Spanking the Flunky

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of the best and ballsiest songs of the punk era was X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage,
Up Yours!,” a feminist screed that was shrink-wrapped in winking SM allusion.
In the song, which purports to be something about lost little girls discovering
their own voices, lead singer Poly Styrene begs some unnamed something
to “Buy me, tie me, chain me to the wall” in a tone that’s almost orgasmically sarcastic: she sounds like she wants to
be beaten up. Twenty-five years later, the new film Secretary attempts
to make a few similar arch points about finding empowerment in physical
submission. (Whether Poly Styrene would be able to sit still through Steven
Shainberg’s quiet depiction of personal revolution — an even quieter
adaptation of Mary Gaitskill’s superb 1988 suburban Vicodin party of a
short story
— is an open question.) Maggie Gyllenhaal is Lee,
a mousy twenty-something fond of self-mutilation and bow-tied blouses who has recently been released from a mental institution.
When she takes a job as a typist for lawyer Edward Gray (James Spader), Gray’s admonishment
of Lee’s clerical errors evolves into vague SM play: in one scene, Gray spanks her over his desk; in another, he jerks off onto her back. The kicker: Lee likes it. It’s here, when the film expands upon this she-stoops-to-conquer message, that it becomes apparent Shainberg
has distilled Gaitskill’s astringent source material into something more
conventionally palatable. But Gyllenhaal, 24, gives an intelligent, precisely
metered performance, the kind of thing you’d expect of a Columbia graduate
from a showbiz family (her father Stephen is a director; mother Naomi
Foner is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Running on Empty; actor brother
Jake is a tortured indie kid of the moment). She had
a few things to say about courting controversy — and finding few takers.

Michael Martin

thoughts on the poster?

I’m going to be totally honest with you. When I first saw it, I thought
it was just this black-and-white representation of a movie that, in my
opinion, is all shades of gray. That it was turning it into just a titillating
sex movie when really it’s political and very complicated.

But the film is very sexy.

Sure, the film is sexy and about sex. That’s an integral part of the movie.
But I saw the poster and thought that it was dumbed down. It’s funny —
I saw the guy who designed the poster at a party. He introduced himself
and asked what I thought, and I said that most of the people
who were really moved by the film were women, and it didn’t seem like
the poster was geared toward attracting women to the theaters. I said,
“The movie’s walking such a fine line, and this crossed over it.”
And he said, “I kind of hope it has, because that will create controversy.” And he said, “What are you
afraid of? You’re going to be that careful?” And that baited me.
I was like, okay. I’ll go with it.

you read the Mary Gaitskill story the movie was based on, or talk to her,
and did it affect your performance?

I’ve never met her. I’m a little afraid to meet her. I read all of Bad
, and I really liked it, but it didn’t affect my performance
as much as it affected my brain, the way I looked at the movie intellectually.
I guess what I got out of Gaitskill was that people are turned on by all
sorts of things, and whether you think it’s perverse or not, it’s true.
There’s something erotic, something alive about that kind of desire.

was your impression of, or experience with, BDSM before you did the movie?

I had never overtly known anything about or been involved
in it. Steve [Shainberg, the director] gave me a bunch of books
to read, and I was not interested in them — they didn’t do
anything for me. He gave me this SM porno and that was the first
thing that got me into it. This woman had mousetraps on her nipples, was getting the bottom of her feet burned. It was really hardcore, hard for me to watch. I noticed at one point that she was overwhelmed, it was true pain, and I thought, it’s really complicated why one person
wants that to overwhelm them and another person wants a kind of
ecstasy to overwhelm them. When
I went to make the film, that was the thing that really stuck with me. When
Mr. Gray wanted to spank Lee, he was actually paying this obsessive amount
of attention to her. Lee would make the tiniest little typo and he would
fly into such a rage that he could hardly control himself. He’s seeing
her in a way no one else had before.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it seems to me that SM is
about two things: being brave enough to play with power and realize it’s
moveable and malleable, and also the desire to be overwhelmed and to be
overwhelming. Which is no different than any other kind of sex if it’s
any good. Both apply to all kinds of intimacy. It’s just a little more
obvious with SM.

What was your physical reaction to performing those scenes?

