May 2003: Crazy Salad/Secretary

4I’ve been reading Crazy Salad, a collection of Nora Ephron’s journalism from the seventies. The thing that strikes (and disturbs) me most about it is that very little appears to have changed. Apart from the fact that she talks about the ‘Women’s Movement’ and ‘Women’s Liberation’, the battles women were fighting then we’re still fighting now – 30 years later. I mention it because last night we went to see a film called Secretary.

It’s about a woman – Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) – who is released from a psychiatric hospital and has a history of self-mutilation. She goes to work for a lawyer – E Edward Gray (James Spader). To begin with he seems a little odd, nervy, bullying, but he soon realises that she enjoys his control and the freedom from responsibility it gives her. It builds until he’s spanking her on his desk as a punishment for typos. And even when she spots the typos, she leaves them in. I’ve read reviews that have described it as a kinky love story. I loved it. It was weird, funny, sexy, and we talked about it all the way home. Maggie Gyllenhaal is brilliant – like a twisted combination of Olive Oyl and Doris Day. James Spader is amazing too. What other actor chooses his roles by whether he gets to simulate masturbation or not, eh?

tumblr_lz76m01PLQ1rpryxxo1_1280Maggie Gyllenhaal claims it’s a feminist film and I can see her point.  Lee is transformed – happy and powerful for the first time in her life. The power shifts totally from Edward to Lee until Edward is afraid of her and of his feelings for her. But then again …

This is Nora Ephron writing in 1972 about women’s sexual fantasies:

‘It is possible, through sheer willpower, to stop having unhealthy sex fantasies.  I have several friends who did just that.  “What do you have instead?” I asked.  “Nothing,” they replied.  Well, I don’t know.  I’m not at all sure I wouldn’t rather have an unhealthy sex fantasy than no sex fantasy at all.  But my real question is whether it is possible, having discarded the fantasy, to discard the thinking and expectations it represents.  … I doubt that it will ever be possible for the women of my generation to escape from our own particular slave mentality.  For the next generation, life may indeed be freer.  After all, if society changes, the fantasies will change; where women are truly equal, where their status has nothing to do with whom they marry, when the issues of masculine/feminine cease to exist, some of this absurd reliance on role playing will be eliminated.’

So we’re not there yet then. In fact, perhaps it’s a step back that a young actress who considers herself a feminist, can appear in a film like Secretary and believe it to be a feminist act. I don’t know. I know that I enjoyed Secretary and that Maggie Gyllenhaal was brilliant. I just don’t know that it’s a feminist film.

A couple of afterthoughts:  Maggie Gyllenhaal did fight against the poster which makes it look like soft porn, which it definitely isn’t. And why is her website within her brother’s (the address is jake-gyllenhaal.com/maggie)?

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