by Rob Waring
Although on some levels a kinky
love story, the film Secretary is one of the most provocative
workplace films ever made. Most anyone who has ever worked under
the supervision of others is familiar with the obsessive boss,
the one who micro-manages or compulsively focuses on minute details.
Dilbert, the wildly successful cartoon sendup of the modern office
environment, mines this behavior for its comic value everyday.
Scott Adams, the cartoonist, seems to get most of his material
from the actual work experiences of his readers, who are encouraged
to send him material. Secretary shows how deep the veins
of workplace torture go through its dogged pursuit of the depths
of sadomasochism (S&M) found in one boss/subordinate relationship.
The film sheds new light on dominance behavior in the workplace.
The possibility that a supervisor's
neurosis can sometimes fit in with personality dysfunctions of
subordinates is not virgin territory. Yet, this film challenges
modern boundaries by presenting its heroine as a special case,
a former mental patient whose illness is far worse than her submission
to the obsessive domination of her boss. In this way, the viewer's
perception of his cruelty is blunted. What is left is a fantastical
story of how two dysfunctional people sometimes find compatibility
in an office setting.
Secretary has two legal angles. The first is that the
boss, played by James Spader, is a lawyer, and evidences the
barely repressed anger stereotypical of lawyers. The second is
that his methods of controlling his secretary, played by Maggie
Gyllenhaal, quickly take on the dimensions of sexual harassment
that all too frequently pervade relations between domineering,
successful men and struggling, young women trying to make a living.
The extreme metaphor of S&M starkly highlights the power
dynamics of workplace sexual harassment. This film ought to be
part of any course or program intended to prepare lawyer for
the challenges of running a practice without trampling the self-respect
of their staff.
Early on, the film visually hints that the lawyer may be domineering
and cruel to subordinates. The first tip-off to the lawyer's
personality is the "trophy" corridor leading to his
door, complete with designer lighting, and the dark, power decor
of his office. The second clue is his permanent "Secretary
Wanted" sign, surrounded by a border of lights that can
be switched on and off like a motel vacancy sign, suggesting
that high turnover is routine.
This unconventional romantic fantasy skirts some real world problems.
For example, although the secretary quickly grows to need the
abuse dealt by her boss, deliberately making mistakes to bring
on his wrath, off screen that perception is a huge part of the
problem in abusive situations. Often, the abuser is somehow convinced
that the victim wants the abuse, just as many child molesters
persuade themselves that their victims invited the abuse or will
find it beneficial. The fact that it is not welcome does not
seem to enter some abusers' minds.
If the harassment portrayed in this film were to have led to
litigation with consent as a defense, it would becomes the task
of the adjudicator to examine the facts and decide whether the
defendant's perception of consent was reasonable under the circumstances.
The appeal of the lawyer's abusive behavior to a former mental
patient might be understandable, but it might not be reasonable
because he knew that she was unusually susceptible to abuse.
At two points during the film, the lawyer realizes he has crossed
the line and tries to end the relationship. In both instances,
her need proves stronger than his self-control and it literally
forces his hand.
The film does illustrate one way that lawyers should realize
they have a problem. If their former employees must compensate
for the loss of their jobs by answering S&M ads in the newspaper,
perhaps the work environment could use some restructuring.
Posted November 27, 2002