Around the corners of the internet where I hang out, mentioning 50 Shades of Grey can be like standing in a shooting range. It’s difficult to talk about, as anything short of wholesale condemnation brings a barrage of outrage for your assumed avocation of abusive relationships and bad BDSM practices.

“If only these kink-curious newbies could see Secretary instead!” I’ve heard people say many times.

That the abuse and poor BDSM practices of 50 Shades is so reviled but that the same practices in Secretary are adored and embraced is genuinely baffling to me.

So, my Dearest Perverts, today I’m illustrating how Secretary also romanticizes abuse and promotes unsafe BDSM practices equally as badly, if not WORSE, then 50 Shades.

Shocking, I KNOW.

Let’s do a Quick Plot Synopsisisisis (That word’s always looked ridiculous to me):

Secretary (2002) is an erotic romantic film directed by Steven Shainberg about a BDSM relationship that takes place between virginal, fragile, troubled, naive protagonist Lee Holloway (who has just been released from a mental hospital) and Mr. Grey, her haunted, dominant, sadistic boss.

The 50 Shades trilogy began as free Twilight fanfiction written by E.L. James and was published by Random House between 2011-12. In it Anastasia Steel, our virginal, fragile, troubled, naive protagonist (who is still a senior in college), enters into a BDSM relationship with haunted, dominant, sadistic millionaire Christian Grey.

Before we go any further, I need you to know something.

I love Secretary.

I watch it once a year and have done so ever since buying it on DVD as a wee-freshman in college. I even had the soundtrack (but it’s now lost in the place where CDs go to hide from you). Since 2002, my annual re-watching has added up to approximately 20 hours of viewing. (Yes, I counted)

This is a beautiful movie told with exquisite storytelling, compelling acting, artful framing, carefully coordinated color palettes, and a musical score that’ll make your toes curl. And it’s not just me that loves it, it’s won many awards and is generally beloved by critics and audiences, both vanilla and kinky.

50 Shades, on the other hand, is horribly crafted garbage. It appears as if the author of the book has a sixth grade writing level, there is no pacing, the characters are one-dimensional, and their dialogue beyond insipid. Barf.

Both these tales romanticize abusive relationships. They both demonstrate remarkably poor communication, consent, and unsafe BDSM.

Stay with me.

In Secretary, Lee is the vulnerable, unstable employee of Mr. Grey, a man older and more experienced than her in life, who controls her ability to financially support herself. Even before their physical relationship begins, Mr. Grey, a man in a position of power over her, alternates between praising and humiliating her. That’s emotional abuse. Then, without communicating to her what he intends to do, without her informed consent, he orders her into his office where he proceeds to beat the fuck out of her ass because of a typo. They never discuss the nature of their relationship. Ever. They never communicate about what their likes and limits are sexually. They never establish safe words, and we never see any aftercare when their D/s scenes are over. When Lee needs him most as a human being, he coldly turns her away from his house. And after climaxing on her back, he devastatingly fires her. Now guys, I may not be a BDSM expert, but I’m pretttty sure that is not good aftercare.

What if Lee had been assaulted before she came to work for Mr. Grey? What if, instead of being surprisingly turned on by that first spanking, she was deeply triggered? Grey certainly doesn’t check in with her beforehand to make sure it wouldn’t be a traumatic experience. Then there’s the part where he lets her starve herself in his office, sitting in her own urine and excrement for days, until she is too weak to lift her own head. He leaves her unsupervised in a situation that could have created permanent damage. By the end of this scene, Lee’s so weak, that she’s in no state to get up and leave, and she very well could have just died of dehydration and starvation at his desk had he not returned in time. That situation was not safe or sane.

Lest you think Mr. Grey’s emotionally abusive behavior applies only to Lee, the movie establishes early on that this is par for the course. That part where he throws out his red pens? He uses the red pens to antagonize Lee, it’s not much of a stretch to assume he used them to also berate and humiliate all his former secretaries too. He terrorizes and devastatingly fires his poor secretaries (like the one seen leaving with her paycheck in mouth, obviously distraught) so frequently that he has a wooden sign surrounded in lights at the front of his building that announces when he needs yet another replacement. He hires these women as his office subordinates, intending to bully and emotionally destroy them. Mr. Grey is a serial abuser.


Alright, now try this on for size:
In 50 Shades, Christian presents Anastasia with a written document laying out all the sexual things he is into, a number of which she vetoes. Christian teaches Anastasia about safe words and is sincere that he will always honor it if she chooses to use them. Christian and Anastasia cuddle and are affectionate with each other after their BDSM scenes. That is, they practice aftercare.

Yes, the rest of 50 Shades is completely fucked, they absolutely have an abusive relationship, and yadda yadda yadda you can read the million other blog posts and essays detailing all the ways this book is Horrible For Society and Especially Women. But still… I can’t help but notice there is more direct communication and consent between our protagonists in this reviled book than there is in the celebrated movie Secretary.


Secretary is a movie that a good number of well-meaning kinksters hold up as an excellent example of how BDSM should be portrayed in the media. They wish people would watch this instead of consuming 50 Shades. This is done with the implication that this relationship of abuse and unsafe BDSM practices in Secretary is healthier than what we see between Anastasia Steel and Christian Grey in 50 Shades.

Is Secretary a better told story with superior character development than 50 Shades of Grey? Yes, absolutely.

Are the BDSM scenes in Secretary hotter than the graphic sex descriptions of 50 Shades of Grey? That’s subjective, but personally I’ve watched 20 hours worth of Secretary while my 50 Shades books got one read-through before I re-sold them to Powell’s for store credit.

Does 50 Shades of Grey romanticize abusive relationships and portray poor consent, communication, and unsafe BDSM practices, while Secretary does not? …Dude. No. Not at all. Not. At. All.


I completely appreciate that since 50 Shades became popular, now people are suddenly invested in pointing out the portrayal of abuse in romantic relationships in mainstream media. Yes, society upholds some pretty toxic models of heterosexual relationships through our entertainment and this needs to be actively combated.

But I’m just… kind of befuddled about the double-standard 50 Shades Critics have when it comes to the movie Secretary.

Readers took issue with me when I said in my comic that I have general faith in people to differentiate between what they find arousing in their fantasy porn and how they behave in real life with their real relationships. They fear that women will now just blindly throw themselves into unsafe situations and dangerous relationships because of these books. But I still believe that people —even women!— can enjoy problematic porn fantasies without being completely brainwashed by it, just like Secretary fans have already been proving since 2002.


The only difference between these two stories is that one is absurdly poorly written and the other is beautifully, masterfully told. If you’re not worried about Secretary viewers, then you don’t need to worry about 50 Shades readers either. Really! It’s ok, you don’t need to fret so much about what other people are masturbating about.

Now, I’d say it’s about time I upped my hours watched of Secretary from 20 to 21…


Further Reading

Laurie Penny in defence of Fifty Shades of Grey by Laurie Penny
If the personal is political, is it ever OK to want a spanking? by Lux Alptraum