Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental institution; she's a cutter, slicing up her skin and neatly placing Band-Aids over the wounds. To integrate herself back into society (and to escape from her flawed home life), she decides to look for a job.
Luckily, anal-retentive lawyer E. Edward Gray (Spader) is hiring. He needs a secretary; judging from the permanent help wanted sign outside his office, he has a pretty tough time keeping them around. Lee can type and is not pregnant or trying to get pregnant (three of Gray's requirements for employment), so she gets the job. Everything goes along beautifully--until she makes a typo and, as punishment, Gray bends her over his desk and spanks her silly. Did I mention the movie was hot? Interestingly, however, it's hot because the nature of their relationship is presented in such a way that doesn't condescend to the characters (or women in general). While Lee is certainly assuming a submissive position to Gray, the interplay between the two characters maintains a delicate balance throughout. It's the actualization of mutual desire that is Secretary's big turn-on coup.
"I think Lee was a real human being the way most women in movies are not," explains Gyllenhaal. "I felt the movie was saying something about feminism that I hadn't seen or heard before. It really fascinated me; I feel like it was saying that it has to be okay for a woman to be able to desire whatever it is she desires, whether or not it fits into the idea of what a feminist or an interesting, smart, powerful woman is supposed to desire. Because otherwise, the feminist movement starts to become something that's constricting as opposed to opening."
There's a lot to be argued here, mainly that Gyllenhaal's take on the film's message can come off like the shallow Bust magazine maxim of feminism (that women merely claiming sexual freedom and sexual control leads directly to gender equality). To be sure, Terri Sutton of the City Pages called it "SM for Jane readers." But Sutton's rules are those of the first wave of feminism, and there's no denying that, while not the exclusive path, sexual empowerment is an integral part of feminism. Because Maggie's desires are slightly skewed--she wants to be spanked, and gains her personal empowerment through submission--Secretary is more complicated than your average "What Vibrator to Buy" article. However, as Sutton pointed out, the ending sucks a bunch of ass--this huge, demanding movie, with its riveting, hot loads of tension, turns into just another goddamn fluff flick, and Lee and Mr. Gray degenerate into a yuppie couple worthy of a Snuggle dryer sheets commercial. It's good to see a positive outcome for people into B&D and everything, but you still get the feeling the filmmakers copped out.
Ultimately, Gyllenhaal, who plays Lee's headstrong delicacy with a gritty brilliance, is happy with Secretary's outcome. "I think it's even more complicated and interesting than I had imagined. I think it's truly a love story in the way most movies aren't; the reason I say that is because we see people fall in love in movies, and we see them have some trouble or turmoil and they'll fix it, and then they'll live happily ever after. I think it says that a real, honest, whole relationship has to include both beautiful and pleasurable things, and the dark and complicated, painful things."