22 April 2005

I am the lizard queen!

After much bleeding, sweating, freaking out and procrastinating I have finally finished my fucking Foucaultian Secretary essay. Enjoy.

nb: I have recently discovered that the book on which Secretary is based, by Mary Gaitskill, is a post-structuralist feminist classic that caused alot of controversy on its release. Just thought I'd throw that out there.


A tale of two pathologies:
through a Foucaultian lens

“In Foucault’s conception, ‘sexuality’ refers to a historically constructed apparatus: a dispersed system of morals, techniques of power, discourses and procedures designed to mould sexual practices towards certain strategic and political ends.” (A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the Subject; McHoul and Grace, 1993)

“We should admit… that Power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the co-relative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Discipline and Punish; Foucault, 1977)

In this essay it is my intention to apply Foucaultian concepts of power to the relationship between Lee and Edward in the film “Secretary” (Steven Shainberg, 2002). I will explore the cinematic devices used to express this power-relation and discuss how this binary dynamic leads Lee to develop as a person, freeing her from her pathology. Finally, I will show why this relationship is productive and how the film maker uses the framework of sadomasochism to tell a love story.

The story of “Secretary” is thus: Lee is a submissive young woman who has recently been released from a mental institution where she was receiving psychiatric treatment for self-harm. At home her parents bickering and Father’s drinking soon drive Lee to hurting herself again . She gets a job working as a secretary for a troubled lawyer called E. Edward Grey. The two soon develop a dominant/submissive affair, based around disciplinary games, which frees her from her need to self-harm. Lee soon falls for him but Edward becomes disgusted by himself and his actions, apologises, and fires her. Lee, unwilling to give him up, runs away from her finace on the day of their wedding to proclaiming her love to Edward.. At first he is unsure but after she continues to insist that she love him he decides to test her by telling her to sit at his desk with her hands palm down on the table and to not move until his return. After 4 days he returns and takes her home. The two soon marry.

In his “History of Sexuality vol.1” (1978) Foucault established the concept of ‘sexuality’ as a matrix of overlapping discourses that encouraged the discussion of ‘sexuality’ within certain frameworks; whether they be religious (the confession booth), medical (the classification of sexual deviations) or psychiatric (which during the eighteenth and nineteenth century paid special attention to ‘sexuality’ in its quest to discover ‘the etiology of mental illnesses’).

Since the publication of Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, a study of deviant sexual behavior by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, sadomasochism has been treated as a negative pathology. This statement runs contrary to the work of Foucault, who argues that the science of ‘sexuality’ merely served both moral and political objectives. Krafft-Eebing is also responsible for coining the term ‘masochism’ which in his understanding, due to the assumed passivity of women, was a definite female trait. Sadism, as a dominant sexuality, he attributed exclusively to men. The film plays with this gendered dichotomy as it does with the other binaries that appear; in an ironic, knowing fashion.

When Foucault discusses Power he does so in a way contrary to the thinking of Marx. To Marx all power was negative, because there could be no pleasure when one figure holds authority over another. Marxist theory dictates power as a one-way process. What Foucault argued was that power was both repressive and positive. This concept is important in understanding the nature of Sadomasochistic relations which are historically constituted by medical and psychiatric discourse as pathological and deviant.

The relationship of Lee and Edward is that of secretary and boss. It is already inscribed a power-relation by society wherein the boss is dominant and the secretary submissive. This binary is also historically inscribed by gender and the relation is reinforced through character. Edward is well dressed, organised and disciplined, his voice smooth and affirmative, his body language slow and deliberate. He is developed as an individual and is a dominant personality. Lee, on the other hand, dresses in a frumpy manner and comes across as messy, innocent, her voice small and ineffectual, her body language meek and uncertain. It is only through the sadomasochistic relationship that Lee is able to develop. Marginalized by her home situation, she cuts herself to give meaning to her pain. Edward transposes this ritual of self-harm onto their power-relation. He creates a ritualized space from where she can see clearly. A good example of this comes in the scene where Edward helps her improve her telephone manner. He creates an intimate, authoritative space through a confidence building exercise, he sits her down and gives her hot chocolate, heavy with sensual symbolism. He tells her that she will not cut herself anymore, that she is over it. He can see the reason she hurts herself and tells her about it. He is playing the role of the wise teacher, a dominant position, and Lee is his pupil. After this point in the film it is as if she is a new person, more confident and aware, sure of her position in the world, a position that Edward has given her through their power-relation. By giving her explicit commands, for example to leave work early and walk home through the park to escape her over-protective mother, he frees her from her pathology.