It was overwhelming. After one or two takes of the spanking scenes, I
could barely keep from crying — not because I was upset, but because
I was moved.

read an interview with Steven Shainberg, who said that when people would
read the script, they would ask, is this softcore porn? And he would
have to tell them no. And I thought it was funny, the instant association.
It’s something Nerve faces: when you try to show images
of sexuality that are more explicit than people are used to seeing, it’s instantly this valueless porn. How much defending or explaining of the movie did you have
to do in that way?

It’s funny — I anticipated that I would have to do a lot of defending.
I thought there would be a whole contingent of people who would argue,
“How is this woman supposed to be empowered when she’s submissive and
in an SM relationship?” But if people are having that response, they’re
not talking to me about it. And I was ready. I had my whole argument.
I’m ready to have the conversation with whoever wants to have it with me.

Okay. In an interview, Gaitskill said that one of her interests in
writing the story was to show that a woman could be in a submissive relationship
without being a victim. Is that how you approached the part?

did you reconcile that?

I think that for a long time, there have been rules about
how women can and can’t be treated. As a way to achieve equality, which
for hundreds of years was impossible, these rules were set
up. They were very important, necessary and helpful, but
they include — and, I think, mistakenly include — what is
okay to desire and want, to find sexy and to be moved by. Those rules were necessary for a while, but now they’re
not for a woman my age. Now, I think it’s my responsibility
to expose the ways in which they’re no longer helpful. And when people say,
“How can you, politically, make a movie like this, where a woman is emboldened
as opposed to victimized?,” look at a movie like The Piano Teacher.
I really liked it, but I thought the ultimate message in that movie was that their SM
relationship was really no different than any relationship any couple
gets involved in, which is to say that one of them has a certain amount
of power.

there was the implication that Isabelle Huppert’s character was irreparably
damaged in some way.

Right. First, that her SM stuff came out of a sickness and a lack of
something. But also, I think one of the characters says to the other,
“How is what I’m asking you to do, which is follow all of these rules
and use all of these toys, any different than you saying, ‘Oh, honey, I
love you,’ and ‘Sweetie, I just think you’re so great,'” and playing that
part? That is not what I think Secretary is saying. I think
The Piano Teacher has a much more classically feminist message.
Secretary is saying, “I find this sexy and moving, and
what’s wrong with that? And if these rules that have been put in place
to help me feel more powerful are actually doing the opposite, then we
need to knock on them a little bit and see where they crumble.”

you set any personal limitations before going on set?

All the nudity was contracted. That was something everyone had something
to say about. Steve was like, “If this were a European film, I’d be able
to do whatever I wanted,” and my family was like, “What? You’re going
to get naked? Are you crazy?” And my agent felt like, “You can’t do this,
it’s just not okay and it’s not right.” A lot of things were proposed,
and I just knew they were gratuitous. Some scenes, on the other hand,
would be great reasons to show my body. I’m playing someone, in the beginning
of the movie, who has no sense of herself. I don’t think she’s ever been
naked alone. By the end of the movie,
she’s lying naked with somebody who loves her, and she feels beautiful
for the first time in her life. So I think that’s an amazing reason to
show your body.

I definitely put limits on myself. It was actually very
helpful to say, “I will not cross this line, I will not cross this line,
but anything in between, let’s fuckin’ go for it.”

IMDB.com, women, on average, rated the film almost twice as high as men
did. Why do you think that is?

I think the film is starting to break down those rules of old-school feminism
that seemed so solidly in place. I would like to think it feels like a
bit of a relief: I can desire whoever I want to desire, can’t I?
I don’t know why men respond differently to it. I think that ultimately
Lee is very powerful in the movie. She really has a strong influence over
Mr. Gray, and maybe that’s difficult to watch. Someone else said that
to me: Ooh, maybe it’s hard for men to watch a woman being powerful.
I don’t believe that. I think it’s probably hot for a lot of guys to watch.
I hope it is.

did you internalize the character’s self-mutilating tendencies? How did
you make them make sense to you?

I don’t cut or burn myself, but until a month ago I smoked cigarettes. I’ve dated people who weren’t right
for me and stayed up until 2 a.m. when I had something important to do
the next day. We all choose small ways of being masochistic: things that,
for whatever reason, feel good but are simultaneously painful.

I think people do that because of the way we’re raised — maybe you watched someone you cared about
doing something painful, and that, all of a sudden, feels like love. It’s
not bad or good — it’s just the way people are. I found some
much subtler ways that I could relate to that instead of reading things
about people who cut themselves with staples. I think
there are more complex ways in which we’re all masochists.

© 2002 Michael Martin and Nerve.com.