contract, Lee’s lawyer boss makes her read an error-ridden letter she’s typed while he spanks her.

These moments may superficially resemble one another, but they reflect almost opposite approaches to representing the characters’ romances through language. The couple in Secretary barely utters a word about BDSM, to the extent that his ex-wife’s exclamation that Lee is Grey’s new “submissive” is legitimately jarring. Stripped of context, their verbal interactions generally read as appropriate and even boring exchanges between an attorney and his secretary. Until the spanking scene, all of the sexual tension is conveyed through the characters’ body language and inflection. The way Gyllenhaal drawls, “I like dull work,” she might as well be describing her most lurid fantasy.

But in Fifty Shades, the lexicons of business (negotiations, proposals, contracts) and bondage (safe words, floggers… contracts) commingle in every conversation — which also means that Christian and Anastasia are always talking about their relationship. Too often, this makes them sound alternately like a high-school quarterback trying to talk the head cheerleader into bed and a married couple who have been in therapy for the better part of a decade. Christian is constantly describing his appetites and limitations. “I don’t make love,” he tells Ana. “I fuck. Hard.” (The way he talks through the book’s sex scenes is an even creepier mood killer: “You are very responsive… You’re going to have to learn how to control that, and it’s going to be so much fun teaching you how.”) Discussions that one imagines James, and in turn Taylor-Johnson, intended to have an aphrodisiac effect come across instead as the painstaking negotiations of two people who just don’t understand each other.

An arrangement that, for Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, takes two Ulysseses’ worth of text to get right comes so naturally to Lee Holloway and E. Edward Grey that they don’t even have to talk about it. And in that sense, what viewers — vanilla, kinky, and everywhere in between — seem to prefer about the latter story is a quality best described by that other classic of American erotic fiction, Fear of Flying: ziplessness.

Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck” refers to that elusive, anonymous encounter in which “when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.” But what Lee and Mr. Grey have is something far rarer: a fully zipless romance, in which the lovers are so attuned to each other that neither must articulate his or her needs or desires. Grey only needs to see Lee’s bandages to know not just that she cuts herself, but why, and how to make her stop. It’s the farthest thing from the couples-therapy scenario, with its deadening vocabulary of “communication” and “relationship” and “partner.”

As a model for the BDSM community, which in real life requires things like safe words, discussions of limits, and “aftercare” to protect against abuse and sexual assault, the relationship in Secretary is the farthest thing from “safe, sane, and consensual.” But in that film’s world, which is undeniably a fantasy world, that is precisely what makes it a romantic fantasy that is practically universal: understanding so complete that no discussion is ever required.

As Moen argues, Secretary certainly isn’t a healthier depiction of BDSM than Fifty Shades. It also isn’t a more realistic depiction of… anything, really, besides the likelihood that a woman in her early 20s will meet a man who will take her flying in no fewer than two private aircraft. But Secretary isn’t just the better-made film, either — it’s the more vivid rendering of a romantic ideal that transcends the bounds of sexual taste. Its more appealing view of BDSM is really just a more appealing view of love.