The power-relation is developed and made more explicit through the use of disciplinary games. It is no longer a case of hierarchal authority but one of desire; each wanting what the other wants to give them. In one instance Edward tells Lee that he has mistakenly thrown out some important papers. He begins to ask Lee to do something but before he can Lee finishes his sentence by suggesting that she go through the garbage. As he watches her through the window his face shows his desire and is forced to negate this sexual energy through exercise. In another, after they have embarked on their sadomasochistic affair, Lee asks Edward on the phone what she is allowed to eat for dinner, turning a simple meal with her family into as masochistic ritual.

An important metaphor and symbol is that of the orchid. The orchid in western European semiotic systems represents perfection and the delicate manner and dedication that Edward gives this flower is immense. From the first time Lee sees it in his office, as he activates heat lamps in his atrium and causes a fine mist to fall over its petals, we can see a connection. She is in awe of it. The orchid is a metaphor for Lee, you can tell by the way she looks at it that she wants to be this flower; the way Edward attends to it, fertilizes it, allows it to grow. This is what he does to Lee over the course of the film and it acts as a reliable visual code for their power-relation. Flowers also traditionally signify sex and love, strong themes of the film, and the metaphor of a flower blossoming and Lee developing as a person acts as one of the texts primary codes. The red pen is also strong symbol of a specific power-relation; that of teacher and student. This is echoed in the dynamic between Lee and Edward and is a strongly coded metonym for their sadomasochistic games. The pen is counter pointed by the worm Lee places in an envelope on his desk. She does this in an effort to keep the game interesting and also to affirm her identity. She is saying “You may be the dominant one in this relationship, the one that dictates and controls me, but I am the submissive and if my needs are not met I will not be happy.”. If the pen represents domination through its colour and as a teacher symbol then the worm clearly represents submission.

Edward’s voice plays an important role in his domination of Lee; it is calm and authoritative and at times seems to quiver on the edge of a deep reservoir of feeling that Edward is careful not to fall all the way in to as this would upset the dynamic. The importance of the voice is reinforced by a submissive/dominant framing device that is repeated several times. In it Lee stands in the foreground, to the left of the frame, facing forward whilst Edward appears unfocussed in the background. This soft focus is used to give precedence to Edward’s voice and to highlight its importance in their submissive/dominant power-relation.

A lot of these signs and symbols are tied together in the fantasy scene. Lee lies face down on her bed whilst masturbating. She imagines Edward revealing a garden into which she enters, standing in front of a blooming flower as the two of them embrace. In another part of the fantasy she actually replaces the orchid in its atrium whilst Edward stands behind her in soft focus. The flower/garden metaphor is brought into limelight as is the idea of Edward as the gardener who waters her. On her bedside table a red-pen and a reproduction of Edward’s desk is juxtaposed by a picture of Lee’s ineffectual boyfriend in soft focus. As she repeats the dinner commands given to her by Edward she lurches closer and closer to climax. When she does climax we are showed Edward sat in his chair, his arms crossed, his face calm and authoritative, looking directly at us, a strange light glowing behind him. He appears as a master of his garden. To Lee, he is the master of her heart’s desire.

The hooded cloak’s importance as a symbol is threefold. Firstly, it conjures up connotations of “little red riding hood” – a story in which an attractive, innocent, submissive girl is first deceived by and then eaten by a big bad wolf. Lee reflects the innocence of little red riding hood in that she lacks self-knowledge at this point. Secondly, the hood is the symbol of a guarded nature, a psychological defense. Lee’s character at this point is shy and timid, unable to affect change on her environment; her only defense against her father’s drinking and his treatment of her mother is self-mutilation, which provides temporary relief. Thirdly, the meaning behind the colour; purple has connotations of mystery and transformation, a foreshadowing of what is to become later in the narrative through her connection with Edward.

At its core Secretary is a romantic comedy, albeit an unusual one. It skirts around its conventions, it pokes and prods and sticks it’s tongue out at them, but it still adheres to them. Lee and Edward still get married and love does in deed conquer all, even psychological dysfunction. It is a vibrant and subversive love story that expresses itself through the medium of a sadomasochistic relationship. The film presents sadomasochism in a positive light not by arguing that it is inherently good but by showing it as a vessel for self-exploration. Lee comes in to her own through the domination Edward exerts over her. Without it she would remain numb, enslaved by her own pathology, trapped in a dysfunctional family with no avenue of escape. In turn, it is only after Edward has freed her from her pathology using power-relations that Lee is able to help free Edward from his. He is trapped in his own damaging pathology of being disgusted by his nature and actions until Lee proves her love for him through a submissive game, and if love can be proved through a sadomasochistic game, how could it possibly be inherently wrong?


A, Beckmann (2001) Deconstructing Myths: The Social Construction of “Sadomasochism” Versus “Subjugated Knowledges” of practitioners of consensual “SM”. Journal of criminal justice and popular culture

M, Foucault (1978) The History of Sexuality vol.1

M, Foucault (1984) The History of Sexuality vol.2: The use of Pleasure

Grace, Wendy and McHoul, Alec (1993) A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject