You’ve got to give the Fifty Shades of Grey books credit. The erotic trilogy by E.L. James has single-handedly made BDSM mainstream (now everyone knows what a safe word is), been a boon to the sex toy industry (hello, love beads!), and improved the sex lives of many a long-married couple (a chapter a day will keep the couple’s therapist away!). But that doesn’t mean the series is without its faults, or that there aren’t better depictions of BDSM relationships in popular culture — or at the very least, one better depiction. The 2002 indie film SECRETARY, a Sundance favorite, blows FIFTY out of the water, if you ask us. Here’s why.
Grey was here first. E. Edward Grey is the name of the dominant boss played by James Spader in SECRETARY. Almost ten years later, E.L. James names her dominant lover Christian Grey. Perhaps it was an homage.
It’s an award-winner. FIFTY may be a record breaker (it’s the fastest-selling paperback of all time) and a crazy money maker (E.L. James’s net worth is apparently a cool $15 mil), but it’s never going to win any literary awards. SECRETARY was nominated for a Golden Globe (best actress in a musical or comedy) and three Chlotrudis Awards (best actor, actress and adapted screenplay), among others; and it won an Independent Spirit Award (best first screenplay) and a Gotham Award (breakthrough performance, Maggie Gyllenhaal), among others.
More likable protagonist. With all her Oh my!s and the countless Holy shit!s and all the submitting to the whims of her controlling stalker boyfriend, Ana Steele can get a little cloying. Without any magical qualities (like a scent, only detectable to vampires, that makes them swoon), Ana just isn’t convincing as The One to turn a control freak (in and out of the bedroom) into the marrying kind overnight. Especially not with that unruly hair! The flaws of Lee Holloway, on the other hand, are not only believable, but relatable (to a certain extent), and make her a sympathetic character. Plus, it’s really hard not to like Maggie Gyllenhaal.
More believable love interest. A 27-year-old gazillionaire with impossible abs (and ne’er a single crunch to be found in all three books) and a million employees who has time to get both a sailing certification and a pilot’s license falls head-over-heels in love with a naive, dorky virgin utterly devoid of charm and can give her her first orgasm ever from nipple play alone??? Yeah right. Much more realistic is the socially awkward, emotionally sensitive Lee and her creepy-seeming and ultimately conflicted love interest — both of whom are pretty normal looking. Plus, this Grey actually does do sit-ups.
No gratuitous product placement. FIFTY SHADES is a marketing agent’s wet dream: Apple, Audi, Blackberry, Converse, Louboutins, Neiman Marcus, Twinings….we could go on (E.L. James sure does). It’s the most shameless thing about the books! (And these brand-names aren’t dropped in a knowing, ironic way, a la Bret East Ellis. Nope, just lazy writing. Either that or E.L. James figured that these brand names would be comforting and homely and relatable amidst all those butt plugs and spreader bars.) Admittedly, it’s been a while since we’ve watched SECRETARY (we’re catching up when it airs on Sundance all this month — click here for the schej), but the only brand we can recall is Cosmo magazine, and it’s referenced in a characteristically cheeky way.
More honorable origins. SECRETARY was based on a short story by literary power house Mary Gaitskill. FIFTY was based on online fan fiction, which was based on the Y.A. Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers.
SECRETARY airs on the SUNDANCE Channel throughout Sept 2012 at the following times:
- 8:00PM FRI, SEP 7
- 1:45AM SAT, SEP 8
- 8:00PM TUE, SEP 11
- 1:20AM WED, SEP 12
- 10:00PM SUN, SEP 30
- 3:50AM MON, OCT 